Interview with Gary Adshead, 6PR Mornings


SUBJECT/S: Live sheep exports

GARY ADSHEAD, HOST: Now obviously, you've been hearing in the last 24 hours that the debate over live sheep exports out of Western Australia, indeed out of Australia, is up and running again, and that's because the Federal Government intimated that it would look to phase out the live sheep export trade if it was to win power. It has won power, and now an announcement that's being made in WA this morning is that they will phase out the live sheep export trade after the next election, but the process will begin. And to talk about that with me this morning, the Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt is over here in Western Australia and joins me in the studio. Thanks very much for your time, Minister.


GARY ADSHEAD: OK, obviously the reaction has been swift over here in Western Australia, where I think it's about 75 per cent of the live sheep export comes from. One of the most passionate people on this issue, Tony Seabrook, Pastoralists and Graziers - we spoke to him yesterday. Here's what he had to say, this is part of his take on the reaction to the decision to phase out the industry:

TONY SEABROOK GRAB: The Federal Government have not even looked into this. They're just holding up this mantra, ‘oh it was an electoral promise’, we can't seem to get any penetration with them whatsoever. It's like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There's no justification for it whatsoever. This trade is an entirely different trade than it was before and it's just a craven political move, thinking they'll garner support from the small group of animal activists.

GARY ADSHEAD: Your reaction?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think anyone who's met Tony Seabrook knows that he's got strong opinions. I met with Tony about this last year, along with a range of other people involved in the industry, and I'm very conscious that there are members of the industry who are strongly opposed to this policy, but I guess I keep coming back to the fact that Labor federally has taken this to an election, not once, but twice. We made an election commitment before the last two elections and I see it as my role to implement that commitment. I've said to Tony, I've said to others in the industry, that we'll be doing it in an orderly way in consultation, but I think it is important that when you make commitments, that you follow through.

GARY ADSHEAD: OK, so in terms of the consultation, you're here to announce that essentially in terms of a panel. But are you satisfied that you've consulted enough with the industry before making this announcement? Because well, I know he's got strong views on that. I'll play that to you, too:

TONY SEABROOK GRAB: He's been very quiet. He started off well, but he's been over here a couple of times and he hasn't reached out to other farm organisations to in any way engage on the subject. I think he's a bit wary of the fact that he probably knows he's going to cop a bit of a beating, but we just need him to have the courage to stand up and say, ‘I'm on your side, guys, I'm prepared to fight for you’. But what we've got now is a Minister who's just rolled over to a government policy that could so easily be amended on the basis that this is not the trade that it was when those events you spoke about earlier on actually occurred.

GARY ADSHEAD: Minister, you're not on their side because you are going to take this through?

MURRAY WATT: Well yeah, I mean I've been very clear from day one that we would be upholding this commitment. It's a bit of a strange situation to have people ask you to actually break election commitments, usually, it's the other way around. But one of the very first visits I undertook as the Minister last year after being elected was to Perth, to meet with Tony, with WA Farmers. I went to export yards and met with exporters, met with a range of people as well as animal welfare stakeholders because, of course, let's remember they're part of this debate too. And from the very beginning I was clear with the industry that I would be implementing the commitment, but I wanted to hear their views about how and when and that's what this consultation process is going to be about.

GARY ADSHEAD: Well should they be on this panel that I know that you're announcing, which involves a West Australian agriculture expert? I mean, she's quite an activist too - Sue Middleton, Federal - former Federal Minister Warren Snowdon, a Labor Minister and RSPCA CEO Ms. Heather Neil. Do you think that there should be someone from the industry there?

MURRAY WATT: Look I don't think it's appropriate to have anyone who's actively involved in the debate as part of the panel, and that's why we've generally gone for people who have been involved in the industry but aren't anymore, or have been involved in animal welfare but aren't anymore. And I think that we've been able to come up with a good cross-section of people. So the chair is a guy called Phillip Glyde who used to be the head of the Murray Darling Basin Authority. They've had to do a lot of structural adjustment in the past about water usage and the impact on agriculture, so he' a good appointment. As you say, Sue Middleton, a very well-renowned figure in Western Australia agriculture because it was important to me to make sure that the panel included at least one person, really across WA Ag. We do have a former Federal Minister in Warren Snowdon and really one of the reasons I've appointed him is that he's had very extensive experience with the live cattle export industry, being a Northern Territory Member - not so much with sheep, but he understands live exports really well. And then, of course, we've got a former CEO of the RSPCA, not a current person at the RSPCA. So, I don't think it's really appropriate to have current people involved. But I do think we've been able to come up with a good cross-section of views.

GARY ADSHEAD: Do you deny that this is purely a reaction to something from 2017, the Awassi Express and the horrific pictures that we saw there? Is there more to this decision than the reaction to that?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think there's a couple of things. Like, undoubtedly, the Awassi Express incident, I think was incredibly damaging for this industry and it was not the first time. There had been a series of these kinds of events over the years where we saw capsized vessels and other things, and I think that was really distressing to Australians. Now I've recognised publicly that the industry has lifted its game on animal welfare, but I think the reality is that in the broader community, there are still really significant concerns about this trade and the majority of Australians do want to see it phased out. I understand that it's going to have an impact here.
That's why I'm here today. I could have made this announcement on the east coast, but you got to front up these things. And what we'll be doing is working closely with the industry around how this transition should happen and in particular, I think there's a lot of opportunities for more onshore processing of meat, which is more Aussie jobs. We couldn't do it immediately - we don't have the workforce now, we don't have the processing facilities now, but we could come up with a plan to do that as part of this consultation. And we already export as a country, 50 times more sheep meat that's processed onshore than live sheep exports. And I think there's opportunities for that to grow even further right here in WA.

GARY ADSHEAD: Just on, obviously, WA. The Premier, Mark McGowan, has in the past said that he believes that the industry has tidied up its act and he is not prepared to support a ban, total ban, on live exports of sheep. Are you picking a fight with him or have you told him now to stay out of it?

MURRAY WATT: I wouldn't be so bold as to tell Mark McGowan to stay out of anything, especially when I'm in his state. But look, I'm very clear about Mark McGowan's views. I've actually spoken to him about it directly at least twice. I've also spoken a number of times with his Agriculture Minister, Jackie Jarvis, and each of them has every time conveyed their view that they don't support this policy. I have noticed Jackie Jarvis in the last few days making some comments that it seems that she acknowledges that we're being very firm about delivering our commitment and she's now pretty focused on how to come up with the best deal for WA and I'm really keen to work with the WA government.

GARY ADSHEAD: Are you worried, though, because obviously Western Australia played a big part in the federal election and the result, are you worried that you may have just sort of lost some brownie points over here?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I guess I'd point to the fact that we did make this commitment before the last election and we did win more seats in WA. So I'm not saying that it's not an issue - I do recognise that there are people with very strong views - but I've met a lot of people in WA who are really concerned about animal welfare as well. I think it's one of those issues that there's split opinions in the community. But we are going to deliver the commitment. But I can guarantee people they'll be heard in the consultation. And I want to see more sheep in WA, not less. I want to see more jobs processing, not less. I think the WA sheep industry has got a really bright future, let alone what's going on in grains and all those other fabulous Ag industries here in WA.

GARY ADSHEAD: OK, what do you say to people that now say, thin into the wedge, it'll be live cattle exports next?

MURRAY WATT: Well, again, from the very beginning I've made clear that we will not be touching live cattle exports. I've said that.

GARY ADSHEAD: What's the difference?

MURRAY WATT: There's a couple of things. I mean, for starters, the mortality rates of sheep, on live sheep, are double the mortality rate of live cattle. And in addition, most voyages where you've got live cattle are relatively short voyages from the north of WA to Indonesia or other nearby countries, rather than a pretty long voyage with smaller, weaker animals, being sheep, to the Middle East. Often the species of cattle that are exported on ships are sort of hardier breeds than some of those dairy cows you might see around the place. So I think there are some very significant differences. There are some animal welfare groups that say we should do that. I've been clear with them as well that we're not going to touch that.

GARY ADSHEAD: OK, but if 60 Minutes throws up a story that shows the way that our cattle are treated, and we've seen previous evidence of how they're treated in Indonesia, they throw one up all of a sudden and the activists get behind it. What's to say you won't bend over there?

MURRAY WATT: Well, for starters, I'm confident that the live cattle trade does a very good job when it comes to animal welfare, and I'm a strong supporter of that industry. Also, as a result of those incidents that you're talking about back in 2011 that were highlighted through the media, not only has our local industry for live cattle lifted its game, but also we brought into place conditions and requirements for abattoirs overseas in the countries that we're exporting to. And everything I've ever seen indicates that those standards are being upheld. So I do think there is a significant difference between live sheep and live cattle. But I just keep coming back to the point that we were very open with the Australian people, including here in WA before the election, about our plans. And we've been very clear that we won't be doing the same thing when it comes to live cattle.

GARY ADSHEAD: Let's just talk about it. Obviously, there's going to be a process now in terms of how to phase it out and so on, but have you put some parameters around it? I mean, have you asked the panel to look at the idea of compensating the people that will lose - there'll be 3000 jobs potentially, they tell us, that could be lost in this - but also those farmers that sort of rely on this?

MURRAY WATT: Certainly, issues around compensation and structural adjustment can be looked at by the consultation process and by the panel as well as the opportunities for growth that I was talking about onshore processing and things like that. I have seen some of those jobs figures in the media and what I would also say is that I don't think we should be thinking that every one of those jobs is going to go, whether it be and as I say, I think there's an opportunity for new jobs. I recognise this is going to have impact on the trucking industry as well, but we would still need truckies to transport sheep to abattoirs if we can expand processing onshore as well. So I'm confident that these are things that we can work through and we want to do that in partnership with the industry as much as possible.

GARY ADSHEAD: So it would need legislation. You've said that it would not happen until after the next election so essentially you're sort of saying you'd get a mandate after that as well to back it up. That needs legislation. Are you interested in the fact that David Littleproud's come out and said unless they're Liberal Coalition partners, are adamant that they won't support this, adamant that they would repeal it, that there won't be a Coalition?

MURRAY WATT: I thought that was a really interesting development in the east coast media yesterday, Gary, with David Littleproud making this point. You're right, both the Prime Minister and I have made clear that we won't be phasing out the trade this side of the election. It would need to take longer to do it in an orderly way. But yeah, I think it's interesting and I guess the reason David Littleproud has made those comments is that people as high up as the current Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Sussan Ley, are on the record opposing live exports. In fact, she introduced a private members bill into parliament to try to ban live exports. There's at least two other current Federal Members from the Liberal Party, including a Shadow Minister, who have said publicly that they think this trade is inhumane. So, I think there is a bit of a division within the Coalition parties on this, but it's a matter for them to work out what they stand for. What I'm interested in is working with the industry, with everyone who's got a view on this to get the best possible outcome.

GARY ADSHEAD: All right, well, thanks very much for coming into the studio and explaining it to us today. I appreciate your time.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you.