WEST Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back has decided to retire from federal politics leaving a gap in the federal Liberal party’s rural and agricultural representation.
Here he talks to Fairfax Agricultural Media about his political career and some of the tough issues he’s championed like live animal exports, animal rights activism and the state of Australian politics in general, over the past eight years.
Why have you decided to step aside from politics now?
“My wife Linda and I, our personal circumstances have changed relatively recently and basically, I think this is a good time for us to make this move. It’s a couple of years out from the next election, so it allows my successor, as indeed I was allowed by Chris Ellison’s retirement, a couple of years to find their feet and do enough to seek and hopefully gain re-election. But it is also a time that I feel what I was capable of achieving, I have achieved. Clearly at my age I am not going to get promoted to the ministry or the assistant ministry, so I think it is a good time for me to retire. I’ve never been one to look backwards and won’t suffer from relevance deprivation syndrome, I can assure you. I’ve never been beholden to anyone and I’m not factionalised which in some ways it didn’t help me politically. Maybe if I was aligned to a faction, I may have climbed higher up the tree – but I see people leaving here (federal parliament) cynical, disillusioned and tired and I want to go on my terms. Now is the time to put family and my own personal interests first.”
The Liberals are already feeling they have diminished rural representation especially in cabinet, which has taken another hit with your departure, is this something the PM Malcolm Turnbull must address?
“Yes and it is urgent. Sussan Ley was the last one in cabinet who actually represented a rural and regional constituency. The Nationals do it and Barnaby Joyce of course but when it comes to the Liberals you have Angus Taylor and Dan Tehan in the outer ministry but there’s nobody in the cabinet and I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to play a higher role, in that. It is definitely an area, whilst I have no intention of trying to influence the outcome of who should succeed me, but I’ve certainly stated publicly, the party needs to replace me with someone with agricultural and rural and regional credentials.”
If you could write your own headline for your political career what would it say about your character and achievements?
“It would say my greatest satisfaction has been when we’ve gained bipartisan support in advancing policy and improved the well-being of the community. Why do I see that as a mark of success? In each of the illustrations I made in my final speech, it’s exactly what the Australian public expect us to be doing in the parliament.”
Have you achieved everything that you set out to achieve during your eight years in the federal Senate?
“No I haven’t, quite. There are two areas that if I had my time I would try and see completed. The first is my animal protection bill which of course the Senate inquiry that was held into the bill, which was a private member’s bill, recommended that it should proceed. There hasn’t yet been a response from the government formally to that and that will be an area of disappointment, that I never got the animal protection bill up. If in this parliament or indeed in the next parliament, there is a Senator who wants to continue to prosecute the case, well it sits there, on the statutes. If indeed at the end of this parliament and going into the next one, if nobody decides they want to continue it, then it will go off the statute books. The other one is developing a national policy for bush fire mitigation in Australia. I came into the Senate straight after the Black Saturday fires, and I made comments in my first speech about the need to develop a national strategy. We had a very, very in-depth Senate inquiry into bush fires and the fears that I expressed then are still there and unfortunately, I haven’t been successful in developing a national strategy. So those are probably the two areas that I am disappointed to be leaving without having completed.”
Your animal protection bill; what happens with that now?
“Well it depends on the parliament. As a private Senator’s bill, it has no currency with government. The reason it hasn’t come before the Senate to be debated of course is that it’s there in competition with the minor parties and independents and each of them would say ‘well. We only get one go a year’. The government has a very heavy agenda and I can’t expect Minister Mitch Fifield - the Manager of Government Business - to put government business to one side just for me. So it will depend on other priorities and it still sits on the statutes.”
Who do you think may be likely to want to continue pursuing it?
“I haven’t nominated anyone but I certainly believe Senator Leyonhjelm would be one person and within the National Party, Senator John Williams would be very, very pleased and keen to do so, and of course I hope that my successor, whoever that might be would also see the urgency.”
What again is the core purpose of the bill?
“The overall objective was to remove animals as a political football in the whole game of animal activism and put the wellbeing and welfare of the animals before everything else. So if someone saw what they thought was animal cruelty, the best and quickest way to deal with it is to film or photograph it so that you have that evidence and then get it to a responsible authority, so they can stop the cruelty, or they can prevent other animals being subjected to the same cruelty and/or they can provide excellent evidence so that the perpetrator is brought before the courts. Nothing in my bills says that they cannot then pass the images on to anyone else, if they do want to try and expose it in the media. In the same email, they could send the evidence to the responsible authorities, whether that’s the police or the RSPCA, or whoever it might be in that state or territory. There is nothing to prevent them doing that. All the bill says is, if you are genuinely concerned about the wellbeing and welfare of the animal, you will actually want to stop it as quickly as possible and you won’t want to build up a bank of film imagery that at some time in the future, weeks or months later, you might want to use for your own nefarious purpose. It is for those to explain to a reasonable person in society, if they are so concerned about animal welfare, why would they avoid the opportunity of stopping it, so that they can meet their own political or whatever else activist agenda? I’ve got no difficulty at all with people running whatever campaign they want to run, but if indeed they avoid the step of actually trying to stop it as soon as possible after it occurs, then in my view it falls to them to explain to the wider community what their motivation was.”
Did you plan to be a strong advocate around animal welfare and live exports and taking on animal activists at the start of your political career, given you’re a veterinarian with experience working in the trade, or were you forced to step up and show leadership, during the 2011 Indonesian live cattle ban crisis?
“I had no sense at all that I was likely to be drawn into this area, when I was pre-selected in 2008 and then started in the Senate in early 2009. Yes, I’m a veterinarian and am still registered and was a live export veterinarian in the 1980’s for five or six years. I had no concept at all that I was likely to be drawn into these issues while in parliament but along came 2011. At the time, I was the only veterinarian in parliament and the first one elected in the Senate and I also happened to be a live export veterinarian, so I had an intimate knowledge of the whole industry. When it all started to unfold the then Coalition leader Tony Abbott asked me to fully explain in writing and in the party room, to all my coalition colleagues, as it unfolded, what the live export industry was all about, what its benefit is to Australian agriculture and competitive pricing for producers, etc. Having worked in the industry and having been involved in vaccinations, feed lot preparation, road transport, shipping and feed lots at the other end, I was very well positioned to be able to share factual information - not only with my Coalition colleagues, but with the wider community, particularly by radio – and explain just what the situation is with that whole industry and the fact that Australia stands alone and very proudly of all of the 109 countries in the world who export livestock when it comes to animal welfare. We were then, and we still are now, the only country that has ever put and still puts expertise, funding and advice into changing the behaviors of those in our target markets, to improve animal welfare outcomes. We have ample evidence of not only Australian animals being handled far more professionally and far more humanely in those export markets but also our investment and work has led to millions of locally bred animals and those coming in from other countries also being handled and processed far more humanely. That’s where I get so angry with the RSPCA and others – they may as well call themselves The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals in Australia - because simply their opposition to the live animal export trade says ‘we have got no interest in what Australia has achieved’ over many years with the improvement of welfare standards in husbandry, nutrition, transport, and all of those factors that go into the management of an animal in those markets. Australia being banned and exiting an export market like Indonesia doesn’t stop the importation of animals from other countries. All it stops is the improvements which we have very proudly been able to demonstrate, in the actual management of those animals, in those markets.”
- continued tomorrow