LIVE sheep exporters are adamant they can prove they have a social licence to continue operating, despite comments by Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt at a Senate Estimates hearing this week.
While recognising the sector had made mortality rate improvements, Mr Watt told the hearing the industry had “lost their social licence because of a range of incidents” and community opinion is that live sheep exports should be phased out.
Mr Watt’s comments prompted Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council chief executive officer Mark Harvey-Sutton to respond that he “absolutely believed” the industry still had a social licence to continue.
“And the performance of the industry over the last five years demonstrates that the industry has a willingness to do that – the performance has been outstanding.
“The evidence that we will present to him demonstrates the industry is reformed and should continue.”
Mr Harvey-Sutton said the Labor Government’s policy to phase-out live sheep exports, though not in the current term, was unwarranted and risked causing economic problems for Australia’s producers and their overseas trading partners.
“This policy is unnecessary, and we do not support it.”
“This is an industry that has reformed and supports thousands of workers in rural Western Australia and this move would threaten 3000 jobs within the supply chain locally,” he said.
“This reform has been recognised by the Western Australian Premier and the Western Australian Agriculture Minister.
“The improvements the industry has made have been recognised and acknowledged by Minister Watt,” he said.
“There is clear evidence of this reform and Western Australian producers must be mortified that their industry is being dictated by an east coast agenda.
“Stating that an industry should be shut down due to past social licence challenges is an alarming precedent that should concern every agricultural industry in Australia,” Mr Harvey-Sutton said.
“The industry’s performance has been outstanding and speaks for itself.
“The policy is unnecessary and fails to acknowledge the importance of the industry to the livestock supply chain of people and our trading partners.”
Mr Harvey-Sutton said it would be impossible for the Western Australian sheep industry to transition away from live sheep exports and into other markets or industries.
“Competition in the market is important for growing Australia’s national sheep industry which yesterday recorded it highest numbers in 15 years – reaching 77 million.”
“Those sheep need markets and our trading partners continue to have a preference for livestock ahead of chilled and frozen meat,” he said.
“It is natural that they look for alternatives given the uncertainty this policy creates, but our industry knows that their preference remains to import Australian livestock due their quality and disease-free status.
“To say otherwise fails to recognise the dynamics of those markets and Australia’s longstanding partnership with them.”
Mr Harvey-Sutton said the possibility of broader implications for Australia’s trade relationship with Middle Eastern countries if the trade was phased out “is a very real risk.”
“The trade continues which demonstrates that the demand still exists and there is a very clear preference for livestock in those markets.”
Mr Sutton said ALEC continued to have a constructive working relationship with Mr Watt, acknowledging that he has given a commitment to make a decision based on science and evidence and in consultation with industry.
“We will be presenting evidence that the policy is unnecessary and that a transition to other markets is not possible in the forthcoming consultation process.”
Although Mr Watt told the Senate hearing that Middle Eastern importers were already looking for alternative sources of sheep, Mr Harvey-Sutton said the industry was getting “a clear message” that their overwhelming preference is for Australian sheep because of their quality, reliability and disease-free status.
RSPCA calls for government to set the phase-out date
The RSPCA today reiterated its strong support for the decision to phase out live sheep export and said it was pleased to see the Federal Government reaffirm its commitment to phasing out “the cruel, unfixable, and unpopular trade”.
RSPCA Australia chief executive officer Richard Mussell said the government has made the decision to end this trade based on the science and evidence.
“The priority now must be setting the end date to secure certainty for the sheep industry.
“The science and evidence is clear,” he said.
“Live sheep export is cruel – sheep suffer extensively and experience extremely poor welfare, both on board live export ships and at their destination.
“Live sheep export is also unfixable – there is simply no way to eliminate these risks and overcome the conditions that result in these deep and inherent animal welfare issues,” he said.
“Finally, live sheep export is not supported by the Australian public, and the community too will be reassured to hear the Australian Government reaffirm its opposition today.
“Put simply, this practice is completely and utterly indefensible,” Mr Mussell said.
“The Federal Government knows this, which is why they took to the election a policy to phase out the trade.
“We welcomed that policy then, and today we welcome the reaffirmation of that commitment.”
Mr Mussell said the RSPCA continues to support the Federal Government decision, but wants to see the dates for this phase out legislated as soon as possible, in this term of Parliament.
“The time is now to put an end date on live sheep export, to close the door on one of the most serious animal welfare issues in Australia today, and stop this shameful and outdated practice once and for all.”
I’m not sure what Harvey-Sutton means when he says they “still” have a social licence to carry on the trade; they have never had a social licence to export live animals, particularly to the Middle East.
Industry banging on about the improvements in mortality rates isn’t doing them any favours. It has been universally recognised that the “success” of live animal exports cannot be measured by mortality alone, but must be based on welfare outcomes, i.e., not how many sheep (in this instance) die, but how many suffer.
Anyone who has read through the Independent Observer reports of 2018-2020 understands that poor welfare outcomes are still rife:
* dirty feed
* mouldy feed
* feed withheld
* dirty water
* water withheld
* ASEL requirements for space allotment breached often
* ASEL requirements for loading of fit animals breached often (sheep dying from shearing and dog bit wounds)
* ASEL requirements for loading of pregnant ewes (not permitted) breached often
* Heat stress observed every month of the year
Overall, 75 percent of voyages saw breaches of ASEL, and/or ESCAS (upon unloading) or both.
With live sheep exports at the lowest level in the history of serious live sheep exports – 92pc lower than the peak of 2002 and 73pc lower than 10 years ago, it’s time.