AS the trial for the class action claim by cattle producers and industry - seeking compensation of up to $600 million - against the commonwealth government over the 2011 snap suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia goes to trial in Sydney today, not everyone is sympathetic towards the claim.
Largely heading up the public face of the industry’s campaign to seek justice, Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association (NTCA) CEO Tracey Hayes faced a death threat via email, only a few hours before opening arguments were due to be heard in the Federal Court.
Ms Hayes did a television interview on ABC news to explain the complex case to public and reasoning behind it.
But the reaction to her appearance ignited similar feelings to those that flooded social media on May 31, 2011, the night the ABC FourCorners program “A Bloody Business” was aired, which ignited the vicious public backlash over animal cruelty that underpinned the sudden ban on trade to Indonesia – then valued at about $320m per year – by the former Gillard government.
An email to Ms Hayes in response to her interview said, “Shame on you. you people should all be getting held liable for the cruelty and suffering that you have inflicted and continue to inflict on cattle. there is no need for live ecport (export). u people shouldn't be allowed to run your businesses if you refuse to take responsibility for a cruelty free supply chain. you people are the ones who have blatant disregard for being decent human beings. you deserve to suffer in the same way your cattle have and continue to do. i hope you think about that as you lay in bed trying to sleep. don't expect any sympathy from me for your cold, callous and evil ways”.
Stating the obvious and downplaying the threat, Ms Hayes said not everyone had been supportive with their messages, leading up to the trial starting.
“It can invoke strong feelings of outrage from animal rights activists and some of those messages are coming through as well,” she said.
“It reminds me of the outrage that was triggered by the FourCorners broadcast back in 2011 but I also think about it from their perspective.
“It’s a reminder of how industry needs to focus on what it does and to continue to improve and to do well and remember animal welfare is a global issue and a challenge not just for livestock production but also for companion animals.
“The RSPCA receives tens of thousands of animal abuse reports each year for cats and dogs and animals that sit on the couch at night with us so it’s not just a challenge for livestock industries but a challenge for all of us.”
The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) also issued a media statement questioning the industry’s calculations for the $600m claim, suggesting it was seeking $100m per week for each of the six weeks trade was closed, and having also received $100m from the federal government at the time, in support.
“The industry was only valued at $320 million in June of 2011, half of the amount being sought as compensation,” a statement by AMIEU Newcastle & Northern NSW Secretary Grant Courtney said.
“This is nothing short of rank hypocrisy from a super-rich industry of high-earning, tax-dodging millionaires.
“They ship their cattle off overseas in cramped terrible conditions on leaky ships stocked by underpaid visa workers, deliver them to overseas abattoirs where they are horribly treated, and pocket the massive profits – all the while helping themselves to millions in government handouts.”
“Thanks to government subsidies and rich lobbyists, it’s now bounced back and continues to destroy Australian meatworking jobs.
“Live export is just a modern-day pyramid scheme – designed to make a small amount of people very rich while a lot of other people lose out.
“Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Australian meat workers, their families and their communities are suffering. It’s unacceptable and it’s disgusting.”
But the NTCA says the calculation of losses included those incurred by other industries and businesses directly and indirectly- like trucking and shipping through demurrage - and losses caused by the sudden downturn in income in the north due to the trade halt, and the meat worker union statement was misleading.
But Ms Hayes said there had also been strong public interest in the lead up to the class action case starting and “most of it has been supportive”.
“I think the Australian psyche is still very about a ‘fair go’ and they’ve felt minister Ludwig’s decision at the time was the wrong decision and it sends all of the wrong signals to our international trading partners and raises questions our trust and reliability as a provider of protein – all those types of things,” she said.
“it’s destabilising and settling for business and industry.
“I’ve received many messages of support in the past 24 hours wishing as well so we’re feeling quietly confident leading into the trial starting.”
Ms Hayes said, after first filing documents in the court in late 2014, to commence the legal action, and seeking to settle out of court unsuccessfully with the former Labor government and the current Coalition, the trial had been “a long time coming”.
“We feel a sense of relief that we’re finally here and we finally have the opportunity to get some closure for the northern cattle industry and also for other industries that are watching this case closely and sitting back thinking, ‘thank goodness this never happen to us, how can it happen to any industry and let’s hope it doesn’t happen again in the future’,” she said.
Ms Hayes said the core legal argument that would shape the outcome of the industry’s claim was malfeasance of public office.
“If we’re successful it will be the first time a claim has been brought successfully against a minister,” she said.
“Essentially it’s a decision made legally but with the misuse and potential abuse of power.
“We believe it wasn’t completely necessary for the minister to completely ban the export of cattle to Indonesia – a few days after the first decision, which was the appropriate and right decision.
“We believe time should have been taken to investigate the supply chains.
“There were supply chains functioning well that were compliant with acceptable welfare standards and as a minister for an industry it is their responsibility to ensure that if they’re going to make a decision that’s going to make the obvious impact that it had, they leave no stone unturned when they’re investigating the pros and cons of that decision and that simply wasn’t done.
“The second decision was not about animal welfare – it was about the political survival of a minority and government and that’s why we’re here.”
The initial part of the trial is expected to see legal argument regarding the disclosure of documents by the defence including tens of thousands of emails linked tp private accounts used at the time by the then minister, linked to a decommissioned email server at the Department of Agriculture.
Ms Hayes said a decision wasn’t expected in the first part of the trial that’s scheduled to end next Friday.
“We don’t we don’t expect Justice Rares to make his decision until December,” she said.
“The trial part of the claim has been broken into two parts.
“The first part that starts today will be to establish liability then we’ll be back in December to discuss the quantum of losses and discussions around compensation.”
The Brett Cattle company of Waterloo Station in the NT are lead litigants for the claim that’s being backed by the Australian Farmers Fighting Fund and using Minter Ellison lawyers.
Members of the Brett family have also called for the former Labor Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig to face cross-examination as a witness during the court proceedings, to justify the reasons for him signing the second control order in June 2011 that suspended trade for up to six months to Indonesia.