RSPCA Australia has accused the federal government of reducing transparency on live animal exports to serve industry “spin”.
RSPCA Australia Chief Scientist Bidda Jones heavily criticised the Agriculture Department’s new reporting regime for the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS) which was unveiled last week.
Rather than producing individual detailed reports of investigations into alleged breaches of ESCAS once concluded, the Department will now publish periodic reports, summarising investigations and adding industry related statistics.
But the RSPCA said the Department would now be producing a half page of “sanitised” information when reporting ESCAS investigation results, which was the “bare minimum”.
Dr Jones said anyone who wanted a full report of an ESCAS investigation would now need to make an application under Freedom of Information laws. Only producing half page summaries of ESCAS investigation reports – rather than making the full reports freely available – was a regressive move for an industry that’s faced intense public scrutiny in recent years, she said.
“This government is reducing the amount of information and surrounding it in, to be honest, what we’d call ‘spin’,” she said.
“And it’s worth noting that in the actual ESCAS report which came out in January, the government said it didn’t know how well the reported ESCAS non-compliances actually reflected the true non-compliance rate.
“Basically they’re admitting they don’t know the true rate of non-compliance in these supply chains.
“And they should not be listing (export) countries as “Incident Free’ if they don’t know that they are in fact incident free.”
Dr Jones said producing significantly smaller reports removed the broader context of ESCAS non-compliance investigations and also reduced the capacity for external parties to scrutinise how the Department reached any decisions, on regulatory action.
“All they’re publishing now is a couple of paragraphs outlining the complaint, what the exporter says and the action taken by the Department, so you’re not able to look between those things and examine any decisions,” she said.
“But that information is important for anyone to see, so they can scrutinise what’s gone on, including journalists.”
Dr Jones said the new reporting regime resulted from a conflict of interest due to the Department being a regulator of live exports and also responsible for promoting the industry.
She said RSPCA also believed a problem existed in the way the Department talked about compliance with ESCAS in its reporting of animal welfare outcomes.
“The Department doesn’t get a copy of the report that the auditor makes when they visit a facility,” she said in relation to ESCAS supply chains.
“They just get a form that’s a summary document and all that tells them is whether a facility is compliant or not.
“So if an auditor goes into a facility and sees any non-compliance and is told it will be fixed, that information doesn’t get passed onto the Department.
“The bottom line is – if they are recording 100pc compliance at the time of the audit there are two possible explanations.
“One is that the standards in these overseas facilities are always perfect and the other is there’s a problem with the way the auditors are reporting.
“But we believe the problem lies in the audit system and the method of reporting.
“It’s not accurately reflecting what’s going on with these facilities and unfortunately the only time we get any independent information is when Animals Australia visits somewhere and takes video footage and makes a report.
“The exporters are not providing any information, the government is providing less information than before and the industry is becoming less and less transparent.
“We’re never going to say ESCAS hasn’t been an improvement on what was there previously.
“But if we are to have faith in this system we need to have faith in this auditing process.”
Dr Jones said to improve ESCAS transparency, the Department could: request individual audit reports; ensure auditors are not chosen by exporters; ensure a requirement to track ESCAS non-compliances over time; and ensure exporters can’t use the same auditor, at multiple facilities.
She said independent oversight – someone who knows about livestock handling and slaughter but is independent of live export companies – could also be introduced.
“The latest ESCAS investigation reports have been drained of all meaningful information and this new format is clearly intended to present the live export industry in the best possible light,” said Dr Jones said.
“The Australian community has made it clear they won’t have the wool pulled over their eyes when it comes to the treatment of Australian animals overseas and the government would be foolish to think otherwise.”