WESTERN Australian farmers are hoping live sheep shipments will resume with changes to export licence approval regulations discussed with Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud in Perth yesterday.
Mr Littleproud and farmers yesterday discussed whether export licence approval could be given at a much earlier stage in the shipment process, minimising risk for exporters willing to organise Middle East shipments in the remaining northern summer months.
Since the suspension of export licences held by Emanuel Exports in June and of its subsidiary EMS Rural Exports in July, no sheep have been exported from the state to the Middle East.
The exporters were suspended following the release of footage showing dead and dying overheated sheep on several voyages to the Middle East, including the deaths of about 2400 sheep supplied by Emanuel Exports in one shipment in 2017. This has prompted community outrage, government investigations, new loading density rules and higher penalties for animal welfare infringements and legislation to phase out the Middle East northern summer trade.
Other WA exporters have been reluctant to commit to shipments while there is a threat of a legal injunction by Animals Australia if the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources issues a licence during the northern summer months.
Export licences are usually issued by the department after sheep have been loaded onto a vessel and just before departure. Sheep Central has been told exporters are reluctant to commit to loading while the risk of legal action to halt a shipment just before departure exists. For a live export shipment licence to be issued, the cargo has to be approved by the department.
WAFarmers president Tony York said bringing forward the time at which an export licence is approved would mean an earlier “trigger point” for legal action, giving time for this to be resolved before too much cost or investment has been incurred by an exporter.
“He (Littleproud) is looking to see if he can bring it forward … as far forward as possible,” Mr York said.
“There is some talk of even before the stock get to a feedlot, but I’m not sure if that is plausible.
“My understanding is that the minister is indicating that could happen hopefully in the next few weeks,” he said.
“It’s difficult because it involves changing regulations, but it can be done and he has been working on it.”
Exporters are also concerned about the viability of new loading density and ventilation requirements for northern summer shipments up to the end of October as recommended in the recent McCarthy Review.
“My understanding is that this refers to having a boat in the Gulf by the 30th of October.
“There is no reason why a shipment can’t be prepared two weeks before that, so it won’t be arriving in the Gulf until after the 30th of October – but I don’t think that can be changed for this year,” Mr York said.
Farmers also yesterday sought clarity from the minister around the show cause notice status of suspended exporter Emanuel Exports.
“We are going to get a pretty clear indication shortly (in a few week’s time) about what Emanuel’s future is in terms of being an exporter and I understand will also give the other exporters a clear indication of whether there is an opportunity for them or not,” Mr York said.
He said resumption of the trade was still possible within weeks if Emanuel’s status is resolved, or if the point at which a licence is issued is brought forward to lessen the risk of an exporter getting “caught in a bottleneck” with sheep if the regulator is fighting an Animals Australia injunction.
“Those two things, I’m saying, could become very clear, in two or three weeks’ time, from what the minister is saying, and the clarity of that might give the opportunity for another exporter to be involved.
“But they’ve all got ships elsewhere, except the Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading ships (Al Shuwaikh and Al Messilah anchored off Perth) are out there waiting and if Emanuel doesn’t get its licence renewed, I’m sure KLTT will be more than happy to let someone else use those ships,” he said.
“There is a real chance that a pathway might be clear in two or three weeks’ time, but then it is two or three weeks after that before you can get sheep together and get a boat actually sailing.
“The only boat that can be there in the middle of September is one of those off Perth now.”
Mr York said it was gratifying that Mr Littleproud was looking at the barrier represented by the mooted Animals Australia legal action.
Mr Littleproud confirmed that the regulator was working toward “streamlining the injunction process in being able meet some of those requests that exporters have asked.”
“We’re waiting on legal advice for that and in fact, we’re hoping to have that in the coming couple of weeks and then that will be able to provide much certainty to the exporters.
“But more importantly the farmers behind me to be able to get on with the job to get their sheep out,” he said.
“The reality is that, even without that, the Australian Government will strenuously defend any injunction put against any shipment of a licence or permit that we issue.
“So the reality is, it’s game on from here, but if they are looking for that extra comfort, the Australian Government is working towards that, but we are going to make sure it’s legal and we are doing it in a proper manner,” he said.
Mr Littleproud said his department had received advice that streamlining the process would not require legislation.
“It’s an order that I can give as the Agriculture Minister …. I can pass that regulation.”
Mr York said he hoped all exporters were aware the proposed regulation change was being addressed, although Mr Littleproud is still refusing to meet with exporters. Mr Littleproud yesterday said it was important that exporters meet with the independent regulator.
“I can’t give them the surety around the rules and the regulations, that’s what the independent regulator is for, it’s important that I stay at arm’s length from that and we let this process go through in a calm and decisive way.
“We can’t emotive about this , we just have to be calm and decisive and make sure that we get the outcome that we are all looking for — a boat leaving and proving to the world that we export sheep in the best anyone can.”
Mr Littleproud said Emanuel Exports was facing serious matters.
“I’m not privy to any of that, I’ll leave it to the independent regulator to make a determination and we are hoping to have some clarity around that in the next couple of weeks.”
Mr Littleproud said the live trade is open “and will continue to be open while this government is in place.”
“There is no backing away from it, we will make sure that we get this right.
“We won’t back way from animal welfare, but it is important that we can prove to the nation, we can prove to the world that we can get this right for Australia – we do it better than anyone else,” he said.
“And I am calling on any exporter to put their hand up, to get a ship and prove to the world that we are ready and open for business.”
Before speaking to reporters, Mr Littleproud told delegates at the Lambex 2018 conference at the Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre it was important to him that the live trade for sheep and cattle continue in perpetuity.
“I can give you that assurance, as federal Agriculture Minister, I will stand shoulder to shoulder with you to make sure we get this industry right.
“It’s far too important to regional Australia,” he said.
“We intend to support any exporter that puts their hand up – they can put their hand up tomorrow and they will have the Australian Government by their side and we will defend any injunction that gets placed against us.”
Mr Littleproud also announced $1.5 million in pests and weeds assistance for drought-stricken WA farmers.