Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has added to a growing chorus of voices calling for the Federal Government to take stronger action against live export companies found to be repeatedly breaching animal welfare standards in foreign markets.
Mr Wilkie, one of the live animal export trade’s most vocal opponents, last week met with cattle producers, business people and exporters directly involved in the northern cattle export trade at the invitation of the NT Livestock Exporters Association and the NT Cattleman’s Association.
In an interview with Beef Central yesterday Mr Wilkie said last week’s visit had not changed his opposition to the trade, but had presented a valuable opportunity to hear first hand from those directly involved in live animal exports, and to explain his own reasons for opposing it.
Mr Wilkie confirmed that he will accept an invitation to travel on a live export vessel to Indonesia later this year, provided he can pick the vessel upon which he travels, to ensure it is “typical” of the trade.
While acknowledging that the trade had made improvements to animal welfare standards in recent years, he said the sheer volume of breaches still being exposed, and the diverse range of markets in which they are being detected, were proof of the industry’s ongoing systemic failures to properly address animal welfare.
The Tasmanian MP said he will continue to fight for the closure of the trade, but in the meantime will also push for greater animal welfare improvements.
On this front he said he would like to see a greater proportion of Australia’s foreign aid budget in developing countries directed toward improving animal welfare practices in foreign markets, such as providing stunning equipment to Indonesian abattoirs.
More action against repeat ESCAS offenders
Mr Wilkie said the livestock export industry can only survive in the long term if it can convince the wider community that it has effective animal welfare safeguards in place.
On the current number of complaints being lodged against the industry, the industry was failing to achieve that goal.
Echoing comments made by the former RSCPA president Lyn Bradshaw at an export industry conference in Townsville last November, Mr Wilkie said it was in the industry’s best interest to see stronger action taken against exporters who were repeatedly breaching animal welfare rules.
“There is one (live export company) in particular that has been accused of repeated breaches of animal welfare safeguards,” Mr Wilkie said.
“It would actually be in the livestock export industry’s best interest if the Government shut that particular firm down, or any other firm that had repeatedly breached the rules.
“I think the Government is being quite naïve by failing to take strong action. I think the industry would have a more certain future if stronger action were taken from time to time.”
The number of complaints being levied against the industry is also sparking increased calls for stronger action from within the cattle production sector.
Records on the Federal Department of Agriculture website show that the department has commenced 25 investigations into allegations of regulatory non-compliance in the livestock export industry since February 2012.
Of those investigations, 12 are still going, some of which have been underway since May 2013.
It is also worth noting that, while each initial complaint tends to generate a raft of negative media headlines for the live export industry, not all complaints result in findings of non-compliance. Of the 13 investigations completed so far, only seven have resulted in findings of non-compliance, and a number of these were regarded as minor or technical non-compliances.
However, the adverse media coverage and negative public perceptions about the entire industry generated every time a complaint is lodged remain, which is causing increasing frustration at producer level.
In mid-December following the release of disturbing footage of cattle being treated inhumanely in Gaza, North Queensland cattle producer and former Cattle Council of Australia president Greg Brown called for the license of the exporter involved to be suspended until the Government investigation into the incident was completed.
"I'm quite amazed to see this having occurred and it having been around for months and the live exporter allegedly responsible hasn't had his licence suspended," he told ABC Radio following the incident.
"Until he is exonerated, I think there should not be any chance of this particular exporter is going to put cattle back into that market or any market for that matter."
Similar comments were made by Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association executive director Luke Bowen on ABC Radio earlier this month following confirmation that 4179 sheep had died on a vessel operated by Jordanian owned, WA-Based exporting company Livestock Shipping Services in September last year. Mr Bowen said if investigations found that a company had breached Australian export regulations, the company should be dealt with fully.
"We have to be really, really definite about this. It's a system that's been put in place to protect the welfare of these animals going abroad, and it's there to pick up the transgressors and when they do (break the rules), throw the book at them," Mr Bowen said.
The Cattle Council of Australia has also confirmed that it wrote to minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce earlier this month asking for the department to speed up its investigations into alleged mistreatment of Australian livestock in overseas markets.
Cattle Council of Australia executive director Jed Matz told Beef Central this week that a number of producers had expressed frustration that continual instances of mistreatment in live export markets were reflecting badly on the entire supply chain, and that some companies were repeatedly at the centre of allegations of mistreatment.
Mr Matz said it was not CCA's role to play policeman of the industry, pointing out that a legislative framework managed by Government was in place to investigate and impose penalties on offenders where identified.
However CCA had written to the Government asking for more resources to be invested in speeding up the investigation process. The Council has also spelled out its support for harsh penalties where appropriate.
“It is entirely up to the Government as to how they determine any penalties that may be applied, and it is really up to those people doing the investigation to do that, because the breach could be very minor, it could be a one-off incidental.
“But what we have expressed to the Government is that we support ESCAS and we will support the Government if they find any exporter to be flagrantly disregarding ESCAS or doing anything knowingly to dodge the rules, that we would support harsh penalties.
“It is not for us to say what those penalties are, but the integrity of the industry is more important than anyone individual.”
Beef Central has asked the Australian Livestock Exporters Council for its views on the adequacy of existing ESCAS investigations and penalties which will follow in another story.