Out of the Cabinet

By Ian Warden

Get a different take on Cabinet records! This year, Canberra journalist Ian Warden has immersed himself in the policy decisions made by the 1980–81 Fraser government. In this Out of the Cabinet series, Ian highlights particular documents that captured his imagination and provides insightful comments.

Suspiciously dark and stringy 'beef'

Carcasses ready for processing, Melbourne, 1945.
Bona fide beef? (B4498, 74F3)

On 27 July 1981 a vigilant food inspector in San Diego, California, fancied that three frozen blocks of imported Australian beef looked suspiciously 'darker and stringier' than bona fide boneless beef should be. The eagle-eyed inspector was right. Tests showed that this bogus 'beef' from Australia was dark, stringy horse meat.

In the next few days more horse meat, and then some kangaroo meat, masquerading as Australian beef were found elsewhere in the United States. By 15 August, the press in Australia and the United States had begun to probe and report on the deliciously newsworthy 'Meat Substitution Scandal'. US comedians began making jokes about the exotic contents of their nation's hamburgers.

What's next? Camel? Wombat?

The outrage brought a blush of embarrassment to the national cheek. Labor Opposition Leader Bill Hayden fumed in Parliament about 'the damage that's been done to the self-respect of Australians' by the scandal.

In the Australian press there was scoffing speculation that any day now it would emerge that we'd sent the United States disguised camel, goat and wombat meat as well. The Fraser government and the Australian beef industry shuddered at the scandal's potential threat to the beef export trade, worth about $1 billion a year.

In this 1981 Cabinet Submission, Primary Industry Minister Peter Nixon outlined the urgent measures taken to address the substitution of beef exports with horse and kangaroo meat
Presence of horse and kangaroo meat confirmed (A12909, 5055)

The minister rolls up his sleeves

Cabinet records of September 1981, recently released by the National Archives of Australia, show the Fraser government, especially Primary Industry Minister Peter Nixon, scurrying to try to reassure nervous trade customers and to placate aghast Australians.

The Minister's Cabinet Submission 5055 (everything in the submission was duly endorsed or noted by Cabinet in Decision 16692 of 8 September, and then Decision 16703 of the next day) was his truculent-sounding declaration of war against the wickedness of meat substitution. It outlined what urgent measures this Minister, his sleeves rolled up, had taken already (the Australian Federal Police had been called in and there was an ongoing flurry of deregistration of suspect companies, intensified testings, investigations and introductions of strict new security controls), and proposed lots more things that needed to be done, at a gallop.

The Minister's submission asked Cabinet to agree to a searching inquiry, perhaps even a Commonwealth Royal Commission, into the whole embarrassing imbroglio.

Minister Nixon's 'Slaughtergate'

One major theme of Submission 5055 by the beleaguered Minister (the Opposition accused that the scandal was his fault and that it was his 'Slaughtergate') was his vow to vastly increase the penalties for skullduggery in areas of Australian meat inspection and exporting. The existing slap-across-the-wrist penalties (usually a maximum fine of just $1000) were a terrible embarrassment because they made it look as if the government didn’t take the matter seriously. (In fact the penalties were so mild because previous legislators, in their innocence, hadn’t imagined there ever being one day so heinous a crime to punish.)

And so Submission 5055 bristled with the Minister's ambitions for new, remorseless, substitution-smashing penalties of up to $100,000 (a breathtakingly forbidding sum in 1981), or five years' imprisonment (and even 10 years in some instances), or both.

With Decision 16692 Cabinet endorsed all this deadly earnestness, and with Decision 16703 it announced a Royal Commission into the meat industry led by the Honourable Mr Justice AE Woodward.

The Prime Minister's busiest 48 hours ever

Justice Woodward's report was published in September 1982. In it, as well as making many recommendations, Woodward was critical of what he found was Minister Nixon's failure to deal 'adequately and effectively' with the good advice given to him in 1980 by the Committee of Inquiry to Examine Commonwealth and State Meat Inspection Systems, chaired by the Hon CR Kelly. The Kelly Committee was tasked with assessing the effectiveness of meat-inspection systems for export as well as non-export meat. The Committee had told the Minister that Australian meat-inspection processes were 'sordid' and shonky, with meat-packaging companies often bribing meat inspectors with free meat.

Minister Nixon felt that Woodward's findings meant he, Nixon, really should resign now. He tried at once to phone Prime Minister Fraser at his home on a Friday evening. But in his 2010 Political Memoirs Fraser recalls telling Nixon, 'Hang on. I'm not going to accept your resignation at least until I've read the report.' Then, hurrying to Canberra, he spent the next 48 hours ('I've never worked so hard') reading not only the report of the Royal Commission and all of the transcripts of evidence given to it, but also the Kelly Committee's 1980 report.

Minister Nixon had been accused of a 'Slaughtergate' cover-up and Opposition Leader Bill Hayden had alleged there'd been 'this conspiracy of concealment', but on 21 September Fraser told the House that the Commissioner was wrong to blame the Minister. Nixon had been blameless, Fraser insisted, because like every other decent law-abiding Australian, he hadn't been able to imagine such an unprecedented and unimaginable horror as meat substitution. How then could he be blamed for failing to prevent something so utterly unforeseen? No, he, the Prime Minister, wasn't going to make the Minister resign.

Peter Nixon remained Minister for Primary Industry in the Fourth Fraser Ministry until 1983 when the Hawke Labor government was elected.

Each year on 1 January the Archives releases the Cabinet records that document the decisions which have shaped the social, cultural and political life of Australia. Following changes to the Archives Act 1983, the closed period for Cabinet records is gradually being reduced from 30 to 20 years.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019