LIVESTOCK industry representatives are holding an emergency meeting tonight to discuss plans to potentially backflip on policy and come out to support an independent Inspector General of Animal Welfare (IGAW) that would oversee live exports.
Labor has been urging backing for the IGAW policy that was rejected by the Coalition at the last election, in response to the latest issue concerning the welfare of live sheep exports to the Middle East and heat stress related mortalities.
The Australian Live Exporters Council (ALEC) has declined to comment on reports today saying the livestock exporting industry was considering a major policy reversal, and had opened the way to fresh talks about that option, in a letter to Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud.
The National Farmers’ Federation declined to comment on the matter, while WoolProducers Australia senior vice-president Ed Storey said he was unaware of any move to reverse the policy stance that his group had previously supported, but more would be known later tonight or tomorrow.
Cattle Council of Australia President Howard Smith was also contacted for comment but did not return calls before deadline.
It’s anticipated that the teleconference will seek to bring national livestock groups into alignment on the IGAW policy taking into account the outcomes of meetings held today in Brisbane by ALEC members.
Sources said ALEC had been one of the staunchest opponents of the IGAW proposal but the policy proposal is now being viewed as a peace offering for Mr Littleproud to further talks with Labor Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon to address ongoing animal welfare issues in the live export sector to counter public criticism.
ALEC Chair and former senior Labor power-broker Simon Crean is expected to be appointed the industry’s spokesperson following tonight’s emergency meeting.
It’s understood the proposal mooted by ALEC would not completely align with Labor’s current version of the IGAW - but could form the basis of ongoing talks to reach an agreed or satisfactory position, between Mr Littleproud and Mr Fitzgibbon, and members of the government and opposition.
The proposed independent regulator would likely focus its powers on interrogating issues concerning animals exported in the live trade - rather than the entire Australian livestock industry - as an added oversight mechanism or “cop on the block” as some sources have described it.
Some sources expressed concern support for the IGAW would be a compromised step towards Labor’s calls, also mooted at the 2016 federal election, for an Independent Office of Animal Welfare (IOAW) that they fear would only add red costs to industry, without delivering any tangible benefits.
Amid the latest animal welfare revelation largely focussed on a shipment by Emanuel Exports to the Middle East last year where 2400 sheep died due to heat stress, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has refused to declare whether live exports should be stopped or not.
Speaking to media on Monday, Mr Shorten instead said the Labor party was “up for a discussion” about domestic meat processing.
He said the first point was to find out what had gone wrong with sheep exports out of WA but also, “We've offered bipartisanship to the government in terms of not trying to turn this into a giant political circus”.
“But anyone who saw that footage on 60 Minutes will know that it was shocking and it isn't good enough and it shows real arrogance and hubris to treat sheep this way, to treat livestock this way,” he said.
“We have said to the government, it is now well past the time when we need to have an independent Inspector General for Animal Welfare.
“I also think that a lot of Australians, as we do with a lot of the things that we export overseas, wonder why we don't value-add in this country.
“So if (Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) is, I'm up for a discussion about how do we have more processing here, rather than exporting sheep overseas at a far lesser price.”
Yesterday, Mr Littleproud said he wanted to leave a “legacy” where “sustainability” of the live export industry was achieved and he was in constant bipartisan talks with Mr Fitzgibbon, rather than Mr Shorten.
“I can only thank him (Mr Fitzgibbon) for the maturity and the conversations that we’ve had but also towards the information I’ve provided him,” he said.
“He has been more than open in terms of our conversations and that’ll be ongoing because I want to leave a legacy that has an industry that has sustainability that both sides of the house can come back and say they have confidence in the supply chain from the farm gate through to the abattoir.
“I want to work collaboratively as best I can.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to agree on everything – but I’m working as collaboratively as we can because that’s how I’ll be judged, on the legacy that I leave.
“I’m committed to that and I’ll be working with the opposition as best I can.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said in a media interview today, “this is a big development”.
“Indeed now what we have is the Labor Party and the industry itself getting ahead of the government of the day,” he said.
“I have tried to take a bipartisan approach to this crisis for two basic reasons.
“One, I wanted to send a clear message to an industry that is running out of chances that the major parties are now as one, and deep and meaningful reform is necessary.
“ And two, I wanted a bipartisan approach so that you don’t have governments in the future winding back what previous governments have done and that is very important.
“I welcome the fact that the industry now understands this and now it is embracing Labor’s policy, which is pretty extraordinary given they rejected the policy in the lead up to the 2016 election.
“Indeed the National Farmers’ Federation heavily criticised the policy back then.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said a Labor government appointed an Inspector General in 2013 but former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce abolished the position “with Malcolm Turnbull’s ongoing approval”.
“It is now time for Malcolm Turnbull and David Littleproud to reverse Joyce’s reckless decision and appoint an Inspector General,” he said.
A split has erupted between livestock farmers and live exports in response to political and public pressure, ignited by the latest animal welfare crisis.
Mr Storey said Emanuel Exports needed to “life their game so the industry is sustainable” and should not be allowed to export any more sheep, until “they can prove they’re doing the right thing”.
But he said WoolProducers Australia had been opposed to the Independent Office of Animal Welfare policy “up to this point”.
An industry source said the emergency teleconference was called because “everyone is yelling at each other” due to the media reporting and political pressure on the Labor policy proposal.
Mr Fitzgibbon said the Inspector General was “just one of a suite of policies we put to the last election and we will take to the next election”.
“The Inspector General actually oversees the regulator, the regulator in this case of course is the Department,” he said.
“There is plenty of evidence that the Department has been a victim of regulatory capture and it needs this supervision.
“So, the Inspector General basically audits and oversees the Department.
“It doesn’t interact directly necessarily with the sector.
“So it doesn’t impose a whole new level of regulation and red tape on the industry.
“He or she simply makes sure that when there is an incident, the Department has fully and properly investigated it and appropriate penalties have been applied.”
Mr Littleproud’s Department and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority both investigated the 2017 Emanuel Exports voyage to the Middle East where 2400 sheep died and cleared them of any wrongdoing but added welfare measures have been imposed on future shipments.
Mr Littleproud has also announced other added welfare responses measures including a review of his own Department’s regulatory role and a short, sharp examination of shipping standards for the July-August period to the Middle East where heat stress is of greatest risk.
Emanuel Exports issued a statement this week saying it had taken “decisive steps” in the past week to uphold welfare standards and further mitigate the risks of exporting sheep to the Arabian Gulf during the Northern Hemisphere summer.
Emanuel Director Nick Daws said Emanuel shares the determination of industry, producers and the federal government that the conditions experienced in Qatar in August 2017 are never repeated.
“This tragedy has been heartbreaking for our company and we apologise to producers and the broader community for the outcome in Qatar in August last year,” he said.
He said sheep supplied by Emanuel for Gulf consignments will also be loaded at 17.5 per cent below the stocking density required by the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), he said.
“Lighter stocking and discharging at Kuwait first means that en route to Qatar, sheep can be spread out more because the stocking density will be about 50pc of the rate required by ASEL,” he said.
“This is critical because of the unique humid summer conditions that can be experienced in Qatar, which can increase the chance of heat-related welfare risks, especially when Qatar is the first discharge port.
“These measures go directly to the factors which lead to last year’s tragic, high-mortality voyage.”
ASEL standards are also currently being reviewed and could lead to enhanced methods for reporting animal welfare outcomes and indicators, back to the regulator.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he was “impatiently waiting” for the reviews that Mr Littleproud had announced.
“For example, the review into the live sheep trade to the Middle East in those extremely hot northern summer months is a concern,” he said.
“He is talking about May 7, I don’t think we need to wait that long.
“I find it very hard to see how that review can come back and say that that voyage of 60,000 sheep crammed on a vessel for many weeks in those extremely hot conditions is something that can continue into the future.
“I would be doing something far more quickly on that northern summer sheep trade, but again I think that it is important to wait for the review.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said Labor had a six point plan on animal welfare going to the last election and “I think it can be further strengthened”.
“In addition to the Inspector General, we promised to create an Independent Office of Animal Welfare, because animal welfare goes well beyond of course the live cattle and sheep trade, and many of those issues are predominately matters for the States,” he said.
“I would like this independent office to be a creature of COAG so we cover the field of animal welfare - I would like to see these issues put on the COAG agenda next week.
“If they are not on the COAG agenda next week, they should be and David Littleproud should be explaining why they are not on the agenda.
“David Littleproud could do what I did when I was Minister and appoint today, an interim Inspector General for Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports to be consolidated by legislation down the track.
“David Littleproud can embrace Labor’s policies today and appoint an Inspector General today.”
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The story Farmers in crisis talks on Inspector General of Animal Welfare first appeared on Farm Online.