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16th May 2024

Live sheep export trade to end in 2028 as Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announces $107m support package

Article by ABC News By Grace Burmas and Lucy Martin

The federal government has announced Australia will stop exporting live sheep from May 1, 2028 while unveiling a $107 million package to help the industry transition.

Speaking in Perth, Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said the closure of live exports — which was a 2022 election promise — would be "orderly and considered".

"We are mapping out a plan for the future of the sheep industry … that delivers more value-adding onshore, which means more jobs locally," he said.

"I want the WA sheep industry to thrive and grow into the future, seizing what is an untapped opportunity: more onshore meat processing.

"This plan also delivers certainty for farmers with a firm end date and a significant amount of taxpayer funding to assist their transition and develop new markets."

'Gutless' move

West Australian opposition leader Shane Love said it was a "very black day for WA".

"Minister Watt has furtively slipped unannounced into Western Australia, coming from Beef Week in his home state of Queensland, where he has no doubt been lauding cattle exports, to kill the live sheep export trade in our state," he said.

"It is a gutless move from a belligerent minister who does not care about the impact this announcement will have on families grappling with a dry season, in the middle of seeding."

Nationals leader David Littleproud has vowed to reverse the ban, if a coalition government were to win the next federal election.

'Right side of history'

The move has been welcomed by animal rights groups, with the RSCPA WA chair Lynne Bradshaw celebrating it as an "historic day for animal welfare in Australia".

"We have been working towards this outcome for decades … I congratulate the government for its considered decision which will put an end to unnecessary cruelty for millions of sheep," Ms Bradshaw said.

"The four-year phase-out, accompanied by a $107m package to support producers and increase supply chain capacity means WA can still have a thriving sheep meat industry — minus the unnecessary cruelty of shipping live animals.

"Other states and countries have successfully transitioned from this trade and there's no reason why we can't as well.

"In the future, live export will be viewed as a shameful part of Australia's past.

"Today's announcement sets us on the path to the right side of history."

'Industry not prepared'

WA Farmers livestock president Geoff Pearson said the compensation package would not be enough.

"It won't even reach farmers, it won't even reach producers and the people that are in the industry, it'll be tied up with consultants," he said.

Mr Pearson disagreed with Senator Watt's suggestion the move would create more onshore jobs, because the market was already saturated with boxed and chilled meat.

"The industry is not prepared to be able to absorb a lot of this onshore processing, and the market is not prepared to take any of it up either," he said.

"Every [agricultural] industry is in support of this trade to continue because they're scared of what's coming next, so as it is now the fight will continue."

The federal government will introduce legislation in this term of parliament to ensure the ban comes into place in May 2028.

Australia exported more than 593,000 sheep last year, with almost half of them sent to Kuwait, which was the country’s largest importer of the animal.

The nation's live sheep exports have been in decline over the past 20 years, according to an independent report commissioned by the government.

Cook says funding scheme should be expanded

On Sunday, WA Premier Roger Cook said the state government estimated the ban would cost the relative industries up to $123 million a year, with a loss of 400 jobs.

Mr Cook said he had put the federal government on notice that WA may need more resources as it exited live exports.

"This situation is not good enough," he said.

"The government has offered a transitional funding scheme, we think that should probably be expanded to make sure that all farmers, who are currently already doing it tough with drought-like conditions, are assisted."

Mr Cook said the onshore industries were expanding in preparation for this transition but there were nuances that need to be considered.

"Many of the sheep that are exported via live sheep exports aren't necessarily suitable for processing and selling into the domestic markets," he said.

"We have to understand the nature of that impact."