This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday the 3rd of November 2014.
Few issues raise emotions more than the live export sector. Proof of that can be found in the 'in-box' of most members of parliament following the recent ABC Lateline story which showed what were allegedly Australian cattle and sheep being mistreated in the Middle East.
Each year Australia sends around 3 million cattle and sheep to around 26 countries to meet the protein needs of their people.
It’s an industry which annually earns Australia around $1.5 billion in foreign exchange. It employs, or supports the self-employment, of tens of thousands of Australians, particularly those living in our more challenging far north.
I’m often asked, why don’t we slaughter the animals in Australia? That, it's suggested, would surely mean adding value and creating jobs here. It would also, it's argued, give us total control over the treatment of the cattle and sheep.
To find the answer to that question we need to first understand that for many reasons, there is a market for live animals begging to be filled. They range from cultural preferences through to infrastructure issues, including refrigeration and energy challenges which make transport and distribution impossible.
Further, in some markets, including Indonesia, the buyers are looking for lighter cattle which they can fatten and add value to in their quite efficient feedlots.
If we don’t fill these markets, some other country with lower animal welfare standards will.
That’s the demand side, what about supply?
Here there are two key points. First, cattlemen in Australia’s far north don’t have the feed and conditions to grow cattle all the way to slaughter weight. It’s simply a reality of nature and climate.
Without the live trade industry, producers in the far north would not be viable.
Second, climatic issues like the North’s wet season and transport difficulties make slaughter, storage and transport to port difficult. Having said that, new abattoirs are emerging in our far north.
So Australia’s live trade sector is feeding the globe’s growing population in a food-constrained world. It's creating wealth and jobs here, and raising handling and slaughter standards. It’s also putting pressure on exporters from other countries and the importers they deal with to raise their own standards.
So how can Australians have confidence in our industry?
First, we have the best animal welfare system in the world. The positive outcome from the regrettable 2011 live export pause was the introduction of the Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS).
This regularity regime forces exporters to show they have a plan to treat the animals humanely and provides a monitoring and auditing regime all the way from port to abattoir.
Many of us in the Labor Party wish the pause had been avoided - that some other response to the terrible ABC footage aired at the time had been found.
While we can’t change history, we can be proud that the ESCAS regime which emerged from the pause has dramatically improved standards and allowed the sector to grow and prosper.
These days when Barnaby Joyce merrily announces exports are up and new markets have been found, he can thank ESCAS.
Heavy sanctions and penalties can be applied for breaches of ESCAS. They range from the suspension of an export licence, the cancellation of a licence, or indeed imprisonment. It also provides exporters with incentives to do the right thing because minor breaches tend to bring more oversight, regulatory burden, more regulatory delays, and more costs.
It’s also worth remembering incidents like higher-than-acceptable mortality rates on a voyage results in significant additional costs for exporters. It's in their interest to deliver the goods to the other end in good shape.
So why did we see more ABC footage recently? First of all, while there can be little doubt the footage was real, we can’t yet be sure they were Australian animals as alleged. That will be a matter for an investigation to determine.
If they were, ESCAS will have failed us. But in 98 per cent of cases, it does not fail us.
No system is perfect and no industry is zero risk. When we suffer an accident or worse in the coal mining industry, we do not shut it down. Rather, we do all we can to ensure our safety regime is as good as it can possibly be to avoid future events.
Can our regulatory regime be further improved? The answer of course is yes and I know the industry agrees. Indeed, it can be made more efficient, which will lead to better outcomes for the animal welfare standards it protects.
The best way to build public confidence in the live trade sector is to demonstrate that industry and government are learning from any mistakes.
But regulators must also be able to demonstrate, in a transparent way, that exporters are paying a price for any demonstrated breaches.
That appears to me to be our greatest vulnerability and an area where more work needs to be done.
Prior to the last election, Labor committed to appointing an inspector general for animal welfare and live animal exports, an independent statutory officer, to oversee the system.
Unfortunately the Abbott government failed to follow through. Labor remains committed to that position.