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Adjournment speech: Live Animal Exports

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 16 Mar 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (23:38): On another matter, last week the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources released its quarterly compliance report on the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System known as ESCAS. It was a report that described multiple noncompliances with the system, something those who follow this are not surprised at. It included many more examples of the inhumane treatment of our exported animals.

ESCAS was introduced in 2011 by the Gillard government, following the suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia. It took the exposure of horrific cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs on the ABC Four Corners program, 'A Bloody Business', to make the government acknowledge through legislation that exporters must take responsibility for the treatment of Australian animals in overseas markets. The bill that should have been introduced is one that would have ended the live export trade, but instead we got ESCAS-a half measure designed to make out that live export cruelty can be eliminated. But how can you rule on cruelty to Australian live exports from behind a desk in Canberra? It was Lyn White who took the courageous action to shoot the footage that the ABC Four Corners program used. I congratulate Lyn White, Animals Australia and RSPCA Australia for bringing this matter to the attention of the public and the parliament.

Thousands of Australian cattle were suffering terribly in Indonesian abattoirs. The suspension of trade resulting from Lyn White's revelations stopped further animals being sent to the same fate. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and others in this parliament habitually condemn the animal welfare movement for their work to stop this appalling cruelty. The question Mr Joyce should be asking is why this situation was allowed to develop in the first place. Why were animal welfare advocates forced to go to extreme efforts to expose such appalling practices rather than achieve change through more established channels of communication? The answer is that government processes do not allow independent animal welfare advice, and when such advice was presented to them the government responded by relying on the advice from the live export industry itself-that nothing could be done quickly to address the problems. If there was one abiding lesson to be learnt from the live export tragedy that was exposed in 2011, it is that good decision making in government depends on broad consultation and an independent voice.

Earlier this month a book was published which examines in depth the events surrounding the 2011 suspension. Backlash: Australia's conflict of values over live exports by Dr Bidda Jones and Julian Davies perceptively analyses the history of the live trade and its ongoing failure. The book is incisive in its portrayal of the continuing loss of broad advice to government since 2011. Soon after the Liberal-National government gained office, and while mouthing its concern for animal welfare, it systematically shut down the various committees that provided perspective on animal welfare policy, claiming that the Department of Agriculture would play that role. With brazen speed it then shut down the very section of the Department of Agriculture that advised on these matters. The initial decision to close its advisory bodies was not justifiable on cost-saving grounds, as most of the experts on these panels provided their services gratis and incidental costs were minor. These decisions have left the federal government with no considered, researched advice on animal welfare issues.

The extraordinary irony here is that many of these committees and working groups were actually set up under the Howard government's Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. The connection between trade success and animal welfare reputation was recognised by that previous coalition government. However, that understanding was aggressively thrown aside by the Abbott government and continues to be something Prime Minister Turnbull has done nothing to correct.

There is another issue here. The Department of Agriculture has intrinsic difficulty in considering ethical issues because of its conflicting role of promoting successful agricultural trade while supposedly looking after animal welfare. While attempting to remain impartial, our bureaucrats are heavily lobbied by the industry and are hostage to a political process that places an absolute premium on economic income without demanding that this income is derived through ethical practices. Unlike some comparable countries, Australia has no independent body to oversee and reconcile competing interests within the department's responsibilities.

The establishment of such an overseeing body, such as the Greens' proposed independent office of animal welfare, is clearly needed. The Greens bill for such an office was introduced last year, and is awaiting the support of the Liberals and Nationals and Labor. Surely that body should be set up?

The urgent need for balanced advice is underlined by the continuing failings of the trade and of ESCAS itself. Despite the improvements it offered, the ESCAS is a structurally flawed system. Apart from the intrinsic issues with attempting to regulate trade in sovereign countries where Australia has no jurisdiction, there are numerous other problems. ESCAS uses World Organisation for Animal Health requirements for handling and slaughter. These standards are far lower than those in Australia. This is a supply chain with endemic leakage inspected by auditors that are selected, employed and paid for by the exporters, and with no direct government oversight or inspection. It clearly is not working; I would say it cannot work.

ESCAS allows the government to shield itself from direct engagement with or knowledge of actual practice. Instead of repeatedly blaming the animal welfare movement for exposing the failure, what is the industry's responsibility to ensure exported animals are treated humanely? Those in this place who support the live export trade should be doing their utmost to listen to the growing concerns and ensure that history does not repeat itself with more live export scandals.

 

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