The West Australian exclusive

Live export report: Early action ‘crucial’ for the sheep industry, despite Govt’s five-month delay

Olivia FordCountryman
Federal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt with the Independent Panel Report for the Phase Out of Live Sheep Exports by Sea.
Camera IconFederal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt with the Independent Panel Report for the Phase Out of Live Sheep Exports by Sea. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The Sunday Times

The Albanese Government has denied it’s running late in providing support for WA’s sheep industry, despite a long-awaited report revealing its 2028 deadline for phasing out live exports should have been announced five months ago.

The Independent Panel Report for the Phase Out of Live Sheep Exports by Sea was finally made public on May 11, almost seven months after it was first handed down to Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt in October 2023.

The 214-page report not only advised the Government to announce a phase-out deadline by the end of 2023, but recommended the report itself be made publicly available by the end of last year to provide time for stakeholders to make adjustments.

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The report made clear the phase-out will go ahead regardless of public opinion, and urged producers not to delay decision-making and adjustments in the hopes that the policy may be overturned, lest they suffer “adverse” impacts.

The panel noted several phase-out time frames were suggested, including a 10-year time line that was not chosen over fears that businesses would continue to operate as normal and delay adjustment actions because of an extended deadline.

Within the report three actions were listed as needing to be under way by the first half of this year in order to adequately cushion not only the sheep industry but also regional communities from the worst effects of the ban.

But Mr Watt denied the five-month delay in announcing the end date had impacted the Government’s transition support for the WA sheep industry, and is standing firm that the deadline will not change — whether sheep producers are ready or not.

Is the timeline on track?

While the panel said it was “confident” the sheep industry could make a successful transition from live export, it added it would only be possible with early support from the Government, which should come “as soon as practicable”.

Federal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt with the Government’s formal response to the panel report.
Camera IconFederal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt with the Government’s formal response to the panel report. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The Sunday Times

The panel recommended the Government provide funding arrangements and support for sheep farming and supply chain businesses to “prepare and adjust”, as well as provide funds and concessional loans to improve WA’s on-shore sheep processing capacity and efficiency.

The panel also recommended the Government provide additional funding for industry-linked organisations to develop their markets for Australian sheep products.

These were listed as needing to be a priority for early action in the first half of 2024. However, the end date for live exports only came last week.

Nearly halfway through the year, the Government revealed the $107 million transition package for the sheep industry to target these key recommendations.

Of that, $64.6m was set aside to go towards a range of initiatives, from the expansion of domestic sheep processing capacity, to community wellbeing activities.

Mr Watt did not not provide an answer to the Countryman when asked to clarify exactly how the $64.6m would be allocated to each activity. He also failed to confirm if any of that funding would be directed to cold storage infrastructure.

But he did deny there was a delay in support provision.

“Early action is being encouraged by the provision of funding now,” he said.

“We want to ensure those affected by the phase out have the opportunity to be well-positioned, resilient and ready when the trade ends in 2028.”

Mr Watt said more information on transition support programs would be made available in the third quarter of 2024.

The panel also recommended that a “transition action group” be assembled to co-design transition activities. They also suggested a transition advocate be appointed, to facilitate two-way communication and offer advice to the Government.

Within the Government’s formal response to the panel report, a transition advocate was supported. Yet no time frame has been given on when that role will be filled.

Jarvis and Watt still at odds

In the report, the panel said it anticipated the Federal Agriculture Minister would work in “close consultation” with their WA counterpart to ensure a successful transition for the sheep industry.

Following enquiries by the Countryman this week, it became apparent WA Agriculture Minister Jackie Jarvis only received the report and its recommendations the same time as the public — almost seven months after Mr Watt was first given the document.

Ms Jarvis said she and her team would review the panel’s report and consider the recommendations “where there is a regulatory role for the WA Government”. However, she stood firm in her support for keeping the live sheep trade.

“The current animal welfare measures employed by industry, including the northern summer live export ban, are sufficient and meet government standards,” she said.

“Given (Senator Watt’s) decision and subsequent package is not in the interest of WA, it is difficult to see how we can work collaboratively.”

Processing Logistics

The report predicted there could be an additional one to two million head of sheep that would need to be processed in WA in the absence of live sea export, and emphasised the need to expand processing and storage capacity before the live export end date.

This gives the WA sheep industry 3½ years to expand on processing facilities already facing backlogs.

The report identified two major roadblocks to WA processing expansions: A shortage of skilled labour to work in the processing industry and a lack of suitable regional worker housing.

Already, the processing industry has reported widespread workforce shortages.

In 2018, the Australian Meat Processor Corporation reported 3700 additional workers were needed for Australian processors to operate at 100 per cent capacity.

The report recommended several measures to address WA’s labour shortage, including working with affected regions to establish Designated Area Migration Agreements, and putting high priority to the meat processing industry to accelerate processing of skilled visa applications.

The Government supported most of these recommendations in its response to the report, but has not announced any new programs or initiatives to overcome this hurdle, or confirmed if any will be implemented at all.

Mr Watt did not comment on whether the permanent migration program cap of 185,000 places recently announced in the Federal Budget would impact WA’s ability to bring in a permanent workforce within the 3½ year time frame.

Opposition stands firm

Nationals leader and shadow agriculture minister David Littleproud labelled the transition time line a “kick in the guts” and the $107m transition package an “insult”.

Mr Littleproud stood firm with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s pledge to keep live export if the Coalition wins the next election, despite the stark warnings offered up in the report.

Shadow agriculture minister David Littleproud.
Camera IconShadow agriculture minister David Littleproud. Credit: TheWest

“(The sheep) industry has never had the science explained to them why Labor is closing the industry down,” he said.

WA shadow agriculture minister Colin de Grussa said the idea that the WA sheep industry could be restructured in less than four years was based off a “flawed premise”, and called the transition package “pathetically inadequate”.

“Even if additional processing capacity and markets are magically created, the catastrophic damage to the industry, especially in our current seasonal circumstances, will see many exit the industry, never to return,” he said.

Mr de Grussa said it was important to note the Federal Government still needed to secure necessary legislation for the phase-out to go ahead.

“We will continue to work with our Federal Nationals colleagues to stop the passage of this legislation.”

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