MINISTER for Agriculture Murray Watt has rejected suggestions his office offered a “quid pro quo” to the RSPCA around his office’s organisation of a live sheep export panel consultation process.
Mr Watt this week faced accusations that he colluded with the RSPCA around the live sheep phase-out panel announcement in March this year after a Freedom of Information request yielded text message exchanges between the Minister’s office and the animal welfare body.
The text message exchanges show Mr Watt’s office attempted to co-ordinate social media and questions from the RSPCA around the panel and consultation announcement process.
The Nationals said the text message exchange indicated Minister Watt’s office had negotiated and shared information with the RSPCA about the timing of the consultation process, an RSPCA press release and tweets in relation to the phase-out panel process in March.
In the text message exchange, Mr Watt’s office contacted the RSPCA as to whether it was putting out comment after the live export panel was announced on 2 March, and the RSPCA responded “not at this stage” that it was hopeful to hear about the consultation process being announced, “and then we have some positive comments ready to go.”
“Thanks, we’ll be in touch later today re the status of the consultation.”
In a Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee hearing on Wednesday, deputy chair Senator Matt Canavan said the text exchange seemed to indicate that the minister’s office initiated the consultation “based on a quid pro quo with the RSPCA about them putting out positive comments on the end of the live sheep trade.”
Mr Watt questioned Senator Canavan’s characterisation of the text exchange.
“I think that the FOI request that you’re talking about only sought communication between staff in my office and animal welfare organisations – if that request had sought communication with all stakeholders, including industry representatives, it probably would have provided more text messages and records of conversations as well,” Mr Watt said.
“Because certainly in the lead up to the announcement on, I think you said the 3 March – the announcement of the panel – certainly in the lead up to that, my office had quite a lot of interaction with a whole range of stakeholders from industry groups, exporters, farmer’s organisations and animal welfare organisations including to invite them to a briefing that occurred on the morning of the announcement.
Mr Canavan persisted and said the consultation process was announced within 24 hours of the text exchange “seemingly to get positive comment from the animal activist industry.”
“Was there a quid pro quo?” he asked.
“No, I think you are looking for …. on a grassy knoll that doesn’t exist,” Mr Watt said
“What I’ve said to you is that in the days leading up to that announcement my office had extensive discussion and text messages, phone calls, maybe emails with stakeholders across the spectrum on this issue,” Mr Watt said.
“I’m very confident, based on what was happening around that time, that my office made similar approaches to a range of industry based organisations about what their plans were media-wise around the issue, especially because it was pretty widely discussed within the industry and the days leading up to it that we were getting close to announcing the panel.”
A spokesperson for Mr Watt told Sheep Central the text messages referred to were part of widespread contact between ministerial and departmental staff with a broad range of stakeholders including industry, animal welfare groups and unions, about their intended media response to the minister’s announcement of the start of the consultation for the phase out of live sheep exports by sea, and their being invited to a briefing ahead of the announcement.
Mr Watt’s office did not respond to a request to release transcripts of other text message exchanges to illustrate his point.
Leader of The Nationals David Littleproud said Minister Watt had turned his back on the live sheep export industry.
“Minister Watt has shown he’s more comfortable working with activists than farmers on banning the live sheep export industry.
“The fact his office is working with the RSPCA to phase out live sheep is deeply concerning,” Mr Littleproud said.
“Any government prepared to destroy the livelihoods of 3000 Western Australians should first have the courage to face those impacted and defend their scientific reasoning, which the government hasn’t had the temerity to do.
“The industry deserves and needs genuine consultation,” he said.
Industry should be focussed on phaseout, not text messages – RSPCA
RSPCA Australia chief executive officer Richard Mussell said it is absurd to suggest that the RSPCA shouldn’t work with the Federal Government on the live sheep trade pasheout is absurd.
“Of course we talk to the government about a live sheep export phase out. Is the industry seriously suggesting that we shouldn’t do this?
“The government made the right call to transition away from this unpopular, unsustainable and deeply cruel trade,” he said.
“They made the right call by following through on that commitment after the election.
“And they made the right call by consulting widely in the process – which includes talking to the RSPCA, Australia’s leading animal welfare organisation,” Mr Mussell said.
“To seriously suggest that we shouldn’t work with the government on this – and stand up for the hundreds of thousands of sheep who suffer every year on board live export ships as well as the more than 7 in 10 Australians who support a phase out – is absurd.
“Any suggestion that the RSPCA has received ‘preferential treatment’ is false,” he said.
“As a previous Agriculture Minister, Mr Littleproud will be well aware that we engage with the government of the day, just as we did with him and his office.
“The independent panel has been given a clear brief – it’s not if Australia phases out live sheep export, but how and when,” Mr Mussell said.
“The industry should be focused on that rather than on text messages.”
Mr Littleproud was unavailable to answer further questions and had not responded to emailed questions.
Where there is smoke there is fire. If and when we get a season break the grass won’t grow till Spring. Too cold.
Will be far more animal welfare issues around sheep and lamb flock as we can’t sell dry ewes and wethers.
Hay running low and grain prices high.
The Minister’s pants are smouldering . RSPCA, those 7 in 10 people don’t understand or care what is happening on south-west Western Australian farms. They don’t care that the meatworks can’t do the job nor are they caring why. Asking the ignorant is no way to run a country.
Yes that’s what I would expect for the RSPCA to communicate with government on animal welfare and input on the best way possible to phase out live animal exports (sheep) at present. The Nationals have a vested interest in blocking this move. That’s not what the majority of Australians want.
Littleproud did nothing for live animal exports he and his office once told me these animals were very well looked after on these boats. I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe it now. I’d like him and Mr Canavan to accompany these animals in their long haul journey and give their feedback.