LABOR’S move to reintroduce an independent inspector-general of animal welfare and live animal exports (IGAW) has been slammed by Abbott government MPs as unnecessary red tape duplication.
Ahead of the 2013 federal election, Labor announced plans for a similar independent agency that would have reported directly to the Agriculture Minister.
At the time, then Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said it was a “sensible extension to a world-leading system that adheres to international animal welfare standards, while not overloading industry with unnecessary regulation”.
The original proposal was pushed by Labor members, primarily Fremantle MP Melissa Parke, amid concerns the Department of Agriculture had a conflict of interest by serving industry’s needs on animal welfare.
Ms Parke and Victorian Labor MP Kelvin Thomson backed the independent animal welfare agency, saying the Department's primary purpose was to promote agriculture, not animal welfare.
But shortly after the 2013 federal election, the newly appointed Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce axed the plan saying Labor’s election proposal was a “classic example of layer upon layer of bureaucracy without any practical outcome”.
“The livestock export regulator was already, and remains, subject to appropriate oversight and review mechanisms,” he said.
“This is one bit of red tape we can do without.”
Fitzgibbon's private member's motion
The now Shadow Agriculture Minister Mr Fitzgibbon revitalised the plan when he moved a private member's motion in the House of Representatives on Monday.
His motion noted recent alleged breaches of Australian's animal welfare standards in the live export sector; the Abbott government's abolition of the IGAW’s position; and “failure to increase regulatory and supervisory resources to keep pace with growth in trade”.
The motion called on the Abbott government to build public confidence and to protect the sustainability of the live export sector by appointing the independent IGAW.
He also demanded quarterly ministerial reports be provided to parliament on any new markets, the number of head exported, any allegations of breaches of animal welfare standards and investigations undertaken, and any sanctions or other action taken against those who have breached or should have prevented breaches of Australia's animal welfare standards.
But during debate on Mr Fitzgibbon’s motion, WA Liberal and Durack MP Melissa Price said she wasn’t convinced that appointing an independent IGAW would help farmers or the industries.
Ms Price said the move could “simply be adding another layer of bureaucracy” when the government’s report in January into operations of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) found the system is already “costly to administer for both industry and the Department of Agriculture”.
“It is worth noting that the live export industry is currently working on an alternative or an amendment to ESCAS, which would dispense with the need to have every single link in the supply chain audited on every single occasion,” she said.
NSW Nationals MP Mark Coulton also participated in the debate and said current legislation of livestock exports was designed to minimise risk.
“I am confident that we do not need to establish another level of bureaucracy such as an inspector-general of welfare,” he said.
“The inspector-general was a classic example of another layer of bureaucracy, without any real practical outcome.
“I will reinforce what happens when governments do not understand the full complexities of this: the removal of the live cattle trade back in 2011 caused not only untold economic hardship to the cattle industry but also a lot of pain to animals that were left stranded on drought-affected properties.”
Ms Parke and Mr Thompson were leading critics in calling for an end to the live export trade during the crisis which sparked the suspension of cattle trade to Indonesia in June 2011.
But ESCAS was initiated after Labor’s snap suspension to improve animal welfare standards and transparency in all live export markets.
However, recent complaints have been made to the Department alleging breaches of ESCAS standards in the Vietnam and Israel markets.
Public confidence rebuilding
Mr Fitzgibbon said the live export trade needed to maintain public confidence and continue improving animal welfare standards.
He said Australia had the world's best animal welfare standards and the positive outcome of the “regrettable 2011 live export pause” was ESCAS’s introduction.
“Despite the robustness of our regulatory system, reports of animal mistreatment continue to emerge,” he said.
“These events undermine public support for the trade and this motion puts forward some initiatives designed to maintain and build upon that support.
“I have learned that one of the things which undermines the sector's image is a lack of publicly available information about alleged breaches, action taken and sanctions imposed.
“That is why I want the minister to, in the future, regularly report to the parliament and it is why Labor wants the Abbott government to revive our plans to establish an independent inspector-general for animal welfare and live animal exports.
“No system can ever guarantee an incident-free industry, nor can we expect it to.
“But we have a responsibility in this place to ensure the system is the best it possible can be and that people can have confidence in it.
“The motion is about transparency and accountability and in the interest of the community and the sector alike.”
Mr Coulton said the Department intends to publish its ESCAS report at least twice a year in addition to a report by Minister Joyce to the parliament every six months on livestock mortalities on every sea voyage.
He said the livestock exports industry employed around 10,000 people and “contributes significantly to the country's economy, supports many rural and regional communities, and underpins the economic returns to farmgate”.
“In the first full year of this government, the value of live animal exports has exceeded $1.4 billion and continues to grow,” he said.
“Our international market share and reputation has been built on our ability to supply international markets with a high-quality, reliable and safe source of protein.
“The livestock trade contributes to the food security of millions of people in importing countries across the world.”