On January 20, the Israeli-owned vessel MV Bahijah, carrying almost 17,000 live sheep and cattle, was ordered by Commonwealth Government officials to turn around amid fears of attacks on shipping by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea. The order to turn around, issued by the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, came after the vessel had been at sea for 15 days. Regardless of where you stand on live export, the circumstances following the Commonwealth Government’s decision to return the MV Bahijah are nothing short of an absolute disgrace. And the responsibility for what is either an act of breathtaking incompetence, or cynical political opportunism, must fall with the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt. We are now well into our second week of this livestock vessel sitting off of our shores, while the fate of the 16,500 remaining livestock (around 500 cattle disembarked last week) remains unclear. What this sad and sorry saga has made clear is that the Albanese Government’s decision and dialogue around live export has very little do to with animal welfare, but a lot to do with backdoor factional deal making. Let me explain. No minister in their right mind who has any regard for animal welfare, or a shred of human decency, would or should have allowed the events to unfold in the manner they did. As soon as the decision was made to turn the vessel around, the minister should have taken control of the situation to make sure the animals involved were protected. A responsible Minister for Agriculture would have directed his department to come up with a plan of action that could be enacted as soon as the vessel arrived back in Australian waters. A responsible Minister for Agriculture would have ensured full transparency around the decision-making process and worked cohesively and swiftly with all parties to deliver an outcome. But the Federal minister did not do these things. Instead, he sat on his hands and left the fate of many thousands of animals in limbo, stranded aboard a ship during multiple heat waves, without a plan. Communication between the Federal department, the exporter, producers, and the wider public has been virtually non-existent, with The Nationals WA and stakeholders calling for far greater transparency, accountability, and urgency for well over a week now. The only decision made by the Commonwealth since the MV Bahijah returned was not a decision at all. Instead of a resolution, the Commonwealth rejected the exporter’s licence. A licence which the Commonwealth had originally approved, despite knowing full well the vessel’s journey would take it through a war zone. Australia’s Minister for Agriculture — a former Gold Coast lawyer with no experience raising cattle or tending the land — has done none of the things he should have. If the minister has acted through incompetence, he should be sacked. But whispers among those in the industry suggest this was not an act of incompetence, but a minister playing politics, using the plight of 17,000 animals as pawns in a bigger political game, as he works towards the Albanese Government’s long-held agenda of shutting down WA’s live export industry. Since the Albanese Government was formed in May 2022, live export has barely warranted a mention in the mainstream media, due to considerable efforts made by the sector, and the previous Federal Coalition government, to improve animal welfare outcomes aboard these ships. Reduced stocking densities, greater reporting measures, improved ventilation systems and the use of independent veterinarians aboard all ships have safeguarded Australia’s reputation as a reliable, high-quality exporter, and effectively silenced debate and protest around the future of the sector. What better way to fan the flames of discontent, and to reignite the debate around live export, than to park thousands of animals off the coast of a major city for weeks on end without a plan. If the Minister for Agriculture will not step up and address this situation with the urgency it deserves, he must step down and allow the Prime Minister to take charge of this situation. The Gold Coast lawyer masquerading as a minister must be sacked, and Prime Minister Albanese must intervene urgently. The inaction to date has been totally unacceptable. Exporters, producers, WA residents, and most importantly, these animals, deserve better from the Labor Government. Nationals MLC Colin de Grussa is shadow agriculture minister.