Where have all the Sheep Gone

Sheep

In the past few days we have had two decisions linked to live exports, on Tuesday the Federal Court determined that the Gillard government’s Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwick had broken the law when he banned the live cattle trade to Indonesia back in 2011.

Then just a day later the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture made its decision to refuse to allow a live export ship to load 56,000 sheep destined for the Middle East, fearing it would unload two weeks past their newly imposed northern summer export prohibition.

The first decision smashed the northern cattle trade, destroyed our relationship with Indonesia, wiped out Saudi Arabia as our biggest live sheep market, and led to a six year court case with the Australian taxpayer who is now on the hook for $600m in damages.

The second decision, a decade later, saw the Commonwealth government cowering behind its own department by claiming the decision to not allow the ship to sail was being made by the independent regulator. 

No explanation has been given, no scientific evidence tendered, no options around lower stocking density offered, just faceless bureaucrats saying no go. 

The Gillard government got it wrong by rushing out to signal its virtue instead of slowing down and managing the situation, while the Morrison government has got it wrong by claiming it was virtue neutral and not responsible for making any decision at all.

In the case of live exports we have seen governments of both persuasions continually running scared of the vocal activists and excitable media. Minister for Agriculture are failing to show leadership by working with the industry to support change and with the community to explain the importance of the trade.

The facts are the live export trade is an important part of Australia’s sheep industry. At the height of the trade Australia was exporting 7 million sheep when WA had a flock of 38 million.

Today we have an industry that is a shadow of its former self with just 13 million sheep across the state, a number that is only likely to head south after the last two days.   

With every government intervention Australia loses part of its credibility as a reliable trading partner and its position as a big sheep producing nation. Over time this is leading more and more farmers to conclude that the risks and uncertainty around running sheep make the allure of a new John Deere tractor just too compelling. 

Our farmers don’t have to run sheep. The harder the government makes it, the easier it is to make the decision to exit sheep and crop fence to fence. 

Without sheep we don’t have a wool industry or all the local jobs that come with running livestock.

With our already low sheep numbers we are not far off reaching a tipping point where one of our big processing facilities, with their hundreds of local jobs in towns like Mount Barker and Katanning, falls over. 

So, despite the mistaken belief that all is well in the industry and the export sector can simply morph into domestic processing with sheep meat shipped chilled and boxed, the reality is our markets won’t pay a premium for anything but live. 

Without the live premium, the Americans get to sell another big tractor, BP more diesel, Bayer more ag chemicals and the local shearers and meat workers join the ranks of the unemployed.  

The alternative is an industry that is supported by our politicians, who loudly and publicly have the courage to stand up in the community to defend the trade.

We know that the state Minister for Agriculture believes the restrictions are needed to keep our social license, but the deafening silence from her federal colleagues does not bode well for the future and in turn the jobs and communities that rely on our states sheep industry. 

As for the local and national liberals, who knows what they stand for?  

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