As each week passes, the federal government’s incompetence over live cattle exports gets more and more staggering.
WHO could have imagined how dire the situation would become, four weeks after the federal government decided to suspend the live cattle trade to its largest market, Indonesia?
Pastoralists across the top end are suffering, as are all of the businesses associated with the cattle industry in that part of the country.
There also appears to be a major breakdown in diplomatic relations with Indonesia, which is one of our nearest, and certainly the largest of our neighbours.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard is reportedly trying to establish a dialogue with her Indonesian counterpart, foreign minister Kevin Rudd has belatedly become involved in the issue, and there have been calls for the sacking of Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig.
This adds to an already long list of issues where the competence and judgement of the federal government has been called into question.
It has been roundly condemned for a knee-jerk reaction to the Four Corners documentary that exposed appalling mistreatment of cattle in some Indonesian abattoirs.
Ironically, the term ‘knee-jerk’ is misleading. The ban was imposed, without notice to the industry or to Indonesia, one week after the television documentary aired.
Isn’t a week long enough to evaluate options and make a considered response to an issue that quite justifiably caused widespread community concern?
Apparently not, in the case of the Gillard government.
It seems the government dithered, then panicked, and introduced a policy that is an extreme over-reaction.
Let’s remember that the problems exposed by Four Corners are not present in all Indonesian abattoirs. It is universally accepted that the major abattoirs, which account for the bulk of the trade, operate to much higher standards.
Why, then, should we close the entire industry and punish all of the businesses that have been doing the right thing?
Let us also remember the scale of the industry, worth $250 million annually to Western Australia and $700 million to the country as a whole.
This is core business for many pastoralists across the top end, and is important for mustering, trucking, shipping and other businesses.
And it’s a seasonal business. Cattle can be moved only during the dry season.
If the ban lasts for up to six months, then the industry will effectively have lost an entire season. And, of course, it may have lost a major market to other suppliers judged more reliable.
The ban is also having an adverse impact on cattle farmers in the state’s south, because the prices they’re getting for their livestock have been depressed by the extra supplies coming down from the north.
The federal government has put in place a $30 million assistance package for businesses adversely affected by the ban.
That says something about Canberra’s mindset – if there is a problem, just throw some extra taxpayers’ money at it.
It is also insulting to people in the industry who don’t want to be reliant on government handouts. They want to make their own way, earning their own income from a long-established industry.
Some critics want to shut down the entire industry, arguing that the meat should be processed at Australian abattoirs.
I wonder how many of those critics have ever been into an abattoir, even a ‘good’ abattoir in Australia? There is no such thing as a nice abattoir, and most people would be turned off by footage from any abattoir.
The critics also overlook another small detail. The average Indonesian household does not have a refrigerator for storing processed meat.
It sounds clichéd, but in this case it seems to be true. The federal government has succumbed to a noisy and emotive campaign waged by people who have no direct involvement in the industry.
It has been prepared to sacrifice the livelihoods of people who are a long way from the marginal electorates of south-east Australia.
And it shows no sign of getting on top of an issue that risks serious damage to one of Australia’s most critical diplomatic relationships.
All in all, it’s a shocking indictment of our federal government.