On 10 September 2012 Lee moved the following urgency motion that triggered a debate in the Senate on live exports:
“The Gillard Government’s failure to properly regulate and monitor the live export trade via the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System and ensure animal welfare concerns are properly addressed.”
Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (15:58):
Today we debate the ongoing animal welfare crisis in the live export trade. It is saddens and distresses me to think of the suffering of animals sold into the live export trade. These are concerns shared by the majority of Australians. There is a systemic failure to ensure the welfare of animals being exported from Australia. Sheep and cattle continue to suffer inhumane treatment under the government's live export supply chain assurance system. The system is fatally flawed because it was never designed to ensure animal welfare. It was hatched by industry and bureaucrats as a political fix and as a means to manage media, that has done so much to inform the public of the cruel reality of the live export trade.
In 2011, when the ABC's Four Corners program exposed the cruel, brutal exploitation of animals on long voyages and their horrific treatment in overseas abattoirs, the Gillard Labor government was forced to halt the trade and set up an inquiry in response to the public outrage and concern. The government went into crisis mode and established a dedicated live exports body to manage the public outcry, and a series of industry-government working groups cobbled together a new regulatory system.
What emerged from that process was the resumption of the live export trade with new rules. But it has proven to be business as usual for the industry, with ongoing cruelty and suffering for the animals. The simple truth of the matter is that there is no humane way to ship thousands of animals across the world to slaughter. The only humane solution is to ban the live export trade and instead assist an industry transition in Australia to develop an ethical meat processing and export market.
The reality was brought into stark relief last week when once again ABC television aired shocking footage taken by an Animals Australia investigation which exposed the cruel slaughter of Australian sheep in an illegal Kuwaiti market. The Al Rai market in Kuwait, which has been the scene of terrible animal rights abuses, is not approved under the government's new supply chain system, so it is illegal for livestock to be sent there. However, hundreds of Australian sheep have been openly sold in this market in blatant disregard of the new regulatory system. I congratulate Animals Australia and Lyn White for the investigative footage that was screened in Australia last week. Without this information we would not know about the abuses of this system. There is no-one on the ground in these destination countries to oversee compliance with the federal government's regulations.
The incident at Al Rai market is an extremely serious breach of the new Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System. It should lead to the exporter facing criminal sanctions and losing their licence. This is needed to send a clear message to the industry and the public that any failure to comply with the new system will not be tolerated. The agriculture minister, Mr Joe Ludwig, needs to fully answer for his department's slow response to this distressing incident and why they passed responsibility on to the exporter to ensure that animals do not end up in illegal markets. The government is failing to protect animal welfare because its system is failing badly, and we are left to rely on the diligence of Animals Australia to monitor the live export trade. While the Greens are critical of the Al Rai market incident, we do welcome that the government has set up an investigation into this matter.
A few days before this story broke we had also heard that there were two live export sheep shipments stranded for over a week in the Middle East. After spending 33 days at sea—more than double the length of time the trip from Australia to Bahrain usually takes—about 22,000 sheep destined for Kuwait were left stranded off Bahrain, trapped and crowded in sweltering summer temperatures. The memorandum of understanding that requires the sheep to be unloaded within 36 hours of reaching port was not enforced. The sheep were eventually offloaded in Bahrain and Pakistan, but very little information is available about the welfare or the mortality rates of the sheep on board. Every one of those sheep suffered, making a mockery of the MOU that supposedly assures their welfare.
An official government investigation into these two shipments needs to be called. The department should be publicly held to account for their handling of the rejections and what appears to be their willingness to participate in a cover-up for the industry. The public expect that the department, as a body independent of the live export industry, will provide an accurate assessment of events. However, that did not occur in response to these shipments. The department, in one of its statements, referred to 'delays in approval to unload the sheep in Bahrain'. However, there were no delays. The animals were rejected, otherwise they would not have been forced to source an alternate market for the sheep in Pakistan. The department also stated:
This use of an alternate port is consistent with the requirement for exporters to have contingency arrangements in place for all voyages.
That statement is completely misleading. How could Pakistan have been a contingency plan when it did not have ESCAS—Export Supply Chain Assurance System—approval at that time and Pakistan has never taken Australian sheep? It was a case of deception rather than decency. It also should be noted that neither the RSPCA nor Animals Australia were officially notified of these incidents. The RSPCA especially should have been told, as they are represented on the review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock, which relates to selection and inspection of animals.
The department also appears to be trying to keep the line that there has not been a high level of mortality in these incidents. Without a high-mortality event there would be no official government investigation into either the Ocean Shearer's refusal to unload or the Al Shuwaikh. There are reports coming out that the department has said that 22,000 sheep were unloaded when the Pakistan government agreed to that shipment arriving there. But the Pakistani government is reporting that it was 21,000 sheep that were unloaded. So again there is a discrepancy indicating a high level of mortality that needs to be further explored.
All these developments underline why the agriculture minister should initiate a full and transparent investigation into the voyages of both the Ocean Drover and the Al Shuwaikh. It is disheartening to reflect that in 2003 over 6,000 sheep died on the MV Cormo Express while waiting to be unloaded in the Persian Gulf and 10 years on we still have not learnt the lesson that the welfare of animals bound for live export cannot be assured. There is a clear way forward for the Australian meat and livestock industry if a ban on live exports was in place. Thousands of jobs could be created by making the shift to processing more meat in Australia. ACIL Tasman's 2009 review into the live sheep trade found that phasing out live sheep exports would have long-term benefits for farmers and the economy.
In the 1970s the Australian meat processing industry employed between 40,000 and 48,000 workers. By 2009 the number had dropped to around 32,000 workers. Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union figures show that 150 meat processing plants have shut down due to the live export trade. This trade has been a drain on the meat processing industry, with flow-on effects for those in regional communities. A ban on live exports could be a win-win outcome for both animal welfare and Australian jobs.
This week the House of Representatives member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, has his livestock export bill down to be debated in the House. It calls for more humane treatment of live export animals and mandatory preslaughter stunning. The Greens do support the bill, although we believe it should be extended to cover ritual slaughter. It would be a step forward to protect the welfare of all these animals. However, we do know that the only answer to guaranteeing the welfare of these animals remains the implementation of a ban on live exports. The Greens will await the outcome of the investigation into the breach of the live export regulations in Kuwait.
I urge all parties and members to reconsider their position and to consider supporting the Greens private member's bill to ban the live trade, which is the only way forward to end this farce of industry self-regulation, to end the controversy and, most importantly, to end the cruel suffering of these animals, help create tens of thousands of jobs in Australia and boost local and regional economies.