Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Perth WA Mornings

MONDAY, 13 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: The Albanese Government phasing out live sheep exports.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS, HOST: The Federal Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt, made a flying visit to Perth over the weekend to confirm what farmers knew was coming. That is the end of the live sheep trade. Now, exports will stop in May 2028 and the government will spend $107 million to help farmers transition into the processed meat trade. So, if you are affected by this, you can get in touch and tell me what your future is. First, though, just have a listen to the Minister, then I'll go to your calls on 1300 222 720.

MURRAY WATT: Good morning, Nadia. Good to be with you this morning.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: How did you arrive at the four-year phase out period?

MURRAY WATT: You may remember, Nadia, about twelve months ago, I commissioned a report from an independent panel to give us advice on how we should deliver our election commitment. And it is important to remember that this was an election commitment that we took to the last two elections. So, it hasn't exactly been a surprise that we would want to deliver on it, but we never said how and when we would deliver it and that's what that panel has recommended. So, one of the 28 recommendations they made was that the industry be phased out from the beginning of what's known as the Northern Hemisphere Prohibition period in 2028. And basically, that works out to the 1 May 2028. So, obviously, I was heavily influenced by the recommendation of the panel.

Over the course of their consultation, they met with and heard from literally thousands of people, a range of views about this. This was the date that they settled on, but also I thought that was the right amount of time to ensure that we could have an orderly transition. There are obviously some people who think that we should phase out this trade immediately. I've never held that view, because I recognise that it is a significant adjustment for the local industry and we need to take a bit of time, for instance, to build up the overseas markets for more lamb and mutton meat to build up the processing capacity in WA. So, I think that that four-year period is the right figure to strike and it is what the panel recommended as well.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: A couple of points to pick up on there. Firstly, though, the mortality rate is much lower now than it used to be, and the industry argues it's much improved from a few years ago. Why was that not enough to continue the trade?

MURRAY WATT: Again, we obviously made our decision around this trade before the last election and we did go to the people of Western Australia and the whole country with an election commitment to phase out the trade, and we do think that it's important to deliver on those commitments. If we hadn't gone ahead with this, it would have been breaking an election commitment, which we didn't want to do. But more broadly, I've recognised previously that the industry has improved its performance on animal welfare.

But the problem for the industry is they lost community support a very long time ago. Even research conducted last year in Western Australia shows that over 70 per cent of Western Australians think that this trade should end. And that's in the only state that still does live sheep exports. So, unfortunately for the industry, I think they really lost the community some time ago. And government is, frankly, catching up with where the community has been for quite some time.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: To be clear, what do you expect will happen to all of the sheep that were previously exported live?

MURRAY WATT: One of the key elements of our package that we announced on the weekend was a significant injection of funds to build up processing capacity in WA. Already, Western Australia is actually slaughtering more sheep to process into meat than it ever has before. And we're seeing that pretty much happen around the country as well. But WA, because it is the only state that does do live exports, it's actually missing out on the growth in the market of sheep meat.

What we've seen for live sheep over the last 20 years is that the number of live sheep being exported from WA has fallen by about 90 per cent. And in contrast, we're seeing exports of sheep meat and domestic growth in the market just go through the roof. We're now exporting $4.5 billion worth of sheep meat every year, compared to $77 million in live exports. So, I want to make sure that Western Australia can grab more of that high value market and all of the jobs that come with it. So, this is really a big investment in more value-adding in WA. Again, it won't happen overnight. That is why we need some time to implement this, build up that processing capacity. But the funding that we provided will obviously go towards helping sheep producers adjust and the whole supply chain, the truckies, the shearers, everyone involved in the industry. But a lot of the money is also dedicated to building up that processing capacity.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So, more abattoirs?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's right. We're already seeing, as I say, a number of abattoirs in WA expand because they can see the growth in the market for sheep meat, lamb and mutton. The world is literally hungry for Australian lamb and mutton. And we want to make sure that as those markets grow overseas and that Australia - that WA - gets its fair share.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: My guest this morning on ABC Radio Perth and WA is the Agriculture Minister, Senator Murray Watt. Just on that point, farmers here say, look, the chilled meat industry is already saturated and there isn't the demand for it overseas like there is for live sheep.

MURRAY WATT: Unfortunately, the figures just don't back that argument up. Even the Middle East, the argument is often made that the Middle East doesn't want packaged meat and that they want live sheep. If you actually have a look at the figures, we are already exporting far more sheep meat that's processed here than we are selling in live sheep. Even Kuwait, which is our biggest market for live sheep, last year we sent about $35 million worth of live sheep to Kuwait. We also sent them about $65 million in processed meat that's processed here. And we know that that market for the Middle East is growing just as it is for China, in the US, in a range of other countries. And as I say, I want to make sure that WA gets its fair share of that high-value market that can create more jobs here.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: The WA Premier does not support what you've done and he believes the $107 million in the transition package is not enough to help farmers transition. Will there be more resources?

MURRAY WATT: No. That is the amount that we've got on the table, Nadia, and we think that that is a reasonable amount to put forward. Obviously, I've had many discussions with the Agriculture Minister, Jackie Jarvis, about this and I understand the Western Australian government's position. I would like to think over time that as people get their heads across what we're putting forward here, that the WA government may be willing to partner with us to deliver it. I think the transition will go a lot better if we can deliver it in partnership with the Western Australian government and local industry. But all of the people listening to your program today – the nurses, the teachers, the truckies, the mechanics, it's their taxpayers’ funds that are going toward this $107 million package. That's nearly five times what the WA government submission said was the economic impact of this decision. So, I think that is a fair and reasonable amount.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Are you suggesting that the West Australian Government should be putting money into this as well?

MURRAY WATT: Look, that's a decision for them, but I think in particular what would be helpful is to have WA government networks work with us. They've obviously got a lot more people on the ground in WA than we do from Canberra and I think the transition would go better if we can have some involvement from the WA government. But I recognise they've got to make their own decisions about these things.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Minister, farmers and wheatbelt communities say you've shown a disregard for the impact this policy will have on towns and businesses. Do you concede people will be driven out of business? And we're hearing today farmers saying, 'I'm going to have to shoot my sheep'.

MURRAY WATT: Obviously much of WA is now in drought, as is parts of Tasmania and other parts of the country as well. And that's the real issue that is driving farmers to have to offload their stock and think about killing their sheep now. The reality is that we haven't stopped live exports now. Live exports are still available, and despite that, we're still seeing a crash in the sheep price, and that's because of drought and oversupply. They're factors that are beyond any government's control, forget about which party we're talking about. But I absolutely have sympathy for farmers who are going through this. Drought is a terrible thing for farmers to go through. And that's why we do have support mechanisms in place. We have things like the Farm Household Allowance available at a federal level to support farmers who are losing money. We have concessional loans available for people to help get them back on their feet, and I'd really encourage people to take that up.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: The farmers are saying they're shooting - they're going to have to shoot their sheep, not necessarily because of the drought, but because this trade won't be there for them. They're saying that they'll have to walk off the land.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I've certainly heard people say that, but I guess what I'd encourage people to see in the package is that we are putting forward not just significant taxpayers’ funds, but a really considered plan for this industry in the future. There's no doubt that once live exports end in May 2028, the sheep industry and WA will be different. But we used to export live sheep from other parts of the country as well, and their industry has prospered. They're now doing more wool, they're doing more sheep meat, and I think that's the future for WA as well. So, I actually feel really optimistic about the future of the sheep industry in WA. It will be different, people are going through really hard times at the moment because of the drought. And as I say, that's why both state and federal governments are supporting people. But this is a long-term plan to keep the sheep industry in WA strong and create a lot more value to value-added jobs in the process.

NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Minister, there are concerns cattle might be on your hit list. Would you like to phase out the live cattle trade, too?

MURRAY WATT: Absolutely not. I've made that clear on multiple occasions, as has the Prime Minister, that we absolutely support the live cattle industry and do not want to close it down. You know, I think there's a fundamental difference between the two trades. Cattle are much hardier species, and typically the journeys they go on by boat are much shorter than sheep. Sheep are not as hardy, and they go on much longer voyages, including to pretty hot parts of the world. We see the trades as fundamentally different, and that's why we strongly support our live cattle industry. In fact, people in the live cattle industry know that I, personally, have put a huge amount of time into shoring up our Indonesia trade. It's a big market for our live cattle industry. All of those issues that have been floating around like foot and mouth disease, lumpy skin disease. We've worked overtime with the live cattle industry to keep that trade open, and that's the way it will stay.