Sheep trade can thrive without live export

Published on Tue 17 September 2019 7:09pm

The live sheep trade continues to decline. It is terminal. The export of boxed meat and chilled carcasses to the Middle East continues to grow. That’s our future. That’s the future of the trade. It’s a future with higher value-added exports, more jobs in Australia and, most of all, better animal welfare outcomes.

Mr Wilson (7:09pm) — I support the second reading amendment moved by the member for Hunter. In the great filing cabinet of Commonwealth law, the Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports Bill 2019 goes into the drawer marked ‘stupid mistakes with terrible consequences’. This bill recreates an Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports. Why? To provide oversight of the live export industry. When did the government figure out that that was such a brilliant idea? How many animal welfare atrocities did it take and how much evidence did they need of awful conduct and hopeless regulation of this industry, especially in the export of live sheep?

As everyone in the debate so far has acknowledged, six years ago, in 2013, the then Labor government created an interim inspector-general of animal welfare and an Australian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, and the newly elected coalition government decided to get rid of both of those things. It was an extraordinarily stupid thing to do. It is hard to understand how they made that decision. The only way you can partly understand it, I think, is to note that the responsible minister at the time was the member for New England. The responsible minister at the time, the member for New England, in explaining why the interim inspector-general of animal welfare had to go, said it had been introduced only so that:

… people would feel a sense of solace in the urban areas, cause they’ll say “oh well that sounds great”. But when you peel back the onion you say well, you’re really just putting a policeman on a policeman. The first policeman will do the job very well. Let the first policeman do the job. You don’t need to have policemen on policemen, otherwise it becomes a ludicrous extension. Why don’t we get an auditor for the auditor just in case the auditor’s not doing his job? And then we’ll get an auditor for that auditor so the auditor’s auditor not doing its job and we can have – and it goes on like Kafka forever.

How ridiculous. What was the basis for saying that? The interim inspector-general for animal welfare was put in place with a very clear purpose.

The purpose was to oversight the regulation of the live export industry. The mistake the government made was about as obvious as they come, and that has been clear every day for the past six years, and it was made crystal clear by the review undertaken by Mr Philip Moss after we’d seen atrocity on atrocity in relation to the live sheep export trade. The review by Mr Philip Moss, titled Regulatory capability and culture of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in the regulation of live animal exports—which the member for Barker should take some time to read at some point—identified a series of ways in which getting rid of the inspector-general of animal welfare was a profoundly stupid thing to do. We’ve known for a long time that live export is inherently dangerous for animals, that it’s likely to produce animal suffering and that when you transport sheep in decrepit old ships for weeks on end to the hottest part of the world at the hottest time of the year then animal suffering is guaranteed.

A Senate report back in 1985 said:

The trade is, in many respects, inimical to good animal welfare.

The Moss review, 32 years later, found:

By its nature, live animal exports present a high risk to animal health and welfare.

We know from the heat stress review, which has not been made public, that our previous approach—which was to measure suffering only through the death rate of animals—was wrong. Sheep are hardy animals. I’ve had sheep farmers from around Australia get in contact with me on this issue, and that’s a point that they often make: lots of sheep have made it to the Middle East having been put through pain and suffering that vets and the Australian public rightly find absolutely unacceptable.

We also know that there’s an inherent conflict in the department that is responsible for promoting agriculture and related trade and also responsible for animal welfare. Those two things do not always pull in the same direction. There are aspects of primary production and trade that work against the humane treatment of animals. That much is obvious. That’s where the member for New England and so many of his colleagues have gone badly wrong. It’s not a case of having an auditor for an auditor; it’s a case of having an independent person who’s charged with a pure focus on animal welfare being responsible for overseeing a bureaucracy that has conflicting imperatives.

We know that the regulatory approach itself was structurally flawed. Vets accredited by the government to be responsible for animal welfare were employed by the live exporters. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that people in that circumstance are going to be compromised. The Moss review noted:

Although on-board AAVs are accredited by and report to the department they are employed by the exporter. This role appears to be inherently conflicted …

And so it was.

We know there were cultural problems in the department. That seems to offend the member for Barker. We know there were cultural problems in the department and there’d been a loss of animal welfare expertise. That was led by this government. That culture problem and that irresponsibility started with this government. It started with the then minister, the member for New England, and it was enabled by everybody else around him. The Moss review said:

Currently there is a lack of focus on and expertise in animal welfare.

It said:

The department does not have a single regulatory mindset.

Finally, we know that the approach of the department, and of the industry in general, to the contribution of animal welfare organisations was massively unhelpful. This is the quote from the Moss review that the members for O’Connor and Barker should pay some close attention to:

Animal welfare organisations play a significant role in the regulatory framework because, through the resourcing they dedicate to monitoring, they are a significant source of information about animal health and welfare in the context of live animal exports. Consistent with good regulatory practice, the department needs to improve its connection with this sector. The re-establishment of an animal welfare branch in the department would help to address this issue.

We’ve had the member for Barker come in. At some points in his speech I felt like I’d fallen asleep and woken up in a lecture about the assassination of JFK or the moon landing, as if these things are all part of a pattern of fakery and the footage that we saw of the Awassi Express had somehow been made up, it never really happened and the live export of sheep is actually perfectly okay. Don’t forget that there have been more than 100 voyages in which more than 1,000 sheep have died. There has been incident after incident after incident. The Awassi Express is only the most recent. But we still have members of the government not prepared to address the cultural problem in the government and blaming animal welfare organisations. ‘There’s nothing wrong with the trade. It’s the animal welfare organisations that have somehow concocted video footage of animals literally dying by drowning in their own waste.’ That is ridiculous.

So this is an obvious mistake, a stupid mistake, with terrible consequences. What consequences? We know that the ships being operated were unfit for transport. The department has belatedly admitted to that. We know there were falsified vet reports, an outcome directly affected by the fact that authorised vets were employed by the exporters. We know there was chronic departmental inaction in the face of clear breaches of regulation and clear instances of animal welfare abuse. We know there was enormous and relentless suffering inflicted on animals. In 2014, 4,000 sheep died on a trip from Fremantle to Qatar. In 2016, 3,000 sheep died on another Emanuel Exports voyage. Then, in 2017, there was the Awassi Express, with 2,500 sheep dying. Since the live sheep export trade began, terrible, decrepit converted car carriers have been taking tens of thousands of sheep at the hottest time of the year to the hottest part of the world in awful, unregulated conditions. Two hundred million sheep have gone from Australia to the Middle East. Three million have died, and let’s not make the mistake of assuming that only the three million that died suffered, because there would be millions and millions of sheep that got off at the other end barely alive, having gone through an experience that the Australian public rightly finds utterly unacceptable. There is no sliding scale on which the suffering of animals becomes acceptable at some price.

It is true that, apart from the animal suffering that has occurred through this industry, enabled by this government, people have been harmed as well. Farmers have been harmed. Farming communities have been harmed, as have other people involved in the production chain. That is an important part of the story. They are people in my home state of Western Australia, and I have sympathy for those on the land who had every right to expect a regulatory system that would keep the export industry to high and rigorous standards. That didn’t happen. Exporters pulled the wool over their eyes and over the eyes of the regulators, but the regulators weren’t looking hard enough. That’s something that people involved in the industry—the farmers, feed producers and truck drivers—and the communities in which they live need to be clear eyed about. I speak to representatives of primary producers. I speak to the peak bodies. I speak to truck drivers and their representatives. I speak to individual farmers. When I do that, I tell them straight, ‘You’ve been let down by your representative groups and by some of your representatives in this place, because they ignored the clear signs of a rotten industry.’ They ignored them and they lied to the people that they were supposed to be representing, their constituents—whether they’re representatives in this place or whether they’re peak bodies. They cheered on this government when it took away those regulatory protections. They didn’t say, ‘Hang on a second, those regulatory protections are important to us. They’re part of our social licence. We care about our animals. We want our industry to be’—what is it they say these days?

A stable and certain industry? They didn’t say, ‘We’d like to have a stable and certain industry, so don’t go and ransack the important regulatory protections in the name of your “red tape reduction jihad”, or whatever it is you’re on this week, because that will put us at risk.’ Not enough people said that, not enough farmers said that, not enough truck drivers said that and none of the peak bodies said that. None of the representative groups said, ‘You are going to do harm to us,’ but that’s what’s happened.

Some of those groups have been guilty of exactly the same structural and cultural problems that affected the Department of Agriculture and they should be big enough to look themselves in the mirror and admit that. Some of them have been too quick to say, exactly as the member for O’Connor and the member for Barker said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this industry. There’s nothing wrong with millions of sheep suffering and millions of sheep dying. It’s all the animal welfare activists concocting some weird videos.’ How ridiculous!

There’s nothing hard and there’s nothing courageous about playing to the crowd. There’s nothing hard and there’s nothing courageous about standing up and telling people what they want to hear. There are some people who’ve been involved in this trade for a long time who should have a bit more courage and should be prepared to say to people involved in this trade, ‘We’ve let you down. It’s been a rotten trade and we’ve enabled it,’ because that is the truth.

The people in the broader community have been very clear. They’ve spoken up and they’ve said, ‘This is wrong and has got to stop.’ They’re not just people in cities. They’re not just beard wearing, cold-coffee-brew drinking, inner city hipsters; they are all over this country. I’ve been contacted by people outside Western Australia, which is principally the only place where the live sheep trade happens, who have said, ‘This has to stop.’ I’ve been contacted by plenty of farmers, and certainly plenty of sheep farmers, who have said, ‘I would never subject my animals to that kind of treatment. This has to stop. They are bringing us all down. They are bringing down responsible agricultural producers.’

People in that space—some of the people who are involved and benefit from it—enabled the harm. The harm is not created by animal activists. It wasn’t created by the Labor Party or any members in this place who spoke up in the absolutely rightful cause of proper regulation. It was created by the industry, by the exporters in particular, and by people on that side—by the government—who stupidly and wantonly took away protection that should always have been maintained.

So, where are we now? Belatedly, half-heartedly and six years on, the government have been dragged to put back something that was there six years ago. We know that the cessation of the trade does not bring ruin to the farming sector in Western Australia. It has had impacts and that’s difficult. I feel for the people who’ve been on the receiving end, but we had two summers when the trade dropped away. The suggestion by some that it would lead to some kind of widespread ruin in Western Australia has not proved to be true.

The live sheep trade continues to decline. It is terminal. The export of boxed meat and chilled carcasses to the Middle East continues to grow. That’s our future. That’s the future of the trade. It’s a future with higher value-added exports, more jobs in Australia and, most of all, better animal welfare outcomes. We have the prospect of moving out of the live sheep trade altogether. We know it’s possible. We know it’s necessary. It’s going to take leadership and courage. We’ve shown that. It’s about time some people on that side stood up and did that as well.

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