We can do better for farm animals - Speech, House of Representatives


The sad history that brings this bill to the House is necessary to recount at the outset. On 30 July 2013, former agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced that Labor would establish the post of an inspector-general of animal welfare and live animal exports. Our position was to build on Australia's regulatory framework, to recognise that while the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System had improved conditions of animal welfare it was necessary to have independent oversight.

That inspector-general would have added an additional layer of assurance that the regulatory system was delivering appropriate animal welfare. It would have placed no additional regulatory burdens on exports, nor on trading partners. However, just a few short months later, on 31 October 2013, the member for New England, then the agriculture minister, abolished the Inspector-General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports.

The member for New England claimed, 'The current regulation of livestock exports is designed to minimise risk,' and that's why he was confident the establishment of an inspector-general was not necessary. He said the inspector-general was 'a classic example of layer upon layer of bureaucracy without any practical outcome', and, 'The live export regulator was already and remains subject to oversight and review mechanisms.' He said, 'This is one bit of red tape we can do without.'

That remained the position of the Abbott-Turnbull government until a 60 Minutes report on 9 April 2018 exposed animal welfare failings in the live export trade. That program showed some shocking footage of the mistreatment of sheep. Filmed by a navigation officer onboard multiple voyages, it showed thousands of animals packed into tiny pens, panting in the extreme heat. More than 1,300 sheep allegedly died over two days in an intense heatwave in the Persian Gulf. One of the crew said that the sheep were, effectively, being put into an oven. The footage shows carcasses being tossed from the boat into the sea, while other sheep fight for food or collapse and die in filth below deck.

The exporter, Emanuel Exports, was allegedly behind the recorded journeys. The footage was described by the now agricultural minister, David Littleproud. He said:

I am shocked and deeply disturbed by the vision and thank Animals Australia for bringing it to my attention.

Then came the backflip, the coalition announcing that they would support an inspector-general of animal exports. This meant that Australia had gone for a long period without such an inspector-general and had only reinstated it as a result of this footage from 60 Minutes.

It's just another example of the damage that the member for New England did to the portfolio while he was there. As a representative of the ACT, I think also about the decision to move the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to his own electorate in Armidale, costing taxpayers more, damaging the process for review of pesticides and veterinary medicines, delivering no better outcome and heavily criticised by the scientific community.

Scrapping the inspector general was a mistaken decision by the then agriculture minister, the member for New England, only to be reversed by the coalition today—and only reversed, it has to be said, after the industry itself called for change. While the National Farmers Federation was slow to support change, change was supported by the exporter body themselves, which recognised, through the Australian Livestock Exporters Council, the need for action.

After these shocking revelations, Labor called for a cessation of shipments of sheep to the Middle East during the northern summer. We took the view that that cessation was appropriate, as well as supporting the government's backflip on the creation of an inspector-general. This is reminiscent of what we had with the banking royal commission. It was only when the Australian Banking Association supported a banking royal commission that the coalition finally came on board. In this instance it was only when the Australian Livestock Exporters Council said that it had changed its position and supported an inspector-general that the coalition belatedly decided they would support such an inspector-general.

This is an issue of significant concern in my electorate. Let me share with the House a number of comments from constituents of mine. Amanda says:

'I'm not some looney extremist. I'm just an ordinary member of the Australian community that knows something needs to change … Let us be human, let us be kind, let us put a stop to this unnecessary cruelty.'

Maya, from the suburb of Fraser, says:

'Australians are very proud of Labor's civilised policy to end live exports …. The ALP's live export position acknowledges what the majority of Australians want.'

Kerry, from Latham in the ACT, says:

'Live export was an election issue this year for the first time ever thanks to the ALP's guarantee to end live sheep export.'

Noral, from Canberra, says:

'Labor's policy to save sheep from the horrors of live export is so inspiring and is so deeply approved of.'

Lynette, from Canberra, said:

'We've got to make this year the landmark year during which live sheep export stops.'

And Natalie says:

'By persisting with the awful live-export trade, this government disregarded what the constituents want.'

So there is strong support for better animal welfare standards. This is one of those issues where I imagine future generations may well look back on ours and wonder why we tolerated such mistreatment of animals. A range of organisations such as 80,000 Hours, in thinking about ethical issues around effective altruism, have flagged the mistreatment of farm animals as being a signal issue for our age. It is vital to think about whether the way in which we treat animals is really appropriate to what we now know about the ability of those animals to feel pain and whether we can do better in the regulation of farming. This measure is a sensible one, but there is far more that could be done to ensure that live export, if it must be carried out, is done more humanely. Australia should move to a boxed meat export industry, with domestic abattoirs creating those jobs, avoiding the hardship for animals that takes place with live exports.

I attended an agricultural high school. I have spent my fair share of time around farm animals and seen their ability to engage with us and that sense that, when we are around animals, we are around fellow beings whose suffering we should be concerned about. So I do believe we can do a great deal better when it comes to our treatment of farm animals.


Authorised by  Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.