A former federal Labor minister acted ‘‘recklessly’’ when he made the irrational and unreasonable decision to ban all live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011, a judge has been told.
Even though then-agriculture minister Joe Ludwig was aware of Indonesian facilities which could meet animal welfare targets and of ways to ‘‘close loops’’, he ‘‘shut his eyes’’ because of intense political pressure, Noel Hutley SC said last Wednesday.
He was giving his opening address in the Federal Court in Sydney in a class action brought by northern Australian cattle farmers against Mr Ludwig.
They claim the ban cost them hundreds of millions of dollars, but the first step in their litigation involves proving ‘‘misfeasance in public office’’ by Mr Ludwig.
Mr Hutley said he did not know if Mr Ludwig would be giving evidence, but he would ask Justice Steven Rares to make certain inferences if he did not.
The barrister said the issue of live exports had been controversial for many years, but became ‘‘volcanic’’ when a May 2011 ABC Four Corners program aired distressing footage showing the ‘‘appalling’’ and ‘‘abhorrent’’ treatment of animals in facilities in Indonesia.
In September 2011, Mr Ludwig told key stakeholders he had no intention of making any ‘‘drastic’’ changes within his portfolio, including live animal exports.
Mr Hutley listed various reports, memos, emails and other material which he said were provided to Mr Ludwig in the lead-up to and after the airing of the program.
They included advice to him to continue to work collaboratively with industry to voluntarily improve the welfare of Australian livestock in Indonesia and to revisit regulation if, and when, voluntary efforts failed to deliver improvements.
But two days after the program he ‘‘was rushed into taking dramatic steps’’ and made a control order banning export to 12 specific locations and then a second control order on June 7 which banned the export of non-breeder livestock to Indonesia for six months.
‘‘Everyone knew there could be catastrophic effects on the industry,’’ Mr Hutley said, noting the previous year the beef trade to Indonesia was worth $100billion.
The ABC program had provoked a ‘‘wave of political pressure’’ including from groups who wanted the entire industry in Indonesia shut down — a view which the minister did not share, he said.
The evidence would show that the level of publicity including on the times individual boats were leaving Australia ‘‘prompted an extremely accelerated response by the government’’, Mr Hutley said.
The damage to Australia’s reputation from revelations of appalling mistreatment of cattle exported to Indonesia threatened the much more valuable boxed meat trade.
Lawyers for Mr Ludwig said footage broadcast on ABC TV in 2011 meant the government’s previous support for self- regulation of the live export industry, was ‘‘no longer a viable option’’.
‘‘The reputational damage to Australia was threatening the much more valuable boxed meat trade, worth between $7 and $9billion,’’ Neil Williams SC told the Federal Court in Sydney.
Mr Williams also referred to the profound public response generated by the footage, from the peak meat industry body, with calls being made for the government to suspend live cattle exports.
In the days after the broadcast, domestic sales of red meat dropped by 15 per cent.