Part two of Q&A series with Chris Back – part one click here.
What’s the future for the RSPCA, have they lost the livestock production sector’s trust forever given their intimate involvement with Animals Australia and others, to set up the 2011 Indonesian ban?
“After I had been around Australia at livestock producing meetings in 2011/12, talking to many people who were life-long members of the RSPCA, it wasn’t my opinion but I gave the RSPCA feedback from those meetings to say they were at the junction of one of two paths. They could either become the body associated with companion animals and get out of the livestock space, or they could accept the reality that they had lost the confidence of livestock industries, and start to try to rebuild it. It is a fact that we will continue to export livestock from this country, hopefully for many, many years to future, and there are all sorts of reasons for that, including protecting our meat trade. Every time we have lost the livestock export trade to a country – and Saudi Arabia is an example – we have also lost the meat trade. When there was a ban on Indonesia, you would have thought the number of live animals exported to would have Indonesia halved and the amount of boxed and frozen beef would have doubled – but the boxed and frozen beef trade also halved. So there is always going to be a live export trade and it is going to continue and if the RSPCA wants to be at the table, then rather than put their heads in the sand, they need to work with the industry and they need to learn. My door is always open and after I leave the parliament my door will remain open, not that I intend to continue to canvass issues in Canberra, in my post parliamentary life, but this is such an important issue to me.”
This issue still seems to get you fired up many years later; why is that?
“I do take some credit for the fact that every member of the Coalition were united as one at the time of Indonesian ban. I went on the radio to say it was ‘an act of gross bastardisation’ the way it all panned out and my view hasn’t changed. The filming and release of that film, at the end of May 2011, coincided with the bottom of the revenue trough for the pastoralists and graziers because they hadn’t earned an income since the previous October when the wet season started. They were at the bottom of their revenue cycle but they were also at the top of their expenditure cycles because they’d taken on staff to do mustering, fix up yards, bring in trucking companies and helicopter pilots for mustering and the like so it was no coincidence that the video footage was released right at that particular time to do maximum damage. And of course, I did say in the parliament at the time, there would be mass starvation of animals on the rangelands because calves that should have been on ships were competing with their mothers for feed and their new born calves, and the mothers were back on calves. At that time I also said heaven forbid we go into a drought and/or a bushfire season, where feed is destroyed by a bushfire and then drought follows, without the growth of fresh grass, that we would have a catastrophe and indeed we had a catastrophe.”
Do you expect you’ll receive a goodbye and good luck card from Lynn White (Animals Australia), Sarah Ferguson (ABC) or Heather Neil (RSPCA)?
“These people are in my past now – I have no interest in them – and it is up to them to examine their conscience, in each of those roles, simply because I am totally satisfied that the actions we took, and have subsequently been shown, were the correct actions. There are people who just don’t like the live export of animals. Why - because people in urban communities like to humanise animals. I remember an undertaker saying to me at the time of the Indonesian crisis, that if we were to film activities that go on around the processing of a deceased person, from the time they come to the morgue to the time they’re either buried or cremated, and put it on prime television, it would be very uncomfortable viewing. I don’t get off much on watching animals getting processed but I certainly wasn’t going to stand by and see the livelihoods of people, and what I regard in the main as being a very credible industry that has lifted and continues to lift the standards of animal welfare or better, around the world, in the markets we operate, being vilified, the way that it was.”
How much has politics changed during your time in federal parliament, given your career has coincided with some of the most controversial issues like leadership changes in Australian political history, with the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Labor government and Tony Abbott being replaced as Prime Minister by Malcolm Turnbull?
“I think it has changed dramatically, and changed more in my eight or nine years, than it did in the previous 40 years. We’ve seen tensions in the past between Hawke and Keating and Howard and Costello but I don’t think we’ve seen the sort of vitriol that we’re seeing now in politics. And you can extrapolate it beyond Australia, to politics in the US with Donald Trump elected as President and to the UK and France in more recent times. And I think the difference is social media. Once upon a time you’d announce the budget and there’d be careful reflection of the issues in the print media and dialogue on radio and television and there’d be time before a consensus was reached and time to sell the budget. But now, with social media, you can get a campaign up within hours, if not minutes, to totally debunk what’s being said, and whether its genuine information or fake news is irrelevant. Young people don’t read print media and they get everything off social media and what that’s done has made politicians pander to social media. Everything seems to be directed at the social media grab – whether it’s Twitter or Facebook – and not at well-reasoned journalism or commentary which is disappointing but also dangerous. People are forming their views on flimsy information and ill-conceived thoughts. In the federal parliament, we have two entirely different political systems - the Westminster system in the lower house and in the upper house a system that would more closely approximate the Italian Senate, in which you’ve now got disparate groups. And it would be fair to say, even in the major parties, you have individual groupings. Added to that, the cross benchers and minor parties all know that the only way to raise their profile is to come out with individual statements or views, or withhold their advice to the government of the day on which way they’re going to vote, and that has added to a level of toxicity that is unhelpful to the parliament. And is not what the voting public expects, of their elected representatives. But the voting public has voted that way, and that is democracy, but it’s a form of democracy which is very unhelpful for running the country. My greatest fear, as I leave parliament and politics, is that we haven’t seen the full impact of this and we won’t see it until we go into a significant recession, along with the rest of the world. The time will come when this country will not be able to afford the discord.”
If you had the opportunity, would you advise Donald Trump to stop Tweeting?
“Yes I would because what President Trump is doing is diminishing the importance of the political message. It doesn’t really matter what the message is, it cannot reasonably be reduced to just 140 characters. I have not been a great participant in Twitter or Facebook, simply because I believe what we do in politics and parliament deserves far more scrutiny than is able to be undertaken with 140 characters.”
In retirement will you take a role in agricultural consulting or advocacy and representation?
“No I don’t intend to. Every time I’ve left a critical role like CEO of Rottnest Island Authority or the Bushfires Board in WA, I’ve never gone back and made public or private commentary about the organisations I’ve been associated with. I’m very unimportant in the political process. I’m a humble backbencher so nobody may be interested anyhow in what I’ve got to say. But I do not respect those who’ve left politics and suffer from relevance depravation syndrome and want to continually be commentators. My statement to them is, ‘if you want to continue a role in the political process go back and seek pre-selection and seek election but you had your go’. I will leave this stage of my career, very, very satisfied and that’s one of the reasons I’ve chosen to go now. There’s the old saying, it’s better to go when people want you to stay than stay when they want you to go and I’ve been blown away by the good will that’s been expressed towards me, from inside the parliament and outside of it.”
Who are some of the characters you’ve experienced in your time in politics?
“Senator Ron Boswell was one of the great characters, Bill Heffernan was also a real character, and who could forget the time when he brought a fake pipe bomb into parliament which helped change security arrangements and his warnings at Senate estimates about biosecurity issues like white spot disease and imported prawns. John Faulkner on the Labor side was someone who I watched and valued. Michael Ronaldson always gave brilliant speeches as did Brett Mason. Glenn Sterle and Doug Cameron were on the opposite side and we could go at each other hammer and tong - but they always put that difference to the side, for the best interests of the parliament. Who could forget the night Nick Xenophon came into the chamber wearing his pyjamas during an all-night sitting. There’s been many great moments and characters.”
Do you respect Barnaby Joyce and see him as a character during your career?
“He’s a real warrior, and I haven’t always agreed with him, but he’s certainly ambitious and has prosecuted the case for rural and regional Australia and agriculture and infrastructure very, very strongly. But also he’s a very keen intellect and can read a balance sheet like I can read a form guide.”