Farmers are fuming after the panel leading consultation on Labor’s live export ban made a “surprise visit” to regional WA this week, blindsiding sheep producers anxious to have their say. Consultation sessions were held in Moora and York on Monday, Narrogin and Wagin on Tuesday, Katanning and Cranbrook on Wednesday, and Albany on Thursday. But most farmers — and some high-profile industry players — only heard about the four-day roadshow at the weekend after details were leaked on social media. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry originally intended for it to be a low-key affair, with “targeted gatherings of producers and stakeholders” contacted in the fortnight before the visit. This included grower groups like the Facey Group, Women in Farming Enterprises, and WA Lot Feeders Association. The four-person panel was instead met with about 80 “very angry” farmers in Moora, while about 90 attended the York meeting, and 120 attended the Narrogin meeting. York farmer Tony Seabrook, president of the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA, described the visit to his town as “a very animated meeting”. “The panel responded remarkably well to what actually turned up, which was a bunch of very, very angry livestock producers,” he said. Mr Seabrook — who was invited eight days earlier via text message — said DAFF’s failure to inform the wider farming community was “unbelievably weak”. “It was handled very, very badly. . . It just should have been better publicised than it’s been,” he said. “My invitation was a personal one, it didn’t come through the PGA… it was never ‘reach out and bring along as many as you can’. “I think the panel were frightened of holding public meetings where hundreds of people turned up and offered up redneck opinions. “But most farmers are sensible people; they’re not a rabble like you might have got in the streets in some sort of union activity. “These are responsible businesspeople and I think, quite rightly, they were really pissed off that they were not asked to engage.” Mr Seabrook said it was apparent at the meeting that the panel had underestimated “how many unintended consequences” would stem from shutting down the sheep shipping trade. “This has turned out to be vastly more complex than they thought,” he said. ‘ZERO PUBLIC AWARENESS’ Corrigin farmer Steven Bolt — director of The Livestock Collective and a prominent pro-live export campaigner — described the roadshow as a “debacle”. He said the way it was handled brought into question claims by Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt that the Government wanted to conduct the phase-out “in an inclusive way”. “I found out Saturday lunch time, just from a grower in Moora contacting me saying ‘apparently the panel is coming on Monday’,” Mr Bolt said. “I put in a call to (panel member) Sue Middleton on Sunday requesting information about all the times and venues, so that we could actually share it, just because of the shortness of notice, and I received that information at 10pm. “Until I put a tweet out about it at 10pm, there had been zero public awareness. This is something the department should have done.” Former Murray-Darling Basin boss Phil Glyde is leading the panel, which includes Ms Middleton, former RSPCA chief executive Heather Neil and retired Northern Territory Labor MP Warren Snowdon. The panel was appointed in early March and first visited WA later that month for private talks with farm lobby groups, live exporters and meat processors in Perth. Mr Bolt accused DAFF of conducting this week’s meetings “through stealth”, saying farmers were caught off guard at a busy time of year. “I’m in the same boat, seeding at the moment; I’m probably not going to have an opportunity to attend any of the meetings, but I’ve had an opportunity to meet with panel already,” he said. “You can fill in an online survey, but people want to go and stand up and talk about the impact it’s going to have on their business, and they should have that opportunity.” Mr Glyde conceded the panel had made a mistake, saying the “deliberate decision” not to advertise its visit had clearly backfired. “We got it wrong with how we went about the live export consultation… we thought we would reach out to grower groups and their networks so we could consult with them and they would feed that information back to their members,” he said. “That hasn’t gone so well and people have been very alarmed that this is the only opportunity to engage with the panel. “We are not turning anyone away, we welcome the fact you are here.” THE DEPARTMENT RESPONDS Rather than a series of public meetings, a DAFF spokesman told Countryman the roadshow was intended to facilitate consultation with “targeted gatherings of producers and other relevant stakeholders”. “The panel’s secretariat reached out to a range of targeted stakeholders over the last couple of weeks to invite them to meet with the panel,” the spokesman said. Asked who was contacted, he said only that the list included “grower groups, meat processing groups and other businesses in the supply chain.” “Targeted gatherings were judged to be the most appropriate forum to provide people with the opportunity to explain their input,” the spokesman said. “The alternative of large gatherings is more suited for the provision of information, as opposed to the receipt of information, which is what the panel seeks. “The meetings occurring throughout this week will be followed by open, public virtual forums in May to reach a wider audience of stakeholders and provide an open opportunity for participation in the consultation. “The details and dates of these forums will be promoted widely, including on the department’s website, via social media, and direct communication with industry and other stakeholders.” As well as “how and when” the phase out should occur, the panel was also seeking input on what “adjustment options” may benefit the industry as part of the transition process, and how “new opportunities could be captured”. These included expanding domestic processing and increasing exports of sheep meat. FARMERS’ CONCERNS Ahead of the Narrogin meeting, McEllister Shearing owner Eddie McEllister, AWN wool broker Tony Collins, and Norman’s Lake farmer Cameron White said each had come along to support the $92 million trade. “We are hoping for some positive information that it will continue on as it is totally essential that it does,” Mr Collins said. “Anything that effects the sheep industry like this has an adverse effect on wool, which effects me. “It is one of the biggest issues in farmers’ minds at the moment. “It is putting a major lack of confidence in the sheep industry… we have to fight hard to maintain sheep businesses.” Mr White — who runs about 4000 sheep — said confidence in the industry was waning on the back of the news of the ban, saying the “damage was already being seen”. “The industry is already in turmoil… people can’t get rid of wether lambs,” he said. “The flow on effects will be a lot more cropping, and that will affect the whole supply chain.” During the meeting, Narrogin farmer Graeme Dent told the panel those in the room were not there to “discuss transition” but to defend the industry. He raised concerns about the mental health implications of targeting the sheep industry. “You talk about what happens after, in a town like this we have to wait four weeks for a doctor’s appointment,” he said. “If you ban the live sheep trade, regional towns suffer.” Narrogin farmer Jon Rick, who puts about 700 wethers through the trade each year, said the impending ban would “radically change the sheep operation and probably the cropping balance”. “Contrary to what a lot of people say, there is not the capacity in the South West to take on processing capacity… so I would reduce my sheep flock,” he said. Pingelly farmer Les Marshall stood to discuss the impact on WA’s pasture industry, saying it was an “unforeseen consequence” that the industry would be impacted by there being less sheep. Darkan farmer Karen Harrington questioned why there was no sheep producer on the panel, saying there needed to be someone who “related to farmers”. Ms Middleton — who sold her farm at Wongan Hills in the WA Wheatbelt a few years ago — interrupted Mr Glyde’s response to say she “needed to answer this question” herself. “I could only be here because I had no current business dealings… I had to have no conflicts of interest,” she said. “It was only because of that I was able to do it. There is a real governance issue in an existing producer doing it… I fill a gap. I know I am not your perfect person. “But I am here to listen and to make sure your voice is heard. People don’t understand conflicts of interest.” Ms Harrington said she only found out about the Narrogin meeting the day before the event, despite being a member of the Women in Farming Enterprises group. “It was a good forum to ask questions but it wasn’t advertised and growers that were directly impacted by the phase out weren’t consulted or invited to the meeting,” she said. “We had to hear about it through social media, which is a big concern. “People are saying it was a secret meeting, it does give that impression even though more than 100 growers attended. It shows how important the industry is to our districts.” Ms Harrington said she thought those speaking were articulate and there was a clear “result that people want the industry retained” and any phase-out would have a major impact. “Our local communities would be greatly impacted in regards to population, local services, and not to mention our farm profitability,” she said. “They can talk about the phase out all they like, but the immediate effect is loss of income. “What are we supposed to do with sheep and replace that income stream with?” Rutherglen studmaster Whippy Dawes has been breeding rams since 1952, and said his takeaway from the meeting was that farmers needed to “fight for themselves”. “It was a good meeting, but we have to fight for ourselves… we are good farmers, and we know what we are doing… we have to have sheep that won’t make the market in Australia, we have to run sheep that go overseas,” he said. “The best point raised was the impact on the local communities… sheep numbers and rural communities are already declining.” Walebing sheep producer Michael Humphrey, who attended the Moora meeting, said the mood was one of “substantial angst”. “There is a substantial backlog of livestock held on farm, not able to be shipped or slaughtered, and a show of hands suggested that half to two thirds of the audience are in that situation,” he said. “The spring production is set because the ewes are mated… and what happens if we have a crook year? “The lambing percentage will be high because the ewes are all as fat as buggery, everywhere. “So there is quite a deal of concern about far too many sheep in the spring, and having to destroy livestock. “I met one fella who shot 24,000 sheep in 1990 and he said ‘I don’t want to do it again’.” Mr Humphrey, who runs about 8000 sheep, expressed concern about the appointment of Ms Neil, whom he described as an “animal activist”, to the panel. Ms Neil’s long career with the RSPCA was also called into question at the Narrogin meeting, where she told farmers she did not want to discuss her personal views but was happy to discuss the RSPCA’s after the meeting. “She was at pains to point out she hasn’t worked for the RSPCA for three years,” Mr Humphrey said. Miling farmer Tony White, who also attended the Moora meeting, said emotions were high. “There was a fair bit of emotion from different growers there, just trying to get their point over to the panel members,” Mr White said. “The point was made that the closure of the industry is going to flow on and affect lupin growers, hay growers, you know, the grains industry in general, just because there’s not going to be those livestock growers buying those grains. “There’s a flow-on to livestock transporters and livestock agents, because they don’t know what to do at the moment; they cant move any sheep because the abattoirs are all full and the boats are going slow.” Mr White, who runs about 3000 sheep, said Mr Glyde did “a good job” chairing the panel and “everyone was respectful”. “I guess we are trying to understand what our future looks like, and also trying to emphasize what Labor’s decision has done to our sheep market virtually overnight,” he said. “We’ve had a very steady decline in pricing and a real lack of confidence in the whole sheep game in WA. “We’ve gone from $170 for a ewe down to about $80 a ewe: that’s a direct result (of the policy).” Liberal MLC Steve Martin, who attended the Narrogin meeting, said DAFF had treated growers and the livestock sector with a “disgraceful” lack of respect. “Despite that lack of notice, there has been a wonderful response from industry… feedback is clear — don’t shut it down, and the impacts will be enormous,” he said. “They clearly don’t have any idea about the scale of the impact. The Government has made the decision, and now they are looking at the impact. It is paper-thin. “I believe it will be a sudden and dramatic cliff-face. The impact will be significant. “We heard from a strong and vibrant livestock sector, with sensible speakers. They are angry, but you would expect that.” REPORT MAY BE KEPT SECRET The panel must submit its report to Senator Watt by late September, but when asked on Tuesday whether it would be made public, Mr Glyde could offer little clarity. “We would like it (the report) to be made public, that is a decision for the Minister to make… I would have thought it would be essential for it to be made public,” Mr Glyde said. “We have no ability to make it public before it goes to the Minister. But we need to make sure the report is as accurate as possible.” Ms Harrington said she and her husband derived nearly half of their income from live export and it was “really concerning” the final report may not be made public. “The decision has already been made and they are asking for feedback… I feel as growers we have no voice and our thoughts will not be taken into account,” she said. Federal Labor pledged to phase-out the live sheep trade in the lead-up to last year’s May election, but has yet to announce a timeframe. “The past few meetings, the overwhelming feeling is ‘we don’t want that to happen, and we will be conveying that back to the minister’,” Mr Glyde said. “By the same token, we have met with people who want this to happen as quickly as possible.” Senator Watt did not attend the meetings, while a spokeswoman for Jackie Jarvis said the WA Agriculture Minister was not invited because the panel was “focused on engaging with producers”. Ms Jarvis encouraged all WA sheep producers and agricultural industry bodies to engage in the consultation process. “I will continue to fight for the best possible outcome for our sheep industry in Western Australia,” she said. Feedback can be submitted via haveyoursay.agriculture.gov.au/live-sheep-phase-out.