SENIOR Labor MP Tony Burke has denied involvement in the subversive campaign that lurked beneath the Indonesian live exports crisis, despite deep connections to a woman who spearheaded the public assault driving the snap trade suspension.
On June 8, 2011, the day after the Gillard government announced live cattle exports to Indonesia would halt for up to six months, Mr Burke’s now wife and former chief of staff Skye Laris spoke for GetUp! during a media conference at Parliament House in Canberra.
Ms Laris stood shoulder to shoulder with other groups who’d been long-term critics of the live trade and campaigning ferociously to demand the federal government’s intervention, to address animal welfare concerns.
Just a few days before, unprecedented public and political pressure had erupted in response to the shocking animal cruelty incidents from Indonesian abattoirs broadcast by the ABC Four Corners program “A Bloody Business”.
However, Ms Laris - also a former ABC journalist - was an advisor in Mr Burke’s office, including chief of staff from 2009 up to the 2010 election, when he was federal Agriculture Minister, with oversight for guarding live exports and animal welfare standards.
On that day almost five years ago, she joined Animals Australia investigator Lyn White, who originally filmed the video footage that underpinned and sparked the ABC’s broadcast, RSPCA’s chief scientist Dr Bidda Jones and Greens MP Adam Bandt to deliver a common message, welcoming the Labor government’s controversial decision.
“As of this morning after little over a week we have 236,000 names on the petition to ban live exports within three years and to introduce a moratorium, which we welcome today, on trade to Indonesia,” Ms Laris said.
“We’re expecting to see, before very much longer, that this petition will be the largest petition in Australia’s history.
“And today’s decision demonstrates that people power - the voice of people in identifying that this is an unacceptable trade - is absolutely important; it’s absolutely powerful.
“We need to keep going to ensure that we do see a ban within three years, on live exports."
GetUp! lists the petition as one of its greatest achievements saying it was presented to Parliament at a press conference with the RSPCA, Animals Australia and the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) and “As a result Julia Gillard immediately suspended live exports to Indonesia”.
At the time, the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) had also joined RSPCA Australia and Animals Australia in calling for an urgent halt on Indonesian live cattle exports to address welfare concerns, following public outrage at the ABC program.
Mr Burke was agriculture minister from 2007 until the August 2010 federal election and promoted Ms Laris from an advisor to be his chief of staff in 2009 when still aged in her early 30’s.
In about 2014, it became public that the two were a couple after Mr Burke’s 20-year marriage ended and they’ve since become married.
Before parliament, the NSW Labor MP was also a union organiser for the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association.
In March 2011, Ms Laris shifted to work at GetUp! from Mr Burke’s office, when he was the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
During that same month, Ms White visited Indonesia to gather video footage from targeted abattoir facilities with her long-standing, Europe-based co-investigator Ian Shersby - the director of Tracks Investigations.
At the end of March 2011, ABC Four Corners accepted the video footage from Animals Australia and started preparations for its broadcast which focussed largely on the animal welfare issues surrounding the trade, then valued at $330 million.
Ms Laris was also in Mr Burke’s office when the independent expert panel headed by Dr Ivan Caple investigated animal welfare standards in Indonesian facilities processing Australian cattle and compiled a report.
That work resulted from a broader $3.2 million joint-funded project between the government and MLA and LiveCorp - started during Mr Burke’s watch - looking at standards across the industry.
The Live Trade Animal Welfare Partnership report on Indonesia conditions is understood to have been handed over to government in May 2010 and concluded the animal welfare conditions were “generally good”.
It was made public in January 2011, by which time Labor Queensland Senator Joe Ludwig was the Agriculture Minister who later signed the control order imposing the suspension after a Labor backbench revolt applied significant pressure on cabinet, due to the public uproar over animal cruelty.
The report said the panel observed incidents of non-compliance with OIE standards in the Indonesian supply chain and made a series of recommendations to improve animal handling outcomes, facilities and slaughter practices.
Those groups involved in the ban live exports campaign have subsequently accused industry and government of “knowing” the animal welfare atrocities shown on Four Corners were occurring in Indonesia and ignoring them, based on the report’s contents.
But North Queensland cattle producer and former Meat and Livestock Australia chairman Don Heatley said he was never put on notice by Mr Burke, when he was the federal minister, or by his then chief of staff, that any of the concerns raised in the Caple report needed urgent attention.
Mr Heatley said he was also never warned by Mr Burke, or his replacement, that the Indonesian market could be closed without warning, if video footage of animal welfare breaches was broadcast by the media and a public controversy subsequently erupted.
“We virtually had nothing to do with Tony Burke,” he said.
A week before the ABC broadcast, Senator Ludwig told Senate estimates hearings in Canberra the live export industry had released a plan to address various concerns around animal welfare conditions in Indonesian abattoirs.
During that public hearing, he was heavily questioned by former Liberal Senator Helen Coonan on the related welfare issues like the slow uptake of pre-slaughter stunning and cruelty related to the misuse of restraint boxes.
Senator Coonan’s office was given access to the Animals Australia video footage as part of pre-planning for the public and political campaign to ban the trade that was being timed to coincide with the following week’s ABC broadcast.
Also gathering momentum in the background of the Caple report was a vigorous campaign by meat processors and meat workers unions who’d declared they’d teamed-up with animal activists to make live exports a significant political issue by putting public pressure on the government - specifically targeting the Agriculture Minister.
In the April 2010 edition of the Queensland branch of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union newsletter, “The Meatworker”, Secretary Brian Crawford said stand downs and job losses had “really bitten into meatworkers’ incomes over the last 18 months”.
But he said the union had accelerated its activities campaigning against the live export trade and one of the most pleasing developments was the formation of a group of “interested parties”.
He said meetings were being held between (JBS) Swift Australia, Teys Bros, Nippon Meat Packers, Fletcher International, the Meatworkers Union and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), “with a view to co-ordinated and united campaigning on the issue”.
“Whilst the media have been describing this group as an “unlikely alliance” the reality is we all have a common goal and shared interests on this,” he said.
“Unfortunately for a number of decades, groups with an interest in challenging the live export trade have been fragmented and their various messages have been inharmonious.
“In 2010 however, we have been able to bring together all of these forces to speak with a united voice.”
Mr Crawford’s article refers to a public event held in March 2010 at the NSW Parliament where the union joined the WSPA to launch an “investigation” that showed video footage of cruelty towards sheep, exported from Australia, in the Middle East.
He refers to the video footage as contradicting industry and government claims of improved welfare standards in that foreign market and points to analysis contained in an economic report, to back the union’s arguments about shutting down live exports.
”This event undoubtedly played a major part in the upswing in media interest the live trade has attracted in the last six months,” he said of the NSW rally.
But Mr Crawford said the union hadn’t received any support from Mr Burke, the then minister, “in its goal to halt the negative impact the live export trade is having on the processing sector”.
He said with that in mind, the union started targeting government backbenchers throughout Australia with its message, “particularly those members with processing sheds in their electorates”.
Mr Crawford said through former Labor Flynn MP Chris Trevor, he was then able to brief the ALP’s then equivalent of the Country Caucus about the “devastating” impact meat processing job losses were having on regional communities.
“Most of the questions we fielded indicated that the group had clearly only been given one side of the story,” he said.
“Once the discussion was in full swing, they showed a genuine interest in the union’s position.”
Mr Crawford also referred to a meeting he had with Mr Burke in Canberra on March 31, 2010 which was arranged following contact from the minister’s office, a few days after writing to him.
He said he pointed out to Mr Burke, “the considerable amount that this union provides to the ALP by way of affiliation fees and its members were dissatisfied with the constant support and fawning that the live trade enjoys form the government”.
“With representatives of Teys, Nippon Meat Packers and Swifts, the union spoke at length about its opposition to the trade,” he said.
Mr Crawford said in that meeting, the minister referred to a feasibility study he’d commissioned about possibly opening an abattoir in the NT and also advised that he expected live exports to Indonesia to “contract” that year.
“I have to say honestly that I detected no movement in the government’s policies and approach to the live export trade as a result of this meeting,” he said.
“It’s come to the point where they need mass public pressure on the issue.
“You can’t apply that pressure until the public knows your message.
“With a federal election due this year, an opportunity exists to continue the work that has been undertaken so far to make live exports a political issue.”
In the October 2011 edition of AMIEU national newsletter Mr Crawford provided a summary of the Indonesian live exports crisis, saying there was “clear evidence” that as at May 2010, MLA and LiveCorp were “put clearly on notice” as to the animal welfare issues that were demonstrated a year later on “A Bloody Business”.
“The AMIEU will continue to work closely with the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the RSPCA and Animals Australia,” he said.
However, Mr Burke said his public and private support for the live export trade was unwavering during his time as Agriculture Minister and that remained the case.
He said he also had little knowledge of Ms Laris’ involvement with GetUp! at the time of the campaign, leading into the Indonesian suspension, as they did not have much contact after she left his office.
Mr Burke said he and his current wife also shared different views on various issues, “as you’d expect”.
He said Ms Laris only spoke publicly at the media conference on June 8, 2011 when the trade suspension was announced, because then GetUp! National Director Simon Sheikh was unable to attend.
Mr Sheikh – who declined to comment – ran as a Senate candidate for the Australian Greens at the 2013 federal election.
He also spoke at a media conference with the RSPCA and Animals Australia the day after the Four Corners broadcast where he said northern producers could truck cattle to SA as an alternative to live exports.
Mr Burke said the whole time Ms Laris worked for him, as with “every member of my staff”, she was working for the principles that “I had made clear were mine”.
“That’s part of what people take on if they’re a staffer and my principles involved support for the industry and I am 100 per cent confident that my office never did anything other than back me,” he said.
Mr Burke declined to comment on the MLA and LiveCorp report on Indonesian welfare conditions and how it was managed by his ministerial office or department, saying he needed to be “refreshed” on that matter.
He said the suspension decision five years ago was made by cabinet and “I won’t reflect on what happened in the cabinet room”.
“Certainly in everything I said privately and publicly up until that decision, I was expressing a different view to what the decision ultimately became,” he said.
Mr Burke said he only met with RSPCA during his time as Agriculture Minister and not with Animals Australia.
Fairfax Media has submitted a Freedom of Information application request with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources seeking clarification in relation to the then government’s handling of the expert panel’s report and the March 2010 meeting with Mr Burke, the AMIEU and meat processors.
Ms Laris’ LinkedIn profile says she “delivered improvements to animal welfare and paused live exports when overseeing GetUp!'s live exports campaign which was the fastest growing online petition to date with more than 250,000 signatures in less than a week”.
After being the GetUp! communications and campaigns director to January 2012, it says she returned to the Labor camp to be chief of staff to then Employment Participation, Early Childhood & Child Care Minister Kate Ellis, until August 2012.
After that, Ms Laris took on leadership of digital campaigns for the Labor Party prior to the 2013 election campaign before becoming Chief Of Staff and Digital Director up to October 2015.
The former Labor government’s trade suspension is now subject to a class action claim of about $1 billion against the Commonwealth government to recover losses suffered by cattle producers and other related businesses due to the sudden closure.
The suspension - lifted on July 6, 2011 - led to the implementation of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System that was extended to other foreign markets, to increase transparency and accountability for animal welfare.
Labor leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon have also referred to the five week market closure as a “pause” on trade that was regrettable but have expressed the situation could have been handled differently at the time.
Former Prime Minister and then Opposition leader Tony Abbott said the former Gillard government’s decision to suspend the Indonesian trade was one of the worst he’d seen.
“My immediate reaction was to say, you shouldn’t do something with enormous ramifications for the cattle industry and enormous ramifications for our relationship with Indonesia in panic at a television program,” he said.
“Almost nothing could be calculated to do more damage to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia so it was a very, very bad decision.
“Poor judgment and poor internal processes were characteristic of that particular government.”
Animals Australia declined to be interviewed or to answer questions from Fairfax Media regarding when they first started holding talks with GetUp!, or other groups, to start planning the campaign.
Dr Jones, who appeared at the media conference after the suspension decision was announced, said Mr Laris was “just there as a GetUp! person”.
But she said Mr Burke, as the then Agriculture Minister, should have acted sooner on the Caple report but “a chief of staff doesn’t make decisions about whether or not to act on reports”.
“I don’t know when the report was given to the minister - I can’t comment on that,” she said.
“All I know is that they (independent expert panel) went (to Indonesia) in April, the report was finished in May (and) we didn’t see it until November.
“I don’t know anything about what happened before that (but) I would like to know.
“I would like to know why they sat on it for that length of time.”
Dr Jones said she assumed people did not know what such reports actually said and “It took me to explain what it said, to them, as opposed to what’s in the summary”.
“Skye Laris was there because she worked for GetUp, but we hadn’t had any conversation with her,” she said.
“I had no knowledge that she had any connection with Tony Burke.
“The conversation with GetUp was about getting reach.”
Dr Jones conducted an “observational study” of the animal welfare standards in Indonesia that pointed to flaws in the MLA/LiveCorp report with her views used to support the ABC broadcast
Its executive summary said the mixed messages from the 2010 industry report highlighted the urgent need for “a fully independent and transparent investigation of the slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesia”.
“This study attempts to address that need by providing a detailed assessment of video footage obtained by Animals Australia during an investigation in March 2011, where a total of 50 slaughters were filmed at 10 different locations,” the report said.
“Cattle were restrained using Mark 1 boxes, copy boxes, traditional rope casting and, in one location, a Mark 4 box.
“Footage of traditional rope casting of nine local animals, obtained by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) during a 2010 investigation, was also included for comparison.
“Assessments were made of the handling and behaviour of cattle, duration of restraint, casting, slaughter, duration of consciousness following slaughter, and whether slaughter was conducted according to halal requirements.”
The report also said, “The only practical and ethical solution is for the export of cattle to be replaced by the export of meat products - it is time to accept the evidence and act accordingly.”
GRAZIER and former President of the WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association during the time of the Indonesian crisis, Rob Gillam, said he believed Mr Burke had always been supportive of the live exports industry, when the Labor MP was Agriculture minister, especially to boost indigenous employment on cattle stations.
Mr Gillam said the industry had been aware for more than a month, leading up to the ABC broadcast, that video footage taken by animal activists was being used by Four Corners and “something was about to happen”.
He said did not know of Ms Laris but learning she was Mr Burke’s former chief of staff and working at GetUp! at that time, in the back-room operations, “helps to explain the depth of the campaign”.
Mr Gillam said the suspension arrived at the “worst possible time” to inflict maximum damage on the industry, at the beginning of the dry season, when many northern producers were starting to muster cattle.
He said some producers had sold their cattle but the trade halt meant many were caught stranded “with no cash flow” having already gone about five months without any income, during the wet season.
But Mr Gillam said those producers had also expended finances to maintain their properties during the wet season and paid out for items like fuel while taking-on staff, to prepare for mustering cattle for sale and export to Indonesia.
“It all happened and was timed to happen in the peak period one month out from the end of the financial year when people needed cash flow,” he said.
IN his maiden address to the House of Representatives in 2004, Labor MP Tony Burke spoke about to his first job and early involvement with forming a union, applying media pressure to achieve outcomes, as a 12-year old boy, delivering the Sunday papers for the Beverly Hills Newsagency in Sydney.
Mr Burke said there was a “grave injustice” at that workplace with the paperboys only receiving a 10 per cent commission when other shops were all paying 12.5pc so he organised the other paperboys and said, `Let's form a union’.
“We worked out our demands, but when I took them to the boss, he would not listen,” he said.
“He said we could not be a union because we had not charged fees.”
Mr Burke said “everyone threw in a copper coin” and he returned to negotiate with the boss.
“It was a comprehensive log of claims: 12.5pc commission, an extra $1 every time it rained and free food for a Christmas party,” he said.
“He came back with the typical response, `Why should I give you lot that?'
“I can still hear my 12-year-old voice answering him: `If you don't, we'll have a paperboy picket line out the front of the shop. The TV cameras will turn up because they'll think it's really funny. We'll be on TV, so we'll feel really important. The customers will know it's your shop and you'll look really bad’.
“He gave in to all three demands.
“To celebrate, we spent the union fees on mixed lollies.
“Years later, I became a full-time official with the union I first joined as a checkout operator with Grace Bros: the SDA.”
FORMER federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke told Fairfax Media his public and private position on live animal exports had been consistent in supporting its continuation.
“From before I held the ag portfolio, while I held the ag portfolio and afterwards, I have always been a supporter of the live trade industry,” he said.
“My view and my conversations with the live industry when I first came in were I simply wanted them to make sure that every year I could tell a story as to how animal welfare was better than it was the year before and better than it was because of their involvement.
“My relationship with the live export industry was very close and very important to me and my view was I would stand up for them and argue for them on a good day and on a hard day.”
Mr Burke said he used the same argument with the beef and live export industry that he used with the wheat export industry that was deregulated in 2008 when he was also Agriculture Minister.
“Whoever’s responsible for growing something has the right to choose who they want to sell it to and that was controversial with wheat and it was controversial with some people with beef and live cattle,” he said.
“With wheat, my view was very simple.
“If people didn’t want to export through AWB in bulk wheat it was their wheat, they had a right to choose who they wanted to sell it to.
“If someone was in the cattle industry they could choose whether they wanted Brahmans or whether they wanted Angus or whatever breed they wanted (and) often by choosing the breed they’d already chosen the market and it was up to them who they wanted to sell it to.
“Now there’s a principle that there can be government regulation in terms of making sure that you’re improving the animal welfare standards and you’re improving best practice and I’m relaxed about that but the concept of who people sell to, that’s up to them.”
ON March 30, 2011, the RSPCA issued a media release alerting the public’s attention to a debate on live exports being held in the House of Representatives the following day spearheaded by then Labor Page MP Janelle Saffin.
Ms Saffin is regarded as one of the key ALP MPs who led the backbench revolt that pressured the government into suspending the Indonesian market more than two months later.
She was also supported in the debate by Fremantle Labor MP Melissa Parke who was also one of the loudest opponents of the live trade adding pressure on cabinet for a ban, following the ABC broadcast.
Ms Saffin’s motion said concerns about animal welfare in the live export trade had been raised and substantiated in campaigns by groups like the RSPCA and the AMIEU while local processors also opposed it, “on the grounds that the live export trade has a detrimental effect on the local meat processing industry, affecting jobs and the Australian economy”.
She also called for “renewed consideration of a planned and supported transition in the medium term away from live exports and towards an expanded frozen and chilled meat export industry”.
“In the past 30 years, 40,000 meat processing jobs have been lost and 150 processing plants have been shut down, primarily due to the live export trade,” she said.
“If those jobs had been able to be taken up because of the live export trade and had been replaced in other areas, even then I would have had some concerns, but that has not been the case.
“From February to August 2010, 960 full-time Australian meatworker jobs have been lost nationwide - that is an average of over 150 jobs each month.
“The AMIEU, the union which represents workers in the meat processing area, is calling upon the government to take action to prevent further job losses.”
But then Liberal MP Barry Haase who represented the large WA electorate of Durack with a high percentage of pastoralists reliant on the Indonesian cattle market said on the surface, Ms Saffin’s debate and motion appeared to be motivated by good intentions.
But he said “I find that that is so far from the truth”.
“As we go into this debate we find more and more from the member for Page’s own lips and from the member for Capricornia’s own lips the fact that this debate is about keeping union jobs and serving union masters,” he said.
“I am so disappointed to hear that because I speak for a quarter of the Australian land mass.
“In that quarter of the Australian landmass there is not one fulltime cattle abattoir.
“Members of the government need to get out and about, open their eyes, take their heads out of the sand, do some travel and find out what the real world is all about.”