Malcolm Turnbull has savaged Labor’s pledge to end live sheep exports, declaring it a reckless and emotional decision with no scientific basis.
The prime minister said the policy was a repeat of the Gillard government’s 2011 suspension on live exports which caused diplomatic tensions with Indonesia and economic damage to farmers.
“We are not going to be making emotional and reckless decisions that will put Australian farmers at risk,” Mr Turnbull said on Thursday.
The industry has been under immense pressure after shocking footage emerged of sheep dying on a voyage to the Middle East in 2016.
Labor leader Bill Shorten had previously committed to wait for the findings of a review of Middle Eastern summer exports led by veterinarian Michael McCarthy.
That position evaporated on Thursday, with the opposition’s agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon announcing a Labor government would end the trade in an “orderly and consultative” fashion.
Ending live exports will take years rather than months, Mr Fitzgibbon told Sky News.
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor was working on a plan for the industry, which he believes can make a profitable transition from live exports to meat processing.
“This can be a win-win.”
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said Labor’s “political stunt” had come with the McCarthy review’s findings to be delivered in two weeks.
“With the science just two weeks away, Labor has rushed to a knee-jerk ban, punishing farmers who have done no wrong,” Mr Littleproud said.
“I said on day one: if the rules weren’t broken, they need changing. If people have done the wrong thing, they should be nailed.”
Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council chief Simon Westaway said knee-jerk actions were not the answer.
“The welfare of the animals and the livelihoods of Australian farmers rely substantially on a rational, evidence-based response that delivers long-term change,” Mr Westaway said.
Liberal MP Sussan Ley is optimistic about gaining cross-party support for her private member’s bill to end the trade, which she intends to introduce to parliament.
But she criticised Labor’s move as “rank political opportunism”, which would put the issue in a holding pattern until the next election.
The Greens are planning to introduce their own bill which puts a two-year deadline for the end of live exports.
“We could potentially end up with the end of this cruel and heartless industry within two years and that would be a good thing,” Senator Di Natale said.
Labor’s announcement came after Animals Australia and the RSPCA offered $1 million to help sheep farmers if the government phases out the trade.
“A well-structured adjustment package can provide a painless solution for farmers while giving the trade the dignified death it failed to give to countless animals,” Animals Australia’s Lyn White said.
She applauded the opposition’s announcement, saying the plan would be better for farmers, the economy and animals.