Politician profiling Australia
Former prime minister Julia Gillard (Image: AAP)

Six years have passed and yet the Australian mainstream media’s misreporting of the 2011 live cattle ban saga shows no sign of easing. As with other Labor government initiatives that saved the nation from disaster, it is still being misrepresented as “a bizarre overreaction” or “irrational” — or worse. News Corp seems especially keen to bash Julia Gillard’s legacy on this issue until the cows come home. It’s a bolt to the head, however, for their ongoing and confected scare campaign that exported Aussie cows continue to be, well, cash cows.

Media mendacity

Newspapers have reported that graziers have felt the impacts of the “catastrophic” ban as long as five years later.

They gleefully quote former PM Tony Abbott’s depiction of the ban as “a shemozzle” and “the worst ever decision” of any Australian government.

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Last Thursday’s Murdoch media report on the current Federal Court case for compensation claimed former agriculture minister Joe Ludwig “made the irrational and unreasonable decision to ban all live cattle exports to Indonesia for six months”.

This follows the Gillard government suspending live cattle exports to Indonesia from June 7 until July 6, 2011. Four weeks, not six months.

That was prompted by dramatic footage of cruelty to Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs televised worldwide by Four Corners the month before.

Actual data

The critical facts — which no mainstream media outlet has reported accurately as far as Crikey can determine — include these:

  1. It was a terrible year for the beef industry in 2011. Many graziers went into receivership or asset management. This was due to the devastating drought followed by a severe wet season;
  2. Total live cattle exported in the first quarter of 2011, according to the ABS (file 7251.0, table 6) dropped to 142,000. That was the lowest since December 2007. That collapse — down 34.8% on the previous quarter — occurred two months before the live cattle ban;
  3. Immediately after the ban, the industry improved dramatically across the board. That’s shown in detailed statistics from the Livestock Export Corporation — which the media have curiously ignored;
  4. Sales volumes to all countries shot up straight after the ban. For the first four months of 2011 (January to April) cattle exported worldwide averaged 50,305 head per month. For the last four months, September to December, the average was 70,323. That’s up 39.8%;
  5. The market did not “come to a standstill until September” as some graziers claim. Sales were $31.8 million in June, $33.3 million in July and $35.0 million in August. It then boomed in September to $74.2 million;
  6. The September volume, just six weeks after the ban was lifted, was the fourth-highest monthly tally on record at 83,926 head;
  7. Just examining sales to Indonesia, for the first four months of 2011, volumes averaged 30,452 head per month. After things had settled, September to December, volumes averaged 43,227 per month. That’s up a whopping 41.9%. In the same year;
  8. Prices also rose significantly straight after the ban, which is the most intriguing thing. The average price for all live cattle exports for the first four months of 2011, was $838.82. The average for the last four months, September to December, was $950.71.
  9. September’s total dollar value sold to all countries — $74.2 million — was the third-highest ever. November’s tally of 57,786 cattle yielded an average price of $1202, a new record; and
  10. The proportion sold to Indonesia throughout calendar 2011 comprised 59.55% of all sales worldwide. That compares with 59.55% in 2010 — almost identical.

Droughts and flooding rain

Many contingencies affect the production and sale of cattle. These include droughts, rain, competition, capricious demand, quotas and trade boycotts.

Various events delay shipments — floods blocking roads, disease outbreaks and transport strikes. These often last longer than four weeks.

It was certainly a disastrous year for the cattle industry in 2011. It did indeed take years to recover. But clearly that was due to the drought and the wet that largely preceded the live export ban. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2011 was the “second-wettest calendar year” on record.

The temporary export ban caused some minor disruption during June and July. But nothing like the devastation that could have eventuated had swift action not been taken in the face of such impassioned outcry at the manifest animal cruelty.

The risk of far greater long-term damage to the live beef industry was real. Australia’s other animal exports — live sheep, goats and camelids, processed meats, wool and dairy — might also have been impacted if long-term boycotts had not been averted by speedy intervention.

Rapid revival

Recovery from the temporary ban was not only swift, but highly remunerative in both substantially higher volumes and soaring prices. By demonstrating that Australia will take decisive action to protect its industries, it appears to have done far more good than harm.

Let’s hope the Federal Court now hearing the claim for so-called “compensation” is better able to process the relevant data than Australia’s news and current affairs media.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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