ANIMALS Australia has been stripped of government funding after a $1 million a year animal welfare program was axed in the Coalition’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) forecasts, announced on Tuesday.
The animal rights group played a central role in the former Labor government’s suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in June 2011. That temporary trade ban led to a $100 million government compensation package for graziers and associated businesses that suffered damage.
As fallout over the ban continues, Animals Australia’s charity status has been targeted by livestock industry members who believe its taxpayer-funded concessions should be removed due to damages caused to Australia’s international trade reputation from the ongoing campaigning to ban live exports.
A complaint aimed at Tony Abbott during a public debate in the election campaign by a livestock industry group who wished to remain anonymous asked the future Prime Minister to review the lobby group's eligibility status for tax concessions and government funding.
“Animals Australia does not spend one cent of its $2.75 million annual budget on actual animal welfare and it enjoys exemptions from Fringe Benefits Tax, income tax and the GST as well as an annual grant of $32,294 from the Department of Finance,” the group said.
AAWS cuts 'reduce duplication'
National Farmers Federation (NFF) policy and economics general manager Tony Maher declined to elaborate on Animals Australia’s funding loss in MYEFO, but said the cut was part of the government’s decision to axe the $1 million Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS).
The cuts were flagged in early November, amid moves to reduce bureaucratic duplication, when the Coalition outlined pans to remove the Australian Animals Welfare Advisory Committee (AAWAC) along with 21 other non-statutory bodies.
The AAWAC’s roles included driving implementation of the AAWS and identifying any issues or gaps in Australia’s existing animal welfare system.
At the time, the government said the committees’ activities were no longer needed or could be managed within existing departmental resources, with most having outlived their original purpose.
But AAWAC chair Gardner Murray told Fairfax Agricultural Media the program cost taxpayers about $1 million per year which was “an amazing spend”, given its success with making animal welfare policy improvements and role in generating Australia’s “first-class” international reputation.
Animals Australia said the grant assisted the group’s involvement working on the AAWS, as was the case with several other committee members who were allocated funds, depending on their individual workloads, but declined to comment on the cut.
In announcing the overall MYEFO results, Treasurer Joe Hockey painted a gloomy picture of the economic outlook, forecasting a $47 billion deficit in 2013-14 and $123 billion worth of cumulative deficits over the forward estimates.
Mr Hockey said the budget position since the Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook (PEFO), released on August 13, has deteriorated by $68 billion over the forward estimates.
He said the Budget the Coalition had inherited from Labor “is simply unsustainable”.
“In the absence of any policy changes from what we have inherited, the Budget would not return to surplus within the 10-year medium-term projections - during this time, gross debt on issue is projected to increase to $667 billion,” he said.
Mr Maher said the current fiscal climate was extremely tight, with the government looking to make budget savings where it can and return to surplus as soon as possible, to meet its election commitments.
But he said the NFF would also continue pushing to maintain its own key election commitments, to increase agriculture’s prominence in Canberra and make sure promises on the agricultural program are kept.
“That means maintaining policies and programs that contribute to generate farm profitability and competitiveness,” he said.
Caring for our Country
Mr Maher said the Caring for our Country program was “raided” $6.7 million in the MYEFO announcement, to pay for part of the Royal Commission into home insulation.
That cut was also slammed by the Australian Greens who accused the government of treating natural resource management “with contempt”.
Australian Greens agriculture spokesperson and Western Australian Senator Rachel Siewert said the government had already stripped money from Caring for our Country for drought and other programs “and now we learn that the program has been targeted yet again”.
“Caring for our Country is being treated like the government’s loose change jar, to be dipped into when they want more money for something else,” she said.
Mr Maher said he understood Caring for our Country funding had been redirected due to the current fiscal environment but would prefer if re-direction was consistent with land care and natural resource management principles, unlike the Royal Commission move.
He said MYEFO didn’t outline details of how the Coalition would meet its key election commitment to spend $100 million on agricultural related Research and Development.
“We haven’t heard how that money is going to roll out however we have had initial discussions and will seek more details when we chat with government, to ensure the funds are directed into areas where it will have most value,” he said.
Indonesia-Australia Red Meat Cattle Partnership
MYEFO also announced additional spending that wasn’t in the May budget of $7.8 million over four years to 2016-17, to the fledgling Indonesia-Australia Red Meat Cattle Partnership.
Industry members said the partnership was part of the $60 million promise made by former PM Kevin Rudd to renew ties with Indonesia, leading up to the election.
But little detail was know about the program’s implementation, or MYEFO spending allocation, given the program was still in its infancy.
Mr Rudd announced a $60 million package over 10 years to boost investment in Indonesia’s beef industry with the view to achieving mutual benefits for Australian industry, which the Coalition is now continuing.
Mr Maher said he was also disappointed that a $5 million program provided by the previous Labor government for digital business kits had been cut, as it removed potential grants of up to $500,000 to the farm sector, which the government identified as potential beneficiaries.
MYEFO also announced a $4 million saving over four years by confirming the axing of the Independent Inspector General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports, proposed by Labor in the election campaign.
An inherited mess
Mr Hockey said Labor Leader Bill Shorten had to apologise to the Australian people for “what you have left behind”.
“Now is the time for Bill Shorten to fess up for what Labor has left behind - $123 billion of deficits and $667 billion of debt unless action is taken by the Coalition Government,” he said.
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said before the election, PM Tony Abbott asked the Australian people to enter into a contract with him, that involved going into surplus to pay off debt.
But he said Mr Abbott was in breach of his contract with the Australian people and Mr Hockey was “softening up the Australian people”.
Mr Bowen said the treasurer was preparing the ground for “deep and brutal cuts come Budget time, cuts to come which will affect every Australian”.
“This is Mr Hockey’s attempt at an alibi,” he said.
“But it’s also his attempt to soften up the Australian people for the true Liberal agenda, which is cuts across the board, as they were always planning to do, as we warned they would before the election.”