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Barnaby Joyce faces new battle after Indonesia knock to live cattle trade

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says he is working to find ‘alternate venues’ for the cattle. AAP/Lukas Coch

The startling fall in prospective Australian live cattle exports to Indonesia has come as a surprise to the government and immediately prompted the question of whether tensions in the relationship – especially over boat turnbacks and the executions of two Australians – have been at play here.

But it is Indonesia’s nationalistic view about food security that is considered the significant factor in the decline in the import quota from 282,000 last quarter – with actual exports about 250,000 – to 50,000 for the quarter starting July.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo had food security as part of the platform on which he was elected.

In practice there is tension between Indonesia’s desire to move to self-sufficiency and the practicalities of doing so. This saw a relatively low 100,000 permits issued for cattle from Australia for the first quarter of 2015 become a greatly increased number in the second quarter.

There is also a difference of attitude between the Indonesian agriculture ministry and the trade ministry. The latter is much more in favour of cattle imports. The current quarter’s low figure suggests the agriculture ministry had the upper hand. The importers were hoping to get permits for more than 200,000 cattle. The recent annual average for this quarter has been nearly 135,000.

None of the three ministers – Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Treasurer Joe Hockey – who commented on the issue on Tuesday provided any detailed explanation for the cut.

Bishop was adamant that it was not about the general bilateral relationship, saying it was a matter of trade negotiations, but did not elaborate. Joyce said that “Indonesia has clearly stated that their aspiration is to be self-sufficient in cattle, in beef”.

One reason, apart from a lack of hard information, why the ministers were reticent could be the government’s reluctance to reflect publicly on domestic Indonesian politics. Joyce said: “I’m not here to comment on the internal operations of another nation”.

Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia Nadjib Riphat Kesoema said in a statement to the ABC that the quota cut “is not in any way related to political conditions nor to the state of Australia-Indonesia relations”, but was made “on the basis of economics [sic] considerations, with the aim of maintaining the right supply of meat for Indonesian consumers”.

Joyce says he is working to find “alternate venues” for the cattle. The government points out the Indonesian action shows the importance of broadening the live cattle export market, saying six new markets have been added under it – Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bahrain and Thailand – although Lebanon and Iran are yet to start operating.

But Indonesia is big and vital as a market, taking more than half of Australia’s annual cattle exports. Joyce wants to find ways to put more stability and predictability into it, if possible by having the quota set on an annual rather than a quarterly basis. He had hoped to visit Indonesia earlier this year but that became impossible because of the execution issue. It’s now more necessary that he goes.

“Our number one goal is to make sure that we have a long-term and an engaged relationship with the shoppers of Jakarta and the government of Indonesia so we can be reliable suppliers and reliable venue,” Joyce said. Whether this will be possible in light of the Widodo government’s domestic priorities remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Joyce was still trying to reach the agriculture minister by telephone.

Joyce’s performance on the cattle issue, and more generally, will be closely watched by colleagues, given that his outspoken defiance of the rules of cabinet solidarity over the Shenhua coal mine project (located in his New England seat) has raised questions about his ability to be a “team player”.

Joyce’s stance on the mine, which was approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt and appears certain to get a licence from the Baird government, has led some commentators to say he should have resigned from the frontbench.

Now it is being used to question whether Joyce would be a suitable deputy prime minister, the position he would hold in a Coalition government if he replaced Nationals leader Warren Truss. There has been speculation that Truss, who has previously suffered ill health, will quit politics at the election.

Tough independent stands have been a characteristic of some Nationals over the years. They can win approval from colleagues and the party’s base. But they can also backfire, giving ammunition to enemies and rivals.

This should have been a good time for Joyce, with the release of the long-awaited white paper on agriculture. Instead, that has been overshadowed by the ban on his appearing on Q&A, the mine row, and now the cattle problem.

Joyce, whose long-held aim has been to become leader of his party when Truss retires, suddenly finds himself in a very testing and risky period of his career.

Listen to the newest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, with French Ambassador Christophe Lecourtier, here.

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