Letter to the Editor

Life & Style
Aa

BEING from a farming background and a long-time observer of the live export trade, I am amazed at the point we have arrived to with the outcomes surrounding the Awassi Express incident back in August, 2017.

BEING from a farming background and a long-time observer of the live export trade, I am amazed at the point we have arrived to with the outcomes surrounding the Awassi Express incident back in August, 2017.

Aa

The conditions the shipment endured over those few fateful days delivered a totally unacceptable voyage outcome and I, like many others, was distressed at the footage and this should not be allowed to ever happen again.

There are lessons to be learnt from this exercise, but curtailing or banning the trade is not one of them.

The company at the centre of this issue, Emanuel Exports, continues to be unfairly targeted for its role, when in fact the vessel was not owned by them, nor chartered by them.

This vessel is a relative newcomer to the trade having been launched in 2014.

To be eligible to carry Australian animals it had to comply with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s (AMSA) Marine Orders 43 regulation, the world’s most stringent regulatory authority for livestock vessels.

It would have had to pass numerous tests including the efficacy of its ventilation system and since that time would have had all its livestock services regularly audited by AMSA on return calls to Australian ports.

Under the government’s livestock export regulation, yes the exporter was duly responsible, but where do you draw the line?

Ever caught a taxi and been involved in a crash or been on a bus when it has broken down?

You hired the taxi or paid a fare to be on the bus, are you the culpable party for this outcome?

Arabian Gulf politics and a combination of weather systems became a cocktail of precursors that delivered the vessel to Qatar and into the midst of an extraordinary heat event that impacted the ship and parts of its ventilation system.

As a result, a large number of animals died in circumstances that could largely have been avoided it seems if the exporters’ voyage scheduling and heat mitigation plans had enabled the ship go to Kuwait as first port of discharge, before arriving back to Qatar.

It was not the entire ship, nor the entire cargo affected as some might like to say and have us believe.

The voyage investigation is on the government’s website, if you care to take the time to research it.

Take nothing away from the enormity of this in terms of a disastrous animal welfare event and the need for steps to be taken to prevent it from happening again.

However the continued labelling of the exporter as the miscreant in all of this is not deserved.

If you choose to take the time and research the government’s website, you will see the exporter has a very good level of performance, having exported more than six million sheep in the past five years, with a delivery success rate of 99. 31 per cent, which in fact exceeds the industry average over the same period.

We would all like to see far fewer mortalities occur in delivering shipments to our customers as these are not good for business.

The industry, through research and development, has been making substantial progress in this area for a good number of years now and will continue to do so.

The numbers here from my own experiences as a farmer are much less in accumulated terms than we could ever hope for, through attrition out in the paddock.

What we have seen since the 60 Minutes revelation – including the groundswell of public opinion who call for more abattoirs to be built and more boxed meat exports all of which are fanciful, unviable and unsatisfactory replacements for the live trade – is a political mindset that says ban everything that will affect a State or Federal parliamentary incumbents chance of re-election.

Representatives of government on both sides have launched a tirade of accusations at the live export industry, much of it based on total misinformation.

Liberal Minister Sussan Ley’s recent claims are far from the truth and none more preposterous were those expressed by the Seven Network’s political editor Mark Riley (The West Australian May 19, 2018), when he claimed Middle East importers fatten up Australian sheep for a couple of months to be placed on the market to be sold at massive profits to third countries, where they are slaughtered and marketed as meat.

How does Mark know this?

Because two cabinet ministers confided in him that this is what happens.

Amongst many facts that ridicule this statement is the government’s own Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) 0regulation and the inability for this to occur, and secondly, any importer feeding sheep for months in the Middle East would simply go broke.

The newly-appointed Federal Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud, like all good politicians, flew into panic mode, and while not wanting to repeat the Labour government’s knee-jerk response of 2011 by overnight closing the cattle trade with Indonesia and bringing on major economic disruption and business loss for northern Australian cattle producers, has and will be responsible for the process ahead that will have the same impact for WA sheep producers and all those who rely on the trade for their livelihoods.

The Australian sheep industry has been in decline for over more than decades now, primarily as a result of the 1991 cessation of the Reserve Price Scheme for Wool, too many to count bad seasons and shifting farm enterprises to grain growing.

The live sheep trade in all of this has been the one constant farmers can rely on where they have been able to readily sell, year round, come drought, fire and floods any number of and class of sheep to live exporters for very good prices.

WA farmers today are experiencing the best live sheep, sheep meat and wool returns on record and there are no signs of this pulling back, however take live exports out of the equation and the handbrake goes on, prices will drop significantly and more sheep producers will leave the industry.

Mr Littleproud is now imposing a raft of regulation on live exporters, the results of a four-week desktop study of the trade.

The outcomes here will have two affects – some would probably say have been the government’s intent for a long time now – and will either regulate exporters out of the business or cost them the business.

Either way there will be no winners and certainly not back at the farmgate.

While understanding that more space onboard live export vessels will likely improve an animal’s wellbeing, the government is adopting the McCarthy Review outcomes by reducing carrying capacities of livestock vessels able to load sheep by 28 per cent.

While this exponentially increases the landed price of Australian sheep in the Middle East to a level that is likely to see them quickly become uncompetitive, it will certainly put into question the economics of shipping sheep from Australia for importers and vessel owners.

Sheep producers should also be seriously concerned about this, not only because it will mean reduced demand for their sheep and much lower prices, the same sort of regulation could in fact be forced on them in time as welfare activists drive the government to enact similar requirements for the road transport of sheep and cattle.

To say nothing of not being able to transport them on days when it might be a bit warm for the fear of heat stress.

The government has also surreptitiously changed the rules to suit its own agenda.

AMSA has just rescinded an agreement with livestock vessel owners/operators on which the ink was barely dry for what was to be a five-year phase out period for two-tier designed sheep carrying vessels amongst a number of other agreed to compliance requirements.

Owners have now been given 19 months to comply.

This ruling could see up to 50pc of the tonnage available to load sheep from Australia off the Australia Middle East run by the end of 2019.

With the government’s continued flip-flopping over live export regulation, it is hard to imagine anyone rushing in to build a new vessel at $100 million to service the Australian trade.

These vessels, all having plenty of serviceable life left in them, won’t go to scrap – they will simply be deployed to other supply points around the globe where animals for Middle East markets can be sourced from without any regulatory impost.

There goes even more lost market share for Australian livestock in overseas markets.

It probably won’t be long either before the animal welfare activists force farmers into being able to only carry sheep in cattle trailers, as four deckers will be considered in-humane for sheep transport.

The folly of Mr Littleproud’s calls in this space have already started to hit home with overseas governments and buyers of Australian sheep, taking offence at the Australian governments approach to an issue that seriously affects their countries food security and social harmony.

After being castigated by these respective countries’ ambassadors in Australia on this, Mr Littleproud quickly flew out of Australia 10 days ago to visit and see first-hand what access to Australian live sheep meant for these countries and the level of investment that has gone into supporting this business by operators in the trade.

No doubt frank words were delivered by Middle East government officials and the importers themselves about Australia’s age-old rhetoric of telling the market how and when it can have Australian live sheep and that its customers really should be taking it in a box or bag.

I am sure these markets have had enough of the righteousness of Australian politics and can play the same game when it comes to buying our carcase and boxed sheep meat, grain and other food stuffs exported daily from Australia to the region.

These countries will have no compunction but to find other sources and they will if the trade balance on this issue doesn’t correct itself.

There is simply no one to blame for what occurred on the vessel back in August, but to now use the event to better the trade for its future sustainability.

The cheap political point scoring and claims that farmers and exporters are to blame has to stop.

The public and many of the media commentators, all far removed from where their food comes from and those who we help feed, will have an overwhelming say on this matter, but that’s typical when they have nothing to lose other than higher meat prices going forward.

Vale live exports if common sense does not prevail and sensible regulation is allowed to be debated and constructively put in place.

Aa

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