Yet again Australian farmers and their organisation are caught on the back foot defending the indefensible, -the live sheep trade to the Middle East.
What Australian farmers fail to recognise is that every time images of our animal’s distressed and badly treated hits the world media, all our reputations and all the nation’s reputation become tarnished and all our primary products are diminished in the eyes of our consumers on valuable World markets.
And we don’t engender support with our “holier than thou attitude” that we are the sole custodians of animal ethics and everyone else should just “bugger off”. Others have valued knowledge and opinions on this issue and we should learn to listen; not preach.
As usual in Australia, the issue is a political football. No-one seems interested in helping our new young and unusually dedicated Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud clean up the mess he has obviously inherited. A mess created by his predecessors going back how far? It is impossible to tell, but built by people who should have done more than turn a blind eye.
To understand this issue it is important to look at it in its historical context. My recollection is that the live sheep trade for wethers commenced in the eastern states about 1974. Exports were out of Portland and Adelaide.
Prior to the commencement of the trade farmers were receiving about $5 per head for surplus sheep for slaughter. The meat processing industry was in turmoil with Wally Curran, the militant Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union secretary, running amuck.
Suddenly with the commencement of the trade, farmers were receiving $20 for shorn wethers, nicely rounded and around 60kg live weight. What a lift that was to our incomes. Needless to say, when the live trade was threatened, we were out manning the barricades at the docks to ensure the trade continued. It was our lifeblood.
Fast track 45 years and virtually no live sheep are exported out of the eastern states. In its place, thanks to entrepreneurial action, a new meat industry has emerged, based on skilled business acumen, good industrial relations and massive investment.
In the 1970’s on our farm, we would load sheep on trucks to be transported to Hynam near the South Australian border. They were off- loaded and re- loaded onto trains for export out of the Port of Adelaide and then a long sea voyage to the Middle East.
Today there is no rail at Hynam, though some sheep are still loaded out of Adelaide. So what has happened? In the intervening 45 years, a silent revolution has taken place in our industry. Today it is not unusual for our sheep to be transported one day to the meat works, killed next morning, chilled and that evening transported to Tullamarine – and in the market in the Middle East the next day their time!
And the on farm prices we receive is nearer $120 than the $20 of 45 years ago. So what is wrong with WA? As our meat processing industry in the east learnt from New Zealand, so WA needs to learn from us. This needs pushing along by a Federal Government that provides tax incentives for investment in the west and a planned phase- out of the live trade over a number years to provide time for adjustment.
Perhaps stopping the export of sheep during the northern summer as a start.
Whilst support for the current live sheep exports hinges on the argument. “If Australia doesn’t supply the sheep someone else will”. We must ask ourselves, what other country puts their animals through the torturous journey we do to get to market? And is the continual risk or abhorrent publicity worth the damage to the image we have as a nation suppling clean, green, ethically produced food and fibre?
If we don’t act others will decide for us. All our livelihoods at risk!
Peter Small is a farmer at Wilderness, Gritjurk.