A MEMORANDUM of Understanding (MOU) has been signed between Australia and Kuwait. It is the second bilateral agreement covering the live animal trade to the Middle East, following the signing of a MOU with the United Arab Emirates in December 2004.
The MOU sets out the procedures to be followed in live export, including arrangements to unload animals into a quarantine facility if a problem arises with a shipment on arrival.
Final negotiations are still taking place for the signing of an MOU with Saudi Arabia, and this must first go through parliament before the trade could recommence.
"Kuwait is Australia's largest Middle Eastern market for live sheep, taking more than 1.1 million head," Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Warren Truss said.
"The market was worth over $76 million in 2004.
"Australia is a world leader in animal welfare, and the MOUs are an important part of a broader strategy to further improve animal welfare arrangements along the export chain, from the on-farm preparation right through to their unloading at the port of destination.
"The community expects the livestock trade to be conducted in a humane way, and the Australian Government has indicated by recent actions how serious it is to ensure community concerns are addressed.
Mr Truss said sheep mortalities had declined from 1.34 per cent in 1999 to 1.05pc in the year ending June 30 2004.
Cattle mortalities also declined over the same period, from 0.34pc of stock shipped to 0.09pc in 2004.
Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett has questioned the governments' decision to sign an MOU with Kuwait, and the proposed signing of a MOU with Saudi Arabia, following claims in the Weekend Australian that the government knew there had been fraudulent reporting of the numbers of deaths on livestock vessels since 2001, but had remained silent.
"The live animal export industry, with the government's knowledge, is under-reporting deaths and disease," Mr Bartlett said.
Mr Bartlett said the government should not be trying to restart the live sheep trade to Saudi Arabia when they can give no credible assurances that the under reporting of death and disease amongst the animals will not recur.
"Given that the death figures are likely to be under-reported, and that the 1pc fatality rate Minister Truss bragged about represents a minimum 11,000 individual mortalities during shipment to Kuwait in 2004 alone, we can assume this year's mortalities will again number in the tens of thousands," Mr Bartlett said.
"The government is doing nothing to stop large numbers of fatalities, but are still cashing in on trade with Kuwait and seeking to trade with Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis are right to mistrust this government's ability to deliver healthy sheep after weeks at sea, especially given the industry's track record of deception.
"Minister Truss' reassurances that $4m has been set aside for progressing 'animal welfare initiatives' are pointless if the industry is allowed to include in those initiatives distortion of true mortality figures, and if the government simply accepts that thousands of animals must die unnecessarily cruel deaths as part of this gruesome trade."
A government spokesman rejected the claims, saying that any time allegations of impropriety in the live export trade arose, they had been investigated.
WA Livestock Exporters association chairman John Edwards said Mr Bartlett was just trying to grandstand on the issue and re-fire the live sheep debate.
He said he did not know where Mr Bartlett was getting his figures from but that mortality rates were of a very credible level in all live export markets.
"Dead sheep are a cost to the industry," he said.
"Nothing is gained by high mortality levels, with every shipment it is in the best interest of exporters to do everything possible to keep sheep mortalities to a minimum.
"Federal inquiries have clearly shown no under-reporting has occurred.
"All reporting has been water tight."
Mr Edwards said the signing of a MOU with Kuwait reaffirms the trading relationship that already exists between Australia and Kuwait in the eyes of the government.
He said the MOU was certainly an aid for promoting better animal welfare conditions for live export, but that commercial operations were also doing all they could to improve conditions.
Mr Edwards said that WA sheep producers should be confident trade with Saudi Arabia would resume soon.
"The industry is confident trade will resume, as soon as both countries arrive at a unilateral understanding that in a suspect animal health outcome there will be facilities for sheep to be unloaded," he said.
"The MOU will act like a safeguard, and we will only reopen trade with this agreement in place."
Mr Edwards said the resumption of trade with Saudi Arabia is expected to improve export numbers, however where the extra sheep will come from could cause a problem with the demographics of the Australian sheep flock now having more ewes and crossbred lambs and less wethers.
"2005 looks rosey, live exports will add value to the young sheep market providing a good opportunity for sheep producers in WA," Mr Edwards said.
"There is a level of optimism in the live sheep trade industry that we haven't seen for a long time."