Most Australians have been appalled by the cruelty shown to sheep on not one but five voyages from Fremantle to the Middle East. Yet these were not isolated incidents. Countless sheep have perished over several decades, but only occasionally has incriminating footage emerged. To his credit, new agriculture minister, David Littleproud, has ordered a review into the standards applying to such shipments. But how independent is the minister’s review?
The veterinarian appointed to conduct the external review, though eminently qualified, has been integrally involved in an industry that has failed to protect animal welfare. A far better choice would have been the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer. From the minister’s public statements, the government’s presumption is that the long haul, live sheep export industry can continue without horrific animal suffering, when all the evidence suggests it cannot.
As trade minister, I was involved in the 2011 five-week suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia. The Gillard government was able to re-start the trade in cooperation with the Indonesian government when it was confident that the slaughtering conditions in local abattoirs met international animal welfare standards.
But in the aftermath we checked the integrity of the supply chains for other animals to other markets. We quickly learned that in some Middle Eastern markets sheep could be purchased individually for slaughter in buyers’ front yards. We stopped that for Australian sheep, since it did not qualify as humane slaughter.
One big exception was Saudi Arabia. The Saudis wanted the animals for exactly that purpose, so we ended the trade.
Yet here we are again, reviewing the live sheep export trade, after half a dozen reviews. It is a sunset industry. Our live-sheep exports have declined from more than six million head in the early 2000s to less than two million. Four-fifths of those exports are from Western Australia.
The government’s inquiry is likely to go in two directions: reduced stocking densities and prohibitions on voyages in the hottest months.
From the images shown on television, sheep did not have room to lie down to rest, and yet the relevant standard requires that “there should be enough space for every animal to adopt a normal lying posture.”
Unfortunately, the actual federal government regulations for the industry do not reflect that standard. They are based on economics, not on animal welfare. If enforced stocking densities were reduced to the specified standard, the export industry would become uneconomic. That’s why the industry has vigorously and successfully resisted reductions in stocking densities over the years.
As to weather conditions, anyone familiar with the Middle East can tell you that restricting exports to cooler months is no guarantee of avoiding severe heat stress in the animals.
When I was trade minister, industry advocates claimed they didn’t have many fridges in the Middle East, and to qualify as halal the sheep must be slaughtered there. If that was ever true, much seems to have changed: chilled sheep meat processed in Australia and air freighted to the Middle East now comprises 63 per cent of the trade.
Yet instead of phasing out the live sheep export industry, the government has been working to scale it up by reopening the Saudi market.
Most West Australian farmers supplying the live sheep export trade do not rely heavily on it; typically they are engaged in mixed farming or sheep production for processing locally.
A recent economic study by Pegasus Economics, whose team includes former senior public servants and an assistant auditor-general, estimates that the cessation of the live sheep export trade would result in an annual loss of around$9 million for West Australian farmers. But it could also facilitate the engagement of around 350 employees for West Australian sheep-meat processors.
While the industry is disputing these estimates, it is clear the live sheep export industry does not generate large economic benefits for the nation or even for Western Australia.
Sooner or later, however, the industry will generate large costs in terms of Australia’s reputation as an exporter of safe, clean, premium agricultural produce. Australian rural produce has been able to command a price premium in overseas markets based on our hard-won reputation for high standards. It takes only a few incidents to tear that reputation down. Another scandal like the five voyages that have featured on our television screens would do it.
The answer lies not in confiscating the mobile phones of crew members but in phasing out the long haul live sheep export trade, supported by an adjustment assistance package for affected farmers. Come on Minister, make us all a little proud and end the animal suffering on these cruel long haul voyages.