Australia’s sheep trade is worth $250 million annually and involves about two million sheep. Steven Walling/Wikipedia
If a farmer were caught subjecting animals on his or her property to the suffering endured by the sheep on the Emanuel Exports ship last August, they’d find themselves in court, perhaps in jail, and almost certainly banned from possessing animals in future.
When it’s an export company, it gets a permit for another shipment.
The public, and new Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, have been predictably angered by the recent footage brought to light by Animals Australia, shot by a whistleblower on the ship.
In the August voyage about 2400 animals died horribly, some apparently literally melting, with another couple of hundred unaccounted for. A year before, more than 3000 sheep died on a ship from the same exporter, plying the same route.
For Australia, this is a national disgrace. Sara Netanyahu, wife of the Israeli prime minister, posted a video this week condemning the “tremendous cruelty”, and saying she would approach Lucy Turnbull (the August sheep weren’t bound for Israel, but it does import Australian sheep).
The live cattle trade, mainly centred on south east Asia, is bad enough. The sheep trade (worth A$250 million annually and involving about two million sheep) is worse. Most of the sheep are sent much further – to the Middle East, often into the sweltering northern summer heat. Anyone who has dealt with yarded sheep in hot weather knows how easily they become stressed, let alone in these cramped, frequently filthy conditions for weeks.
We should remember that the current scandal is just a new iteration of a very familiar story. Over the years, the plight of sheep bound for the Middle East has burst into the headlines. Then, after promises by the government of the day that things will change, attention has faded, while the pain and deaths have continued. The total mortality has run into millions.
In February, Western Australian Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan asked her department to investigate the high death rate in the August 2017 consignment, which had sailed from Fremantle. She said the WA government’s legal advice was that the state’s animal welfare law applied to live export ships. She also wrote to Littleproud.
But it took the footage shot by a Pakistani crew member, Fazal Ullah, to force the issue into the public’s consciousness and galvanise Littleproud into several announcements.
Among his responses, Littleproud has set in train a “short, sharp review of the standards for the sheep trade during the Middle Eastern summer”, which is being done by a veterinarian who has worked in the trade. Littleproud told the ABC, however, that he opposed a ban on the summer trade.
It doesn’t need a review to tell you that for the sheep these voyages – even when they go better than this one did – are hell, whatever “standards” are imposed.
The “regulator” overseeing the trade is the federal Agriculture Department. Littleproud said on Monday that ten days previously (before seeing the footage) he had received a report from the department about the August shipment. “I became concerned by that report not finding any breaches of standards by the exporter in question.”
The report says the cause of the high mortality was heat stress but that the Australian Maritime Safety Authority had concluded “all livestock services on the ship were operating satisfactorily during the voyage”. The department had a few words to say to Emanuel about heat management and risk, but a subsequent consignment was approved (its death toll in cooler conditions was lower).
Littleproud said the report didn’t match up with the vision that has subsequently been seen, and he had “some real difficulty” with that. He brought in the attorney-general’s office to advise on who would be best to undertake a review “of the skills and capabilities and culture” of the regulator to provide better investigative powers.
“I am somewhat concerned that we have had to do this”, Littleproud said. Given the known and controversial history of the trade, this is a massive understatement. The handling of the affair is an indictment of the negligence of the department.
Littleproud has sought to get on the front foot in the wake of the footage. He’s set up a whistleblowers hotline. A shipment from the same exporter that was due to sail on Monday this week has been delayed while adjustments are made. Littleproud said he was keeping the opposition informed, and working with animal welfare representatives.
He has thanked “the whistleblower for coming forward” and declared “I’d like to see company directors be held more personally accountable if they do the wrong thing, facing big fines and possibly jail time”.
The government knows the strength of public feeling on this issue. While Labor ended up getting blowback when the Gillard government suspended the live cattle trade after an ABC expose of how the cattle were treated in Indonesia, that government was acting in response to a massive public reaction. Animal cruelty, rightly, hits a very sensitive nerve with people.
Surely Australians can’t tolerate the continuation of shipments in the northern summer – at a minimum, Littleproud should stop those ASAP.
It’s worth noting the United Kingdom is presently considering a possible ban on live exports, post Brexit.
Despite the latest revelations, early Thursday morning the Livestock Shipping Services’ “Maysora”, left for the three-week journey to Turkey, with 77,000 sheep and 9,500 cattle. It has an Agriculture department inspector aboard, but there have not been changes to the regulations.
Even if it were much better regulated, live sheep exporting is inevitably a cruel trade. It should be scrapped entirely. Victorian crossbench senator Derryn Hinch, who has campaigned on the issue for decades, is arguing for a three-year phase-out. The number of sheep exported has been in long-term decline, as more boxed sheep-meat is being sold abroad. Farmers have a direct alternative domestic market to sell into.
The Coalition government will not end the trade. It’s unlikely to ban the summer trade; the issue may come to whether it is willing to put conditions on the exporters that are onerous enough to limit its commercial viability. The WA ALP government appears ready to keep some pressure on the Turnbull government.
Federal Labor wants bipartisanship, but perhaps might advocate a ban on summer trade if the government will not – depending on what the review says.
If the Shorten opposition had the courage – which it lacks – to promise a phase-out of the live sheep trade, with some adjustment assistance, it would not only be doing the right thing morally but, in political terms, it would probably gain more support than it lost.
This article was written by:
Michelle Grattan – Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra