The Gillard Government's temporary ban on the export of live cattle has strengthened calls for a permanent prohibition, writes Briana Everett, while also exposing cattle producers to potential claims for damages
The Federal Government's decision this month to impose a temporary ban on the live export of cattle has received harsh criticism from members of the livestock industry as well as animal rights groups.
When the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Joe Ludwig, announced on 8 June that the Government had suspended the export of live cattle to Indonesia, animal rights groups labelled the move as a band-aid solution and called for the imposition of a permanent ban, given the inadequacy of existing regulations to ensure the humane treatment of animals.
However, while such groups claim the Government has not gone far enough, cattle producers and exporters maintain that the Government's decision has and will continue to severely damage their business.
According to animal protection institute Voiceless, the Government's temporary ban is "a stop-gap measure without any long term solution" and does not go far enough to compensate for the inadequacy of the current laws regulating animal welfare and the export of live cattle.
"Indonesia does have animal welfare laws but they're not effective," explained Voiceless general counsel Ruth Hatten. "As far as I am aware, an animal welfare act has been drafted but there are no regulations. There is no capacity to enforce those laws and that's one of the hurdles."
Currently, both Australia and Indonesia are signatories to the World Organisation for Animal Health, which claims to be the "international reference organisation for animal health" providing guidelines concerning the slaughter of animals by signatory nations.
However, according to Voiceless chief executive officer Dana Campbell, until now, adherence to these welfare standards has been occurring on a voluntary basis between trading partners simply because its "good business for Australia" and "good business for Indonesia" to comply.
"There is nothing legally enforceable about the arrangement at all," said Campbell. "That's the basis on which Australia has said they're suspending exports - because Indonesia is not complying with those particular rules which we've all agreed to follow, even though they're only guidelines."
According to Campbell, Voiceless believes there is no humane way to transport and deal with the live export of animals anywhere and, as a result, it does not support live export in any form.
Voiceless also believes that the fact the livestock industry - Meat and Livestock Australia and LiveCorp - has known about the inhumane treatment of cattle in Indonesia for more than a decade is another good reason to implement a permanent ban.
"Meat and Livestock Australia and LiveCorp have known, from what I understand, as early as 2000 that cattle exported to Indonesia are being inhumanely slaughtered," said Hatten. "Voiceless do not have faith in the industry's recommendations - that the live export of cattle to Indonesia be restricted to accredited abattoirs - will work because it relies on industry improving the treatment of animals, which they have failed to do on a number of occasions."
In contrast, Senator Ludwig's statement that trade to Indonesia will recommence when the Government establishes "sufficient safeguards" has received strong support from cattle producers and exporters who are facing huge financial repercussions as a result of the ban and are calling for the resumption of trade to be fast-tracked.
In addition, according to McCullough Robertson partner David Downie, Australian cattle producers could face further financial pain if claims for damages flowing from breaches of contract are made against them. He claims ramifications of the ban may include action against suppliers who are no longer able to meet the terms of some contracts.
"Cattle suppliers may find themselves the subject of damages claims from a number of interests along the supply chain, including customers, transport companies, shipping and even the abattoirs," said Downie. "The scary thing for cattle producers is that damages claims are compensatory in nature and don't necessarily relate to profit that would have been made."
According to Downie, it is unlikely that any compensation currently being considered will take into account the ongoing impacts and potential for huge costs that may come from lawsuits - many of which may occur long after trade resumes.
"There will be many business operators who won't know for some time how badly they have been exposed by this decision, as it could take them some time to go through contracts and determine a course of action," warned Downie.