Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Bills

Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports Bill 2019; Second Reading

1:16 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

The live export industry is of critical importance to Australia and particularly to the Northern Territory. The aim of the Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports Bill 2019—to provide an additional, independent layer of accountability and assurance over the regulation of Australia's livestock exports—is important. It is vital that one of the north's most important industries can continue to operate with confidence in regulations, accountability provisions and assurance. We need to restore confidence in the industry and for the industry.

The fact is that this bill should have been legislated six years ago. If the government had legislated the inspector-general bill back in 2013, the regulator may have better understood what they should have considered in terms of animal welfare when issuing export permits. Exporters would not have faced the uncertainty they did last year when a TV program exposed that these considerations were not occurring.

Labor announced in July 2013 it would be appointing an Inspector-General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports. In what does seem like deja vu, this position would have added another layer of assurance that our regulatory system was delivering the animal welfare outcomes we wanted. The position was to provide confidence that appropriate animal welfare outcomes were being met. It was not about shutting the industry down. The inspector-general position would have made sure the regulatory system was delivering the international animal welfare standards the Australian community expects.

The position was abolished by the former minister for agriculture, the member for New England, who said it was just another layer of bureaucracy, of red tape. Yet here we are with this government presenting this legislation to set up the position of inspector-general. Labor will be supporting the bill, but, as my colleagues have flagged, we would like more transparency, to see that the regulator is doing the job it should be doing. The live export industry is a major industry in the Northern Territory. Our producers support initiatives that will strengthen the integrity of the regulatory system and provide the Australian community with greater assurances that Australian livestock are handled and slaughtered humanely, here or when exported overseas.

The live export of cattle from the Territory was valued at $520 million in 2018, up 33 per cent from 2017. Fifty-seven per cent of the total NT cattle herd is destined to be turned off into the live cattle trade. Darwin is the largest live cattle port in Australia, with more than 400,000 cattle exported in 2018 to South-East Asian markets.

The live cattle trade employs more than 10,000 people through the supply chain across northern Australia. The potential to grow the export of both live cattle trade and water buffalo export trade offers a real opportunity for the Territory, with benefits of more local jobs. In the context of buffalo, it also offers the opportunity to reduce the impact of feral water buffalos on our environment. There are significant opportunities for First Nations people in the Northern Territory to benefit from growth in buffalo exports. Plans to further develop the industry are being developed in south-east Arnhem Land, supported by the Northern Territory government. There is potential to build exports to 30,000 buffalo per annum; in 2017 there were 10,000 buffalo exported. If you've never tried buffalo, I can highly recommend giving it a try—as you should with most things in the Northern Territory!

In terms of the overall live export industry in the Territory, we already supply around a third of live exports into Indonesia, and opportunities are expected to increase as a consequence of the new free trade agreement with Indonesia signed in March this year. The live cattle export trade sustains a raft of industry support services, including veterinary, transport and agency businesses. This is identified across Australia but is particularly important in the vast expanse of northern Australia, where services are separated by distance. Any reduction in the trade would place pressure on the continuation of these services, particularly in remote communities where the live cattle export sector is a key industry offering employment opportunities—particularly, as I said earlier, in First Nations communities.

Animal welfare is, of course, a key issue for our live export industry. I note that the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources has accepted new Australian standards for the export of livestock. One of the recommendations is to lower stocking densities on board export ships. This will lead to new costs. Reports vary, and the extent of the impact is not yet fully known. However, it is estimated that there will be cost implications for margins somewhere between two per cent and 10 per cent, which may be passed on to producers.

The impact of the Australian government ministerial directive that all livestock export shipments require an independent observer on board vessels has also added costs to our exporters. Whilst the Northern Territory livestock export industry remains committed to supporting transparency and improvements to animal welfare, it believes that the extra requirements add an unnecessary and significant regulatory and financial burden on the industry. The financial burden of carrying an IO falls more heavily on small ships, including many of those operating out of Darwin and those used by the main buffalo exporters. However, some of these exporters have been able to gain exemption, as there is insufficient accommodation on their smaller ships to carry an observer. This has addressed some of the strongest complaints, although it does not solve the problem for all exporters.

The current live export cattle price is around $3.05 per kilo. The tightening of supplies has started to push the market higher after months of depressed prices due to dry-condition destocking throughout the north and areas flooded not yet being restocked. There is some optimism that better conditions in recent weeks will encourage producers to restock, which may lead to higher prices later in the year.

Export numbers were strong in 2018. Total live cattle exports through the port of Darwin were 404,401 head, with 271,000—or 67 per cent—Northern Territory cattle. The NT government is committed to seeking better animal welfare outcomes, investing $5 million in live export yards and implementing the Australian animal welfare standards under the Livestock Act and regulations. I note that the live export industry plays a very important role during drought, in southern Australia in particular. As a competitive buyer within the beef supply chain, the live export industry is able to support domestic cattle prices at times when the market is saturated with stock, providing an alternative sales outlet for Australian farmers.

I'd like to finish by stressing that this position of inspector-general of live animal exports must be supported so that the job can be done without fear or favour and, most importantly, assurance and certainty can be provided to the industry, albeit six years too late.

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