Inaction over live sheep exports reveals our politicians are losing their moral compass

The live sheep export trade should be phased out. To do otherwise in the face of irrefutable and tragic evidence of systemic failure, negligence, abuse, neglect, and cover-up, now over many years, would serve as just another disturbing example of how our politicians and our political processes are rapidly losing their moral compass.

The most recent evidence of failure relates to the deaths of 2400 sheep on a shipment to the Middle East in 2017. Animals Australia says that more than 4000 Australian sheep died last year during five routine shipments to Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The sheep died while travelling in appalling conditions that clearly breached international standards, Australian standards for the export of livestock and the WA Animal Welfare Act.  The exporter, Emanuel Exports, has a history of breaching standards without consequence.

The Awassi Express, aboard which 2400 ship died during one voyage last year, is docked at Fremantle Port.

Photo: Tony McDonough

In the five decades since the live sheep trade began, 200 million sheep have been shipped to the Middle East and three million have died at sea.

There should be zero tolerance for more excuses and promises from the export companies, and zero tolerance for more feigned shock and horrorfrom our politicians. There is no need for yet another review or for the appointment of an inspector-general of livestock exports. It is already far too late for that.

The export licences and permits should never have been issued. Those who issued them should be held to account. Those principally responsible are a succession of agriculture ministers and departmental secretaries, over many years. Heads should roll. Phase-out procedures should be put in place, as a matter of urgency.

Under export control regulations, the secretary must refuse to grant an export permit if key conditions have not been met – specifically, if Australian standards for the export of livestock have not been met and will not be complied with and the travel arrangements are not adequate for the “health and welfare of the livestock”.

Stocking densities on the shipments that made the news last week didn’t allow sheep to readily access food or water troughs, or to readily lie down and rest. The voyages averaged 15 to 25 days and the consequences of these conditions were multiplied in the heat of the summer months.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud.

Photo: AAP

It might reasonably be asked why the mounting evidence on live sheep exports could be so consistently ignored and/or obfuscated by our bureaucrats and political leaders. Crudely, and politically, animals don’t vote and farmers do, and farmers can have a disproportionate influence in our system. Many farmers have been long-time advocates of the live animal trade and are proud of the multibillion-dollar industry they have built.

I am sure many farmers would be genuinely distraught by the evidence that has emerged in relation to the live sheep export business. But their direct involvement ceases at the farm gate, where they get paid. Even though the live sheep trade is only worth about $230 million, it is also worth investigating whether there are significant donations from the industry to individual members of Parliament or their parties.

If the live sheep trade were terminated, it could have a significant effect on the price of sheep, as was the case with the Gillard government’s temporary ban on beef exports to Indonesia. However, there is considerable evidence that the price of sheep is underpinned by the world mutton price. It is only a certain type/weight of sheep that goes into the live trade – and that has no bearing on the market for lambs, hogget or mutton.

The live sheep industry is in decline as the industry moves more towards the shipping of processed lamb meat, especially as the supply of Halal meat certified in Australia has become acceptable in the Middle East, and demand is increasing. Indeed, some two-thirds of lamb exports from Western Australia are in processed form. The meat processing industry has the capacity to gear up significantly and quickly, so the likely impact of a termination of live sheep exports on the industry could be minimal and short-lived. Governments are also in a position to facilitate this transition.

Our national attitude to this issue says much about our nation’s moral compass, and will have an effect directly, and significantly, on our international standing.

Our Chief Government Vet, Mark Schipp, is about to become President of the World Organisation for Animal Health (the OIE), a very prestigious position. Schipp's appointment is an Australian first. Yet, as a nation, we allow trade that is in contravention of OIE standards, even though the government’s position statement on the export of livestock boasts that our standards “take into account OIE animal welfare guidelines and in most instances exceed these”.

The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council has also failed to justify its social licence, having obviously failed to honour its “no fear, no pain" animal welfare commitment.

Even though current Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has responded to public outrage by initiating two inquiries, one into his own department and one into the northern summer live export trade, the public has every right to question why export permits continue to be approved for re-offending export companies. Over 100,000 sheep are set to be loaded onto ships this week despite the travel arrangements clearly being inadequate for the health and welfare of the animals. The regulatory failure continues - with animals bearing the cost.

Those in power would be most unwise to ignore the intensity of the moral outrage on this issue, just as they are now recognising the outrage in relation to the banks.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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