FOR experienced NT cattle producer Colin Brett of Waterloo Station, the past six years has seen two heart-wrenching tragedies endured by his family.
One is the sudden death of his son Dougal at age 40 in a helicopter crash two years ago, leaving behind wife Emily and their three young children, that the 77-year-old would give anything to reverse but realistically knows that’s not possible.
The other is the snap suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in June 2011 that Colin now wants to ensure, with a class action claim commencing in the Federal Court this week in Sydney, can’t ever happen again to his sector, or any other one in Australia’s agricultural industry.
Dougal and Emily Brett were originally spearheading the public face of the claim by cattle producers and industry, as lead litigants, to try and recoup about $600 million in alleged losses, due to the sudden market suspension imposed by former Labor Agriculture Minister.
It came after the ABC’s FourCorners television program broadcast horrific images of animal mistreatment in Indonesian abattoirs in late May 2011, which ignited an unprecedented, emotive public backlash - driven via social media - aimed at members in the then hung parliament, to try and ban live exports entirely.
As the case finally arrives at trial, Colin Brett hopes justice can be served on behalf of his son’s memory but also hopes it can provide a cathartic experience for others in the northern Australia cattle industry, whose livelihoods were deeply hurt by the trade ban.
He like many others is also hoping former Labor Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig faces court under cross-examination to give evidence about his actions at the time of signing the second control order that shut the market for up to six months, as a critical witness.
“I’m feeling very apprehensive to be honest,” Colin said of the trial starting this week.
“I’m really hoping everyone who has been involved in this case will be considered and things will be better for them.
“It’s not a monetary thing that’s the biggest worry to us - it’s about making sure that it never happens again to primary industry, irrespective of whether it’s beef cattle or horticulture, or whatever.
“A government should never be allowed to just stop you overnight, without giving you any warning or telling you why they’re doing it, affecting our markets overseas.
“I thought it was very ignorant and rude.”
It should never happen again
Colin said he’d like to see participants in the class action claim receive some form of monetary compensation and “a finding against the commonwealth would be wonderful”.
But he said he also wanted to see some form of legislation go before federal parliament to ensure the government was “never allowed to do anything of this nature ever again, to anyone in primary industries”.
“It’s not the amount of money to people that really counts; ensuring it never happens is the main thing,” he said.
“That’s why my family were prepared to take up the fight for this because that’s what we felt and believed.
“We think it was a very, very wrong thing to do to all of us.”
Colin said his family’s estimated financial loss, due to the trade suspension that eventually ran for about one month, was “in the millions” but nothing could compare to losing his son in 2015, whose positive memory will enshrine the court proceedings.
“The biggest loss our family’s ever had is losing our son and I’d give it all away, the property and everything, if I could get him back, to be quite honest,” he said.
“I’d think he’d be very pleased if the court ruled in our favour.”
Hamish Brett said it would have been good to settle the class against claim five years ago, with the commonwealth government.
“There’s been a lot of angst up here - not just for cattle producers in the north but also trucking companies and export depots and everything and even for the Indonesians,” he said.
“But hopefully in the next two weeks, we’ll have a result, for this first part of the case anyway.
“Surely we will – what’s happened is black and white.”
Right decision the first time
Hamish said he wanted the court to find that Mr Ludwig made an incorrect decision by signing the second control order, which suspended the entire market.
He said the then minister’s first decision to suspend trade to 11 or 12 abattoirs where video footage had shown animal welfare breaches was “fine” and he could have then worked with industry to remedy issues.
But Hamish said to then ban the entire trade for up to six months because of a “knee jerk reaction to animal liberationists and meat processors and the like doing a bit of a story on it” was wrong.
“You can’t just sit outside the bubble and point fingers; you need to go inside the bubble and talk to industry and work with the industry,” he said.
“It could have easily have been resolved quietly and the trade could have gone on, but with no repercussions like we had to suffer.
“The ban came in and cost us a lot of money – not just the lost sale of our cattle but the costs then to keep them in the yards and to keep feeding them.
“You’re on deadlines with banks and when you have interest, you have to pay it and when you’ve told them you have a sale coming up and the money will be in your account to pay interest and overheads and the rest but when it doesn’t turn up it turns pretty nasty and many producers and industry people were put in that situation.”
In a statement, the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA) said the court would consider evidence gathered from over 100,000 items in the landmark case, including detail from emails, telephone conversations and memos from within government and Minister’s office.
“The government has conceded that loss has been suffered and the court will consider the evidence of detriment from key industry sources including lead applicant, the Brett Cattle Company, in order to establish a case of misfeasance on the part of federal Minister Ludwig,” the NTCA said.
“The industry will argue that in enacting the second export control order, closing the live export trade, federal Minister Ludwig misused or abused his power as Minister for Agriculture.
“The Minister must give evidence to explain the decision that has caused so much damage to the North.
“If successful, this will be the first time a case of misfeasance has been proven against an Australian government Minister.”
Joe Ludwig must give his side of the story
Colin Brett said he was sure Mr Ludwig would be giving evidence and would have to, to support the decision he made.
But he said the issue was beyond just one person and was about the government’s actions.
“We’re angry and disappointed with the entire government,” he said.
“I don’t necessarily point the finger at just one person; the whole government needs to take responsibility for things like that.
“If we want to trade with other nations and encourage people to trade, the government has to be on the side of what’s best for all of us and when they make decisions they have to decide what’s best for our entire nation.
“I was amazed that a whole government could go along these lines.
“Even this government has been disappointing.
“I thought they would look at this claim and settle out of court, but that hasn’t happened.”
Hamish said Mr Ludwig was one of the main players that producers and industry wanted to see give evidence during the trial.
He said he hoped his brother Dougal would be “looking down” on the court proceedings and in the end, “there’s a good result”.
“Since the ban, he was under a fair bit of pressure to keep the banks at bay and make a buck and get things going but at the end of the day, he was doing a job he loved and flying and shit happens but we can’t say the export ban caused him to crash his helicopter because that’s not right,” he said.
“But certainly if he wasn’t under so much stress, maybe he would have taken more care with fuelling up or whatever.
“The Brett Cattle Company, we opened up our books to everyone and everyone knows what we were doing and what our losses were and whatever and Dougal opened up our books so we could put some facts behind the case to take to the lawyers and government to show them what’s happened.
“Now we want to see justice served and fair enough, if we win the claim and get some money to pay the lawyers or whatever that’s great but the main thing is we don’t want to see it ever happen again, to anyone.
“Everyone wants to see justice served.”
Looking out for knives in the back
Hamish said the live export industry was now in good shape but “you’re always watching behind your back to see if someone is going to stick a knife into it, because someone has found a welfare issue and blown it up, or trying to make out as if it is a welfare issue when it’s not”.
“The live export industry is very magnified but people just want certainty that the government and future governments can’t do what they did six years ago and there’s no repeat of such a ban and it’s not just the cattle or live export industry – it flows into every industry like fishing or horticulture,” he said.
“The government can’t do that, if it’s chasing a few bugs.”
Colin said on the night of the ABC broadcast, he didn’t believe the ABC program would ignite an entire market shutdown about a week later - but he was “absolutely horrified and shocked” by the images of animal cruelty he saw.
“I got up from my seat and walked well away from the television,” he said.
“I was absolutely staggered by what was being shown – but prior to that and prior to the government stopping us exporting to Indonesia, we didn’t know.
“And we had everything there and our trucks were there and our cattle were all done ready for exporting but we weren’t getting permission from Canberra and then we were told about the government’s suspension, so we were really caught on the hop.
“But the interesting thing about it is, the vast majority of our cattle were being processed under abattoir conditions that were quite sound in Indonesia.”
Colin said in hindsight, if he was the then minister, he’d have suspended the abattoirs processing cattle incorrectly and taken a “hard look” at them and then expand the investigation to include all abattoirs in Indonesia, processing Australian cattle.
“Afterwards, I’d have considered all of that information and then made a decision but I think the decision to suspend trade back then was made quite hastily,” he said.
“The animal rights people had taken the video footage some months before it was broadcast and they utilised it at a later date so you wonder how fair dinkum these people really are, for sitting on the footage for so long.
“I think the case itself should have been settled and done some time ago but that hasn’t happened.
“A lot of families have gone broke over this and now it’s too late to help them but if any help can be given out to those who have suffered from this, let’s hope that’s what happens.”
Colin said the National Farmers’ Federation and Australian Farmers Fighting Fund (AFFF) deserved credit for supporting the class action claim and the NTCA’s leaders also deserved thanks.
“As a family there’s no other way we could have done this without their tremendous support and even before coming to court their support (AFFF) has been in the millions of dollars so we’re very grateful,” he said.
“I’d also like to thank the NTCA and their CEO and president because they’ve also been wonderful to our family.
“If we had more people like them in charge of our nation, it would really be moving forward.”