WEST Australian Liberal Senator Dean Smith is concerned about mixed messages coming from the Gillard Government over live animal exports, which are creating ongoing uncertainty for the industry and impacting on farmers.
Senator Smith is also urging livestock producers to remain vigilant about the trade’s future while ambiguity continues within senior government ranks.
His warning comes after the ALP Caucus this week endorsed a motion allowing its influential Live Animal Export Working Group to develop a preferred model for an independent office of animal welfare.
The ALP’s commitment to establish the new animal welfare bureaucracy came out of the 2011 National ALP Conference.
But the move is seen by critics as a veiled attempt to increase pressure on the live export industry by dissenting Labor MP’s, to have it phased-out or immediately banned, by gradually increasing or duplicating existing regulations and adding more red tape costs and burdens.
But Senator Smith said the Prime Minister doesn’t appear to be in control of the live exports issue and statements emerging from the Labor Party to date have been laced with “equivocation”.
“On one hand we have the Prime Minister and Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig claiming they support the continuation of the live export trade,” he said.
“Yet at the same time, Labor MPs including Kelvin Thomson and Melissa Parke are actively working among their colleagues to promote measures that would end live exports.
“My concern is that, given the Prime Minister’s demonstrated inability to stick by her word across a range of policy areas, she will eventually cave in to caucus pressures and move to restrict live exports.
“The Prime Minister’s grasp on the Labor leadership remains tenuous.
“If Kevin Rudd were to start making noises about ending live exports, I’ve no doubt Julia Gillard would move swiftly to appease anti-live export MP’s in her own ranks.”
The ALP Caucus motion was backed by Mr Thomson and seconded by Ms Parke.
The outspoken MP’s also played a leading role in the ALP backbench revolt which caused the government’s catastrophic snap suspension of the live cattle trade to Indonesia last year.
They also re-ignited calls to ban the trade after the recent Pakistan sheep crisis – contradicting Ms Gillard and Minister Ludwig who publicly expressed their support for the industry and that events surrounding the cull of 21,000 Australian sheep were extreme and isolated.
The purpose of the animal welfare office would be to develop and review domestic animal welfare standards, harmonise domestic laws, monitor and report on surveillance and enforcement of domestic and live animal export regulation and other “appropriate” activities.
A report on a preferred model is due to be handed to the ALP Caucus for consideration, when parliament resumes in February next year.
Under consideration will be the costs associated with operating the new office and where it would be located within government.
Its legal status and links to state and territory jurisdictions will also be examined in the report.
The Caucus has also urged Minister Ludwig to continue actively engaging within the OIE and other international forums to promote Australia’s leadership in animal welfare standards, including ESCAS, and stunning prior to slaughter.
In a written statement to Fairfax Agricultural Media about this week’s Caucus motion, Minister Ludwig said animal welfare is a priority for the Gillard Government.
“We have a strong record in this area,” he said.
“The Labor Government has introduced historic reforms to the live export trade to improve animal welfare internationally.
“We are also looking to progress our efforts domestically.
“The Government welcomes further work in this area.”
Minister Ludwig said the Government was already taking action to improve animal welfare through the Standing Council on Primary Industries and also working closely with industry to encourage better animal welfare practices for production animals.
He said States and Territories have responsibility for animal welfare within their jurisdictions.
Senator Smith said the live export industry was critical to the ongoing economic viability of many farmers and local communities in WA, particularly in the Great Southern.
He said the industry has worked hard to improve its practices and ensure animals are being handled in accordance with international standards.
“What farmers now need are clear-cut, unequivocal assurances about the future of their industry from the Prime Minister, and a guarantee that she won’t cave into pressure from inner-city Labor MPs,” he said.
The RSPCA said it could not take a formal position on the new office for animal welfare until more details are revealed.
But it was supportive of moves to increase the independence of animal welfare regulation and the development of standards at the federal level.
“We have significant concerns with current models including; the dual role of DAFF as the body for both regulating animal welfare in the live export trade and increasing trade and market access and the role of Animal Health Australia in the development of animal welfare standards,” the RSPCA said.
Meanwhile, the Federal Agriculture Department says its investigation into the Pakistan crisis is ongoing.
The department is also currently investigating a suspected ESCAS breach at Cibinong abattoir in West Java on September 28, where it’s alleged Australian cattle were slaughtered using roping methods outlawed under the new system.
A Department spokesperson said they wanted to do a thorough job with the investigations and will take as long as is necessary.
“The investigation report will be published on the department’s website once finalised,” a statement said.
“The department is currently conducting three investigations into alleged non-compliance with ESCAS requirements.
“While investigations are being conducted DAFF is unable to make further comment.
“Once completed, the investigation’s findings will be publicly available.”
It’s understood the third ESCAS investigation comes from a complaint lodged by Animals Australia from breaches of live export regulations in Kuwait.
The evidence was provided to the Department on August 30 showing Australian sheep being openly sold at a notorious livestock market in Kuwait City and cruel slaughter of an Australian sheep.