Live exports on knife-edge as buyers search for new markets

Cally Dupe and Elle FarcicCountryman
VideoReview into live exporting recommends sheep numbers be reduced

The future of WA’s live export industry is hanging in the balance, with the State Government waiting on legal advice over whether it can ban shipments as the biggest buyer of animals threatened to look elsewhere.

Farmers have endured a nerve-racking week, which included;

  • The handing down of the long-awaited McCarthy review.
  • The Federal Government supporting the recommendations.
  • A senior live export figure avoiding a jail term.
  • The introduction of a private member’s Bill to ban the trade.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud welcomed all 23 recommendations put forward in veterinarian Michael McCarthy’s four-week review of live sheep exports to the Middle East.

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There will be no ban on the live sheep trade in the Middle Eastern summer but Mr Littleproud said there would be “serious and meaningful change to the industry”.

Major changes include a reduction in stocking densities by up to 28 per cent, giving sheep up to 39 per cent more space, as part of what Mr McCarthy said was a “seismic shift from stocking density based on animal mortality, to one based on animal welfare”.

Independent observers will also be required on all live sheep and cattle voyages, reporting back to the Federal Government on a daily basis, including footage of the journey.

Stricter heat stress assessments will also be developed for the 2019 northern summer, with the reportable mortality level to be halved from 2 to one per cent. This means if more than one per cent of sheep die, it must be reported immediately and investigated.

Live exporters will face harsh new penalties for breaching strict conditions on the trade.

Breaking the rules would see live export companies face a fine of either $4.2 million, three times the benefit gained by the company, or 10 per cent of the company’s annual turnover — whichever was greatest.

Company directors could also face 10 years jail or a $2.1 million fine, while individuals convicted of the same offence could face 10 years jail or a $420,000 fine.

VideoAnimals Australia has released shocking video of animal abuse on a live sheep export vessel to the Middle East last year. WARNING: Distressing content.

Mr Littleproud has also pledged to introduce a Bill in coming weeks, to amend the Australian Meat and Livestock Industry Act to “punish those who seek to profit from breaking the export rules, including around stocking densities and poor animal welfare practices”.

Agricultural groups in WA welcomed the review’s recommendations, and breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no ban, while animal-rights groups accused the Government of ignoring evidence suggesting the trade needed to end now.

Although Mr Littleproud’s response will allow the trade to continue, farmers are still likely to take a financial hit.

Industry sources say the new density restrictions, which reduce the number of sheep on vessels by up to 30 per cent in summer months, are likely to add about $20 a head in costs.

WAFarmers president Tony York said he accepted the industry still had a lot of work to do to restore public confidence, after the release last month of shocking vision of the condition of sheep on a voyage from WA, in which 2400 animals died.

“Overwhelmingly the growers will be pleased to know there is still a pathway going through the next four to six months, in terms of the summer trade,” he said.

“The market is still going to be there and we are hopeful that can stabilise the livestock market.”

The new rules were welcomed by industry, but condemned by the RSPCA and animal welfare groups.

WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the State Government would still look to push ahead with restricting trade in hot months, using State animal welfare laws.

Momentum for a ban gained traction in Canberra when Liberal backbencher Sussan Ley introduced a private member’s Bill on Monday to stop live exports to the Middle East in the northern summer from next year, and phase out the trade over the next five years.

Overwhelmingly the growers will be pleased to know there is still a pathway going through the next four to six months, in terms of the summer trade.

Tony York

The former Federal health minister has the support of Labor and at least two of her colleagues, Victorian Liberals Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood, and said she had spoken to several more who were “very supportive”.

The fallout from the McCarthy review came as a senior WA live export figure on Tuesday avoided an immediate jail term for falsifying documents as part of a disastrous export operation that ended with 22,000 sheep being brutally slaughtered in Pakistan.

Garry John Shawcross Robinson, 46, was working as a general manager for Perth-based exporter Wellard in August 2012 when the company had a shipment of sheep turned away from Bahrain.

Robinson sought approval from the Australian Government to redirect the ship to a buyer in Pakistan and provided forged documents to officials.

The sheep were then destroyed in horrific circumstances after local health officials said some of the animals were infected with salmonella, sparking a protracted animal welfare scandal and calls to ban live exports.

District Court Judge Michael Gething sentenced Robinson to 18-months jail on Tuesday, but suspended the term and immediately released him on a $20,0000 recognisance order.

He said Robinson clearly knew what he was doing when he instigated a plan to alter documents provided by Pakistani officials and sent a doctored letter to the Australian Government.

Defence lawyer Sam Vandongsen argued his client was under enormous pressure and made a bad decision in an emergency situation.

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