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The Stupidity of the Ban Mentality

Overnight we again saw distressing scenes of animal cruelty on our television. This time it was truly horrific scenes of barbarity towards sheep which ended up in Pakistan after being diverted from Bahrain which  There is nothing pleasant about the way the animals were treated. Nobody could in any way excuse or justify the treatment of the Australian livestock by Pakistani officials. Of course the sheep were bound to be killed either way, but the reasons given and methods deployed were at the same time dubious, ugly, abhorrent and disgusting.

Predictably of course, the live export ban lobby have again found fuel for the fire that they want to build in order to see the entire industry destroyed. The extra oxygen is again fanning the flames and the advocacy groups involved will not stop until the industry has been reduced to smouldering ashes.

But is this a reasonable move? Is this something that should logically occur as a response to this incident? To any given incident which makes people question the trade?

The reality is that the reaction, as far as continued calls for a complete and permanent cessation of live exports, is a woeful overreaction with little or no understanding of the real world of policy-making. The repeated calls also lack reason.

Thankfully, this time, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig and the Labor Government actually made a rational and reasonable decision. This time there was not and there will not be a knee-jerk reaction from an out-of-touch government pandering to the chosen few because they feel slightly uncomfortable about the headlines live exports have generated.

That seems to be the new test. The ‘discomfort test’, it would appear, is the new threshold for banning a whole industry in response to what are undoubtedly horrific scenes.

Back in the real world, we realise that isolated incidents do not make a bad industry. We realise that while there have now been a few documented incidents and disturbing ones at that, that those occasions do not represent the industry as a whole.

Let’s think about the proposition for a minute. The proposition that says banning a whole industry is a smart and justified response to limited wrongdoing across a specific industry.

Imagine if we followed this suggestion through to its logical conclusion. Any industry where there is any hint of wrongdoing, no matter how limited, where there are examples of events of an illegal, abhorrent or unpopular nature should be cut down and eliminated.

Not quite so sensible an idea now is it? How many industries would be left if this was the case? Probably none.

We would be stupid, indeed naive to believe that any amount of regulation, any number of checks and balances could eliminate all inappropriate behaviour in any industry. However, banning something in response to reprehensible actions is not the answer.

Some in the ban live exports camp will say we could replace the live expert trade with the slaughter and preparation of livestock in Australian abattoirs and some of course do not want us to be eating meat at all. Those advocating the latter should be ignored. They are well and truly in the minority and should not be trying to push their beliefs on the vast majority of people.

Those protesters pushing for the killing and preparation of livestock in Australia for export in place of sending live animals to overseas nations have a point, at least in theory.

We could create an extensive slaughter industry in the north of Australia. Jobs would be created and more money would be rolling in domestically from the livestock trade. Sounds good right?

The trouble is that in reality,  if we were to travel down that avenue, slaughtering and preparing all meat for export onshore, we would almost certainly strike a problem.

If we were pursue a policy like this we would almost undoubtedly experience a drop in demand for our product. Some countries would surely be more cautious about accepting our meat trade if we were responsible for the whole slaughter and preparation process.

Then there is the small matter of local slaughterhouses occasionally slipping up and making mistakes. Yes, there would be better oversight if meat-processing was located here but it would be a mistake to believe we could eradicate all issues.

All this seems like an unnecessary price to pay. Animal rights lobbyists should be advocating punishment for wrongdoing but not calling for a complete ban of the trade.

Engaging Again With Fiji Not a Case of Too Much Too Soon, Might Help Democratic Transition

Fiji is not a very stable country politically. The Pacific islands nation has endured no less than four coups over the past 20+. The ethnic divide in the country is stark with Fijian’s of Indian descent, Chinese descent and native-born Fijians living together in a nation in not so much harmony. But it is not just about the ethnic divide. Indeed the latest coup in particular, in 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama wrested power stemmed out of a conflict festering between the then civilian government and the military which was not just about ethnicity.

This latest coup d’etat had its origins in the previous uprising, with Prime Minister at the time, Laisenia Qarase wishing to introduce legislation which would have pardoned the coup leaders involved. Frank Bainimarama was almost killed during that period of political instability.

Overnight Australia, New Zealand and Fiji agreed to somewhat of a restoration of ties between the three nations. The agreement will restore full diplomatic relations between the nations with the reciprocal reinstatement of each countries respective high-level diplomatic missions in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Travel restrictions for members of the Fijian Government will also be eased and restrictions were lifted to allow a representative of the Fijian administration to travel to the meeting at which the change in policy was agreed to.

In 2009 our High Commissioner in Fiji was expelled by the Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama in a move that was closely followed by the Australian Government expelling the top Fijian diplomat.

It is an interesting move given that the previous deadline for free and fair elections, in 2009, was not met. Indeed since then, a further crackdown on the press and other authoritarian moves have pointed to a far from certain transition to democracy, due to occur in 2014. Indeed, such a positive step at this point seems almost fanciful.

Speaking on ABC News 24, the director of the Australian National University’s Centre for the Contemporary Pacific, Brij Lal said that “It’s important to measure words against deeds.” And this is a correct reflection of how to judge the political situation in Fiji at present.

The words coming out of the mouth of the Fijian Prime Minister’s mouth speak for great hope of a return to democracy and less internal conflict in the trouble-prone Pacific nation.

But Bainimarama’s deeds tell a different story. Freedom and democracy have been going the other way in Fiji since the 2006 coup when the Commodore took power from the civilian government of Mr Qarase. His deeds tell a story of grand but broken promises as well as a crackdown on those opposed to him from within and outside of the country he rules over.

But is the reinstatement of diplomatic relations a case of jumping the gun too early? Is Australia at risk of finding it “very difficult for it (Australia) to disengage and take a more objective stance”? Would it have “been prudent on the part of Australia to see some of the fruits of those initiatives (toward elections and democracy) before going as far as it has done”?

The answer on all counts is likely no. No material progress has been made toward democracy since diplomatic relations broke down badly in 2009. Australia and New Zealand while disengaged from Fiji diplomatically have been unable to, with objectivity, influence the transition toward an at least somewhat stable and democratic government. And if the two nations had waited before entering into political relations with Fiji again until they had seen some of the benefits of promises made by the Fijian Government, well, they would likely have been waiting a mighty long time. Chances are they still might, but frank yet friendly engagement is much better.

Helping the Fijian Government restore their economy which is heavily dependent on tourism and exporting sugar will be an important diplomatic step which could result in the knock-on effect of being able to persuade Fiji to return to some form of democracy.

While the economy is stalled it is the Fijian people, already under authoritarian rule that begin to suffer further from the political isolation of the Fijian regime. Combine that with the recent devastating floods and the level of hurt because of a weak economy is high.

Australia and New Zealand, in restarting diplomatic relations could place incentives for economic development assistance based on real outcomes in the transition toward democracy with more assistance provided as progress is made to free and fair elections and more democratic government.

It’s certainly not to early to again engage with Fiji and the re-engagement with the island nation may well help rather than hinder some form of transition toward democracy. But only if the relationship is managed with Australia and New Zealand offering help for change. The restarting of diplomatic relations does not automatically equate to too much too soon

Australia: the World’s Value-Added Foodbowl?

Australia, way back over 200 years ago from the time of the First Fleet literally grew as a nation “on the sheep’s back”. As a nation Australia began to grow a broader agriculture sector which included a diverse combination of crops across particularly along the length of the eastern mainland states of Queensland, New South Whales and Victoria. That sector also included other animals in addition to sheep, with cattle and dairy farming playing a crucial role in the early economy.

Indeed agriculture does still play a crucial role in our economy albeit a much diminished one in recent decades with our comparative standing in various exports dropping markedly in some cases.

In the global community Australia is among the biggest exporters in the world of wheat, beef, wool and dairy and our three biggest exports are grain/oilseeds, meat and dairy that has obviously been the case for a prolonged period of time, given the industries on which Australia established itself as a fledgling colony and then nation state in the 1900s.

Agriculture in Australia now sits at only a 3% share of GDP in itself and last night Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a speech to the Global Foundation conference in Melbourne where Ms Gillard said she saw Australia becoming  a foodbowl power, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, where a rapidly growing population needs increasing access to a variety of different food imports.

The Prime Minister in her speech last night said that Australia should harness our potential in agriculture, like we did in the past and like the mining sector is now harnessing the potential of our vast mineral wealth.

There is certainly a space for Australia to grow its agriculture sector again, particularly when faced with an economy that at present is powering along on resources which are finite, but the way we do it and the markets and niches we seek to develop as a nation are a lot more intricate than just producing and distributing food across our region and the world.

Prime Minister Gillard in her speech to the foundation did acknowledge that Australia would have to focus its efforts, for the most part, on exporting food products which are value-added, rather than simply trying to up exports of foods that have not undergone the value-adding process.

Australia as a nation simply cannot compete with nations in the region on many basic fruits and vegetables which can be produced in similar climates around our region with much lower input and final product costs than we can achieve in Australia.

We would also tend to be seeking more niche and higher-end markets with our value-added production, thereby in a way limiting just how much we can grow the sector, but still an improvement.

We would have to focus on sending more goods from Australia to countries in our region like China, which is booming and will have a bigger middle class market, as well as countries like South Korea and Japan, even though the latter continues to struggle with economic woes both prior to and exacerbated by the horrific earthquake and tsunami event that destroyed so many lives and areas of the economy with it.

Far from just focusing on Asia, there is huge potential for our food exports to go elsewhere, particularly to the United States of America and Europe in a bigger way than at present and that is being worked on at present in a fairly big, if little discussed way.

There is also huge potential to continue to expand the market for our top class wine, with very few countries in the world producing truly exceptional wines, making this market a great hope for Australian producers. This market could be expanded and is beginning to be delivered to Asia and for that to continue would be a massive boon for the economy.

In a way, it seems that the speech the PM gave last night was a subtle way of saying, “hey, here’s a way that we can keep the decline of manufacturing somewhat at bay if we do more food processing in Australia”.

If we add the processing of food products to the agriculture sector of the Australian economy, we suddenly get a sector that is approximately 12% of Gross Domestic Product, a significant sector by any measure when the services sector takes up over 2/3 of the overall national economy on its own.

So Australia can definitely look to becoming a major food exporter to both the region and the globe. There are various challenges, not the least of which is a water shortage along the Murray-Darling Basin food bowl and this will mean that the challenge to grow our food exports will be a medium to long-term effort, rather than a rapid expansion, which would be difficult in itself anyway even if external factors didn’t exist.

The vision is there, but helping to move the idea to a reality will be a long and enduring process that will require the political will of governments of both political stripes to oversee its development.

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