Western Australian sheep producers face an uncertain future with both major parties yet to fill significant gaps in their live export policies.
Labor has committed to ban the trade during the northern summer and move the industry to onshore processing of boxed exports if it forms government, but it’s still figuring out how to make that happen.
The coalition government says it supports the trade, and has ramped-up industry regulation to secure its social licence.
The Federal Agriculture Department has cancelled the operating licences of major exporter Emanuel, and is waiting on the Moss Review into the culture, capability and investigative powers of the industry’s independent regulator.
The Review is expected to report later this month, and until it does the industry is in stasis.
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Meanwhile, opposition agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said Labor had set a five-year timeframe to phase out sheep live exports and had begun consultation with industry. But he acknowledged there were no plans on how to go about it.
“Labor will put an end to the northern summer trade at the first opportunity and will phase-out the balance of the sector within five years,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
“The information we gather (from consultation) will help identify the markets, the processing capacity and the on-farm options for transition and reform.”
But significant questions remain.
Would the market for boxed exports dry-up if Middle Eastern buyers of live sheep source from alternate suppliers? If that happens, does Labor have a plan B for producers? What would be the flow on effect to producers in eastern states?
How many new processing facilities would be needed? At what cost? Would they be built with public or private funding? And where would they be located?
Following cancellation of live exporter licences, WA government said the Commonwealth should fund a financial assistance package of at least $10 million.
WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan doesn’t support live exports in the northern summer, but said industry should be phased out over seven years, not the five year period proposed by federal Labor.
“Feedback is that farmers would need at least that time to adjust flock genetics. Many farmers are concerned that their fine-wool Merinos do not translate well to an Australian processed meat product,” Ms MacTiernan said.
“We would expect any adjustment package to be used on low-interest loans for WA processors and feedlots, funding for research into sheep flock genetics, and potentially direct financial assistance for producers impacted by decisions made by the federal government.
Ms MacTiernan was optimistic about the potential of boxed sheepmeat exports to Asia and the Middle East.
“Just last week, I hosted a delegation of Malaysian government and private industry representatives, who have expressed an interest in investing in West Australian abattoirs,” she said.
“We will need to focus on mutton as well as lamb, because of the nature of our wool sheep. Middle Eastern chilled mutton imports are booming – Qatar increased its chilled mutton imports from 5,300 kg in 2016 to 259,000 kg in 2017.”
A spokesman for the Australian Live Exporters’ Council reiterated opposition to a live export ban.
“Political uncertainty is something which producers, exporters and customers overseas simply can’t afford.”