In the spirit of Chicken Little, Lamby Pamby and Beefy Weefy were the subject of a report in The West Australian this week. In it, pastoralists were claiming that the sky would fall if the live export trade for beef and sheep ended in WA.
They appear to be quailing about a confidential Gallop Government report that throws into question the basis for the live animal export trade. Among other things, it shows it pushes up the price of local meat. It also finds that when our live sheep markets in the Middle East were denied supplies in the past, they happily resorted to importing the same quantity of chilled carcases, sometimes disguised through other countries. Why members of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association would be cackling like Chicken Little is interesting, given the unfailingly stout support the livestock export industry has had from the Howard Government.
In the face of long-standing, overwhelming evidence of public opposition, the Howard Government has resolutely defended the recalcitrant trade. That is until the Keniry inquiry made blind support difficult by finding that self-regulation had failed and demanding strict new standards.
The Federal inquiry came in the wake of last year's Cormo Express fiasco, which has once again seen the lucrative trade to WA's biggest live sheep market, Saudi Arabia, suspended.
After that, even the trade's staunchest defender, Primary Industry Minister Warren Truss, admitted it must clean up its act to survive. WA Agriculture Minister Kim Chance has said it is on its last chance. So, only now that it appears to be about 10 minutes to midnight — due to the failure of the industry to rectify its own faults — are there real concerns that it might end. Previously, the industry has regarded public opposition with something approaching arrogant disdain.
But the Keniry inquiry has not been the only Government investigation afoot.
Mr Chance recently received a report by a task force he set up to look into meat processing, headed by acclaimed University of WA agricultural science academic Professor Bob Lindner.
It isn't good news for the live animal exporters — and it creates a real political problem for Mr Chance.
But first, let's revisit what the pastoralists claimed this week.
PGA meat and livestock spokesman Tim D'Arcy said that ending the live export trade would kill the pastoral industry and destroy the land.
"People would be going broke, walking off stations," he said. "There would be feral cattle everywhere, worse than the donkeys."
Pastoralist John Leeds, of Pardoo Station, said: "If they shut live exports down tomorrow, you would see massive destruction of stock from starvation."
Mr Leeds was quoted as saying a vocal minority of urban people ignored Aboriginal practices of breaking a goanna's legs and putting it in a hole for later, to campaign against a legitimate industry where people were conscious of the welfare of animals.
Lamby Pamby and Beefy Weefy, indeed. And can't you just picture those sensitive pastoralists lining up to put plaster casts on queues of lame bungarras.
Well, a copy of the Lindner report fell off the back of a sheep truck on its way to Fremantle this week. And it seems to put paid to many of the self-serving arguments advanced by the live sheep trade.
The main argument is that clients in the Middle East — principally Saudi Arabia — will accept live sheep only for religious and practical reasons. "During the closure of the Saudi market (in the early 90s), Australian sheep-meat exports to that market increased strongly and more than trebled from 7900 tonnes in 1989 to 25,700 tonnes in 1993 before settling at around 20,000 tonnes," the Lindner report says.
"By the late 90s ... Saudi Arabia took around 25 per cent of Australia's lamb and 50 per cent of Australia's mutton exports to the Middle East.
"However, this direct substitution of meat imports when live animal imports were banned appears to have been a short-term response to meet the growing demand for meat in Saudi Arabia.
"An Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics study found that during the Saudi embargo, Australian live sheep exported to the United Arab Emirates were processed there and re-exported to Saudi Arabia as chilled and frozen product."
So much for the argument that Middle East clients refuse processed meat. So much for the pastoralists' argument that the sky would fall if live sheep exports ended.
The report points out that the decline in live cattle exports between 1997 and 1999 because of the Asian economic crisis was from 428,000 head to 41,000 head year on year. Did pastoralists walk off their properties then?
And the Lindner report suggests that the live animal export industry is such a strong competitor for supply that it is forcing up the price of local meat.
"It was clear to task force members that the processing sector is in direct competition with the live export sector," the report said.
It states that "the live animal export trade provides benefits in the form of higher farm gate prices for livestock producers ..."
And the Lindner task force says the Federal Government was warned way back in 1983 that the demand of live sheep exporters "effectively raises the price which meat proces sors have to pay to secure sheep for slaughter in Australia".
Finally, the report asserts that the Federal Government actively favours livestock exports over local processing by subsidising the cost of their inspection services.
"In August 2001, the Federal Government made a contribution to the live animal export program equivalent to 40 per cent of Australian Quarantine Inspection Service fees for live animal exports," the report says.
"The net effect has been to reduce charges to the live export sector by about 40 per cent while maintaining AQIS policy that fees be set on a 100 per cent cost recovery basis. Since the introduction of this subsidy, it is estimated that inspection charges for all animal live exports from WA have been subsidised by an annual amount of $400,000.
"By contrast, the larger abattoirs in WA each pay more than $400,000 per annum for AQIS meat inspection services."
That seems like a very neat little bit of cross-subsidisation. Agriculture Minister Chance — not averse to agricultural subsidies, as his potato protection policy shows — is due to respond to the Lindner report later this month.
Paul Murray hosts the morning program
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