Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 September 2019


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

12:10 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | Hansard source

The Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports Bill 2019 aims to provide an additional independent layer of accountability and assurance over the regulation of Australia's livestock exports. The bill's purpose is twofold: (1) to promote continual improvements in the regulatory practice, performance and culture of the department's function as the authority responsible for the administration and operation of the export regulatory system as it applies to the export of livestock in Australia; and (2) to provide an additional layer of accountability and assurance over the regulation of Australia's livestock exports.

The agriculture minister's speech made it clear that the inspector-general, in addition to providing greater assurance in the regulation of live animals, will also review and report on broader animal welfare issues. It is important to make this point, as the bill itself did not initially mention animal welfare. So Labor is pleased that the government has moved amendments to clarify the intent of the bill. However, the fact that it has taken the coalition government over six years to ensure that there is another layer of independent oversight to the regulator says a lot about the culture of this government and its attitude towards animal welfare.

I also note that the minister's speech, on cue, did mention the 2011 suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia, making the bizarre claim, 'It's amazing how quickly we have forgotten.' Nobody on this side has forgotten and nobody is shying away from how difficult the suspension was. The Liberal-National coalition government remind the parliament at every opportunity, but their political motivation is telling of how this sad government works. For the last six years, there has been a lot of talk from the coalition government, but yet again we have seen very little real, long-term action. The bill that we are discussing today is not new and should have been legislated no less than six years ago.

I want to make it clear that Labor will be supporting the bill. However, I will be moving a second reading amendment which criticises the government for abolishing the Inspector-General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports position established by the former Labor government. This decision removed an additional layer of accountability for the regulator and contributed to the demise of public confidence in the regulator.

If the government had legislated the inspector-general bill back in 2013, the regulator possibly would have better understood what they should have considered in terms of animal welfare when issuing export permits. It took the 2018 60 Minutes program to expose the fact that animal welfare was not properly considered before the regulator issued permits.

The fact is mortality is not—and I say again: not—an indicator of animal welfare; it is just an indicator of death. I acknowledge that the minister does admit that Australians were 'appalled' in 2018 when they saw footage of sheep dying on voyages to the Middle East, and many were further angered by the assessment that the mortality incidents report 'did not match the footage'. However, I note that the minister omits talking about the Morrison government shutting down, overnight, the live sheep trade during the Middle Eastern summer, without any support being provided to the affected sheep farmers—the Morrison government. Indeed, that might be why we have another new agriculture minister, because the previous minister, Mr Littleproud, did take the issue seriously and made many tough decisions which revealed failings by the regulator and a massive problem in the culture within the department.

But let's go back to 2013. On 30 July 2013 the former Labor agriculture minister, the member for Hunter, announced that Labor would appoint an inspector-general of animal welfare and live animal exports. The position would have added another layer of assurance that our regulatory system was delivering the animal welfare outcomes we want through auditing and reviewing the investigative and compliance processes. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? At the time, Labor made it clear that, with the new position, there would be no additional burden of red tape on our exporters or on our trading partners, that the position was to provide confidence that appropriate animal welfare outcomes were being met—it was not about shutting the industry down—and that the position was a sensible extension of a world's best system that balances the need to ensure that the regulatory system is delivering the international animal welfare standards the Australian community expects.

It is important to reflect on the concept of the 'world's best system', because this system was put in place by Labor very quickly post the suspension of the trade in 2011. This system, for those who don't know, is called the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, which we refer to as ESCAS. ESCAS has ensured the long-term sustainability of the trade—in particular, the cattle trade. The inspector-general might have ensured the long-term sustainability of the sheep trade, as the heat stress of the sheep might have been brought to the attention of the regulator earlier and changes in animal welfare standards could have been developed.

But, back in 2013, post the election, the then agriculture minister—that's another one altogether, the member for New England, and we know who that is—made it clear what the culture should be from the regulator. Actually, I'll make it even clearer; it was Mr Barnaby Joyce. He said that that would have an inherent conflict of delivering the minister's mandate and trying to be an independent regulator even though the position is not a statutory position. So, on 31 October 2013, three ministers ago, the former minister—as I said, the member for New England—abolished the inspector-general, claiming that the inspector-general was 'a classic example of layer upon layer of bureaucracy without any practical outcome'. He also said that the livestock export regulator 'was already, and remains, subject to appropriate oversight and review mechanisms'. He also said that this was 'one bit of red tape we can do without'. Remember, this is Mr Joyce, the member for New England.

But Mr Joyce wasn't the only opponent. Surprise, surprise, the National Farmers' Federation also appeared short-sighted—I don't say that too lightly, because, unfortunately, I've had to deal with them many times—and wrote to the former minister, claiming that the NFF 'is concerned that the proposed independent inspector-general of animal welfare and live animal exports addresses a perceived political problem but does not address the concerns of industry, animal welfare groups and stakeholders. Any new institution must not be a cost on industry and must not add extra compliance onto industry.' I'll go on. This is still the NFF, who said that industry is 'fully committed to improving animal welfare on farm and across supply chains in Australia and in our overseas livestock export markets. We are proud that our starting point is world's best practice as international stewards in this area. It is important that we work together to further strengthen the robust regulatory structures that we currently have in place.' That was the NFF.

Now, ensuring that appropriate animal welfare standards are achieved will be possible only once all those who have an interest in the trade take animal welfare seriously. 'Animal welfare' is not a dirty word. It is good for productivity and for Australia's trading reputation. This bill is a step in the right direction. However, more transparency, so we see that the regulator is doing the job it should be doing, will go a very long way.

The minister is refusing to release a number of reports, including the heat stress risk assessment report and the final investigation report into the allegations made in the media that live export workers had been offered money to obtain and leak footage of animal cruelty on export vessels and that whistleblowers had offered to cut off ventilation and switch off exhaust fans to distressed sheep on voyages in order to receive payments. The fact is that over the last six years we've had three ministers. The first set the culture of 'nothing to see here'; you know who that is. Then the second minister, Mr Littleproud, tried to clean up the mess he inherited. Now we have a test for the new Minister for Agriculture: to ensure that the regulator is able to do its job without fear or favour.

As I said before, Labor supports this bill. However, I move the following second reading amendment on sheet No. 8747 standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate:

(a) condemns the action of the Coalition government which in 2013 abolished the position of Inspector-General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports, established by the former Labor government; and

(b) notes that this decision removed an additional layer of accountability, contributing to the loss of public confidence in the regulator."

Can I speak to the amendments now, Madam Deputy President?


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