Wool Industry: Mulesing

Senator BARTLETT (2.48 p.m.)—My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I draw the minister’s attention to the growing boycott of Australian wool by retailers in Europe, following on from a number of US based retailers who have taken similar boycott action against Australian wool because of consumer concerns about the cruelty involved in the mulesing of sheep in Australia. Does the government support the calls of the New South Wales Farmers Association for an immediate end to mulesing to bring this crisis to an end rather than run the risk of it escalating further? If not, what steps will the government take to ensure the industry fulfils its public commitment to stop mulesing within two years and to ensure that the more than 60 companies already refusing to buy Australian wool can buy wool produced by the many Australian farmers who have already stopped this practice?

Senator SHERRY—Thank you, Senator Bartlett, for your question. This is an important issue and it has received some widespread media coverage in recent days, particularly about aspects of mulesing in some overseas jurisdictions in the fashion industry. Australia is the world’s largest supplier of apparel wool. It produces about half the total wool sold on the world market, and most of the wool is used for clothing. Exports of Australian wool are worth more than $2.5 billion a year and there is an estimated 40,000 woolgrowers in Australia.

As I mentioned, this matter has received some extensive media comment both here and overseas—particularly in Sweden. There is increased pressure to phase out mulesing by 2010. I understand Swedish retailers are working with the local industry task force to urgently source unmulesed wool. I am advised that the minister, Mr Burke, does welcome moves from the industry to examine alternatives. The industry remains committed to research to fast-track alternative ways to protect sheep from what is known as fly strike. The Australian government and the industry have done research that has occurred over a number of years—and I do acknowledge the attention the previous government did pay to this issue.

Senator McGauran—You’re breaking ranks there—radical!

Senator SHERRY—Unlike those opposite, if there is something positive that was carried out by the former government, I am pleased to acknowledge it. Through you, Mr President, unlike you, Senator McGauran, I do not have to change parties to acknowledge it. We know that retailers are working with the industry to implement systems that allow them to access wool that meets their ethical requirements in the lead up to 2010. The minister strongly supports and commends the wool industry in meeting these needs.

There is not a European boycott of Australian sheep or wool. The minister notes that there are up to 13 retailers in Sweden who have stated they now require garments sourced from wool from unmulesed sheep. The minister understands that industry is in discussions with these retailers about how best to meet these requirements. The minister, Mr Burke, is also aware of media reports that some firms in Denmark have also expressed concern. There are reports that Mr Laurence Modiano of wool trading company G Modiano has called for the use of relief measures in conjunction with mulesing. A pain relief product is currently available for use by wool growers, and the minister understands it has been used with some success in the industry.

Mr Burke acknowledges that there are differing views within the wool industry about how to respond to the PETA campaign and urges all in the industry to work together to resolve what is a very important issue in terms of both animal welfare and the future of the interests of Australian wool growers. Mr Burke also notes reports that the Swedish agriculture minister recently made some comments critical of Australia’s handling of this issue. The minister has written to him to outline why mulesing in this country is still necessary. In doing so the minister noted the AVA’s recent reports of the progress to develop alternatives and the RSPCA’s acceptance that mulesing is necessary in the absence of any less painful alternative. (Time expired)

Senator BARTLETT—Mr President, I have a supplementary question. I thank the minister for that answer. I note the minister’s statement that the government or the minister believes that mulesing is still necessary, to use his words, in some circumstances. Given that belief, can the government indicate its firm support for not just pressure to phase out mulesing by 2010 but a clear, unequivocal public commitment to end mulesing by 2010 to reassure consumers and buyers overseas? In the interim, will the government at least ensure that the analgesic or pain relief which the minister has said is available is used compulsorily so that many consumers who are concerned about unnecessary suffering can be reassured that all is being done to eliminate it?

Senator SHERRY—I am happy to seek the specific assurances that Senator Bartlett wants from the minister, Mr Burke. But I would point out that it is not easy to switch overnight a particular industry practice, not easy to shift it quickly. It does require consideration of the difficult practical issues and, in this case, of the development of particular anaesthetics et cetera that are required, if that is the correct term.

Senator Ronaldson—It’s commercially available now.

Senator SHERRY—Of course it is commercially available. I do not know whether you are a wool grower but we do have to be a little bit sensitive to the commercial considerations that wool growers need to take into account. I do understand that the Liberal Party is not particularly interested in the man on the land, but I think that interjection from the Liberal Party front bench displayed a gross insensitivity to the need to handle this decision for wool growers in a practical manner. (Time expired)

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