Interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR, Perth

Gareth Parker: But to begin today the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is here in the west and there is plenty to discuss. He’s about to get on a plane in Kalgoorlie. Deputy Prime Minister, good morning.

Michael McCormack: Good morning, Gareth.

Gareth Parker: You’ve got the drought in the east to deal with—we’ll come back to that—we’ve had pretty good rains over here, but instead there is an agricultural crisis that’s very much manmade. Does the live export industry have a future?

Michael McCormack: It does indeed and everybody should understand and recognise the fact that this is a viable industry.

Why should farmers take the fall for the alleged actions of some exporters who’ve done the wrong thing, and they’ve placed that industry in jeopardy, but why should farmers take the fall for that?

These farmers, they put the animal welfare front and centre of everything that they do in their farming practices but we need to make sure this is a viable industry going forward. We’ll do everything that we can as a federal government. Of course it’s up to the exporters now too, as well, could do the right thing.

Gareth Parker: Practically speaking the industry at the moment has been shut down because you’ve got the largest exporter suspended by the federal authorities and then you’ve got smaller exporters that have basically pulled out. Where does that leave the industry? Can it be revived and if so how?

Michael McCormack: Well look it can be revived because it is a viable industry and I appreciate that those sheep are in the docks at the moment, on the dock ready to go to the Middle East.

The Middle East wants our sheep. Understanding that the northern summer trade isn’t as large as the rest of the year, I appreciate that and I appreciate that there’s probably not the margins there at this time for the exporters but the fact is we need a sustainable industry going forward.

We need it to be 12 months of the year and at the end of the day it makes a lot of money for WA farmers. It helps their bottom line and if it helps their bottom line well the government, The Nationals, are very much supportive of it and we will continue to be supportive of it.

We are the only country of the more-than-100 in the world which does live export which has a supply chain assurance scheme in place for exports that makes sure that animal welfare is front and centre of everything that we do.

Now, the alleged actions of some of the exporters should not—should not—be hindering the industry as far as our farmers are concerned. They want their animals to get to the Middle East as healthy as they can be.

And at the end of the day 99.7 per cent of the sheep which are being exported are getting off the ships in good shape.

Gareth Parker: Can the industry run on a nine-month-a-year basis or ten-month-a-year basis if exports were to be halted in the height of the Arabian Gulf summer?

Michael McCormack: Well the trouble is, there are some they want it 12 months of the year. They want it 12 months of the year. They’ve got certain commemorations and festivals during the northern summer and so if we don’t fill the trade then somebody else will and they won’t have animal welfare front and centre of everything that they do.

They won’t have the same standards and conditions that Australia—the Independent Regulator has demanded—our Australian exporters have. And we have reduced the stocking density by 28 per cent. That gives the animal more than 38 per cent more room to move around in their pens.

We have said that we will put—and are putting - people on board to report back daily about the welfare of the sheep. We’ve upped the fine.

It’s up now to the exporters, if they want this trade to continue, they want to make the money during the profitable time which as you indicated, the other nine months of the year, they’ve got to do the right thing and we’ll be certainly working towards making that happen.

Gareth Parker: And yet as we—I mean it’s self-evident—at the moment the trade is halted and there has to be question about whether it can or it will be revived.

Michael McCormack: Well, we hope that it is revived not just for the farmers’ sake but also for the balance of payments because it is good for Australia.  It is good for our exports and we have a very viable industry.

Our farmers are the very best in the world whether they’re in the drought-stricken heat at the moment or the west which as you indicated at the top of the program looks like it’s been a good season, but we want these live animal exports to continue.

We’d like more people to be supportive of it. Certainly Alannah MacTiernan has shown that she wants the trade phased out as does federal Labor in government.  And let me tell you that’s what they’re working towards.

They have no care or concern about our WA farmers, what we want to make sure is we have animal welfare standards still at the front and centre of everything that we do. But certainly the farmers enjoying the benefits of that very viable trade into the future.

And as you say unfortunately at the moment it is halted, there is a stymie on it and we need to make sure that we work through the processes to get the trade up and running again very, very soon.

Gareth Parker: Federal Labor aren’t the only ones who want the trade phased out. Increasingly Coalition MPs have expressed that view and there are people in the community who agree with that view. I don’t know if they are a majority or not. I haven’t seen any reliable polling on that.

But would it not be prudent for farmers in Western Australia, for the federal government, for the entire agriculture industry, to plan for a future beyond live exports?

A lot of people have talked about the New Zealand experience and they no longer do live exports, but there is plenty of New Zealand lamb on supermarket shelves in other parts of the world. Would it not be prudent to try and develop new markets if in fact this whole questions about a social licence to operate? I don’t think it’s going away.

Michael McCormack: There’s a lot said on social media that isn’t always true. And yes we are always working towards new markets, no matter what the case might be—whether it’s minerals, whether it’s agriculture—no matter what the case might be.

We’ve brokered free trade agreements with South Korea, China, Japan. We’re certainly putting a lot of meat into those areas. We’re opening up a goat abattoir, I know, out of Bourke in New South Wales. Goat’s probably one of the biggest meat used right around the world.

So, we’re certainly playing our part as far as that’s concerned. And of course, we want Australia to have the very best meat-exporting arrangements—whether it’s processed in chilled boxes or whether it’s indeed live.

But the fact is you just can’t always have the meat processing plants open. There’s seasonal conditions. You’ve got to find the right staff and employees to be able to man those particular meat processing plants. It’s not as easy as it seems and it’s not as easy as it would appear to those people who probably sit in their soy latte cafes and the keyboard warriors when it suits them about all matters of agriculture many, many hundreds of kilometres away.

Gareth Parker: Do you think that that’s what happens? Do you think it’s city slickers not understanding what life’s like on the land?

Michael McCormack: Well, there is a disconnect, I’m afraid to say. There is a large disconnect between the city and regional Australia in many instances.

You know I think we’ve seen that over the past 20 years in- once upon a time it used to be the case that every city family had a country cousin. They’d go there for their holidays. That just doesn’t seem to happen anymore and there is a great disconnect. I think a lot of city kids probably think their meat and their fruit and their vegetables and their milk all just comes from a refrigerator from a supermarket. I don’t think they make a connection between the fact that it’s actually coming from animals, coming from crops, and coming from a farm, somewhere hundreds of kilometres away. But I don’t think they make that connection and their parents often don’t help.

Gareth Parker: Okay. I wonder what you think of that, listeners. 92211882. Is Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the National Party, is he right? Are we disconnected from the bush? Our concerns about animal welfare and live exports—are they latte-belt concerns? Are they mainstream concerns? I don’t know the answer that, but I’d be interested to see what you think this morning. 92211882.

How do you think, Michael McCormack, that the State Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, has handled this issue?

Michael McCormack: Not very well. She wants to phase the industry out and while I can understand she’s playing to concerns of some of her city constituents, it’s not always the case that it’s as easy as black and white.

It’s not always the case that you just listen to what people might tell you on Twitter and on Facebook and then react.

You know, get out and talk to some of these WA farmers. Front up to the meetings where there’s hundreds and hundreds of farmers who are concerned about their livelihoods. They’re the ones I want to help. They’re the ones I want to protect.

Gareth Parker: I know you’re about to depart. You are on a plane, but is there anything that we can do in the west to help farmers ravaged by drought in the east?

Michael McCormack: I know there’s been a lot of offers of support for fodder. I appreciate that the state government, New South Wales Government, is providing transport subsidies.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, send money. That’s probably it. There’s a lot of people who are putting together care hampers and tinned fruit and all the rest, and sending it across. But that also affects the little country towns where they’ve got an independent grocer who also needs to be able to help these people. But sometimes when they get too much help, it runs them out of business as well.

So we don’t just think about the farmers in these instances. We also think about the small businesses in those small towns which are beset by drought, and at the moment there doesn’t look like there’s any joy in sight on the horizon.

But the Federal Government and the state governments as well have come to the party we needed to. And we’ll do more as well.

But it’s a problem as far as mental health is concerned. It’s a problem as far as the crops and the stock are concerned, and so we need to get behind them. Any offers of help will be very much appreciated from the West or anywhere else, for that matter.

Gareth Parker: Appreciate your time this morning.

Michael McCormack: Anytime at all, thanks Gareth.

Gareth Parker: Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the National Party.