James Massola – A former Labor minister's snap decision to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 has been ruled as unreasonable and invalid by the Federal Court.
Then-agriculture minister Joe Ludwig acted recklessly and committed "misfeasance in public office", according to a judgment issued by Justice Steven Rares on Tuesday.
The decision to ban the live export trade was prompted by shocking scenes of Australian cattle being mistreated in Indonesian abattoirs, and the move caused significant damage to relations between Australia and Indonesia.
The ruling potentially opens the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation with approximately 300 cattle producers and supply chain businesses ready to join claims for compensation.
Australia had exported about 520,000 head of cattle worth about $400 million to Indonesia in 2010 and it took years for the trade to get back on track following the ban.
The Federal Court class action was brought by the Brett Cattle Company, which claimed the ban cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.
In a scathing judgment, the court found the minister made the ban order on June 7, 2011 "shutting his eyes to the risk that it might be invalid and to the damage that it was calculated to cause persons in the position of Brett Cattle".
The judge was satisfied the minister was recklessly indifferent regarding his ability to make such an order without power of exception, and to the injury it would produce.
"I have found that, had the minister acted lawfully, he would have made a control order on about 9 or 10 June 2011 that contained an exceptions power and that Elders and Santori would have been able to obtain approvals to export to Indonesia under it without delay," the judge said.
"Such a total prohibition was capricious and unreasonable and made the ban order invalid."
Justice Rares ordered the minister and the Commonwealth pay the legal costs of the proceedings, noting Brett Cattle was entitled to substantial damages and the parties would have to return to court at a later date in order to determine compensation for the class action members.
Australia exported 676,000 head of cattle in 2019 to Indonesia, the top destination for local live cattle exports. Exports are expected to increase following the ratification of the Indonesia-Australia free trade deal earlier this year.
The controversial market is worth around $2 billion annually. More than one million cattle and more than two million sheep are sent overseas each year for slaughter, primary to Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan and as breeding stock, chiefly to Qatar, the UAE and Jordan.
National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar welcomed the decision which would "right a wrong that was committed in 2011".
"The courts that have recognised the reckless decision made by the then-government that decimated and devastated an agricultural industry, the live export industry, in parts of rural and regional Australia."
Emily Brett, from the Brett Cattle Company which operates a cattle station in the Top End, said her family's business had "suffered immense financial hardship because of this".
"The decision [in 2011] had the hugest impact on not just us but so many other people within the industry and associated with the industry in northern Australia," she said.
"We went 11 months then without being able to sell any cattle. That is a terribly long time for anyone to go without income from an overnight decision, no preparation, no planning... it just came into effect and we had to wear it."
In a short statement, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud acknowledged the decision made by the Federal Court but did not indicate whether the Commonwealth would appeal.
"The government will now carefully work through the judgment before making any further comment."
Former minister Ludwig was contacted for comment.
Didiek Purwanto, the chairman of Gapuspindo, the Indonesian Association for Beef Cattle Farms, said Indonesian businesses had been affected by the ban too, as the supply of beef cows had stopped.
"We don't know what the ruling means to us yet. We will consider things, we will discuss it first with our members, those who were affected by the ban at the time, who suffered losses."
Animals Australia spokeswoman Lyn White sought to shift blame from the then government, defended Ludwig and highlighted the "brutality" that Australian cattle faced in Indonesia at the time.
"If anyone is to 'blame' for economic losses that resulted in the temporary halt in trade, it isn't the government that prevented further animal cruelty, it's the industry body that not only ignored it, but facilitated it," she said.
– with Amilia Rosa, AAP