SUBJECTS: Live export; Independent Inspector General of Animal Welfare and Live Exports; Labor’s six point plan for animal welfare.
JOE O’BRIEN: The live export industry will discuss a proposal by the Labor Party to appoint an independent inspector to oversee the treatment of livestock. The announcement by the Australian Live Exporters Council comes after revelations that thousands of sheep died last year from heat stress on board a ship heading to the Middle East. Joel Fitzgibbon is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and he joins us now from Newcastle. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome. So what do you make of this statement for the Live Exporters Council that the industry will discuss this?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: It is both surprising Joe and welcome. I mean I have tried to take a bipartisan approach to this crisis for two basic reasons. One, I wanted to send a clear message to an industry that is running out of chances that the major parties are now as one, and deep and meaningful reform is necessary. And two, I wanted a bipartisan approach so that you don’t have governments in the future winding back what previous governments have done and that is very important. I welcome the fact that the industry now understands this and now it is embracing Labor’s policy, which is pretty extraordinary given they rejected the policy in the lead up to the 2016 election. Indeed the National Farmers’ Federation heavily criticised the policy back then. So this is a big development. Indeed now what we have is the Labor Party and the industry itself getting ahead of the Government of the day.
O’BRIEN: So how would your proposal work? Would every shipment be inspected before it left? How would it work at a practical level?
FITZGIBBON: I should first say the Inspector General is just one of a suite of policies we put to the last election and we will take to the next election. The Inspector General actually oversees the regulator, the regulator in this case of course is the Department. There is plenty of evidence that the Department has been a victim of regulatory capture and it needs this supervision. So, the Inspector General basically audits and oversees the Department. It doesn’t interact directly necessarily with the sector. So it doesn’t impose a whole new level of regulation and red tape on the industry. He or she simply makes sure that when there is an incident, the Department has fully and properly investigated it and appropriate penalties have been applied.
O’BRIEN: But there have been so many incidences previously and they keep happening, how can one person deal with all this?
FITZGIBBON: Well I think one person can audit the work of the regulator but I made the point this is part of a suite of policies and I am patiently waiting for these reviews that David Littleproud has announced, somewhat impatiently waiting I should say. For example, the review into the live sheep trade to the Middle East in those extremely hot northern summer months is a concern. He is talking about May 7, I don’t think we need to wait that long. I think it is important that we wait for the technical experts to have a look, but I think not sufficient is being done in the immediate to concede that trade is most problematic. I find it very hard to see how that review can come back and say that that voyage of 60,000 sheep crammed on a vessel for many weeks in those extremely hot conditions is something that can continue into the future.
O’BRIEN: So you say you have got a suite of policies, what is there apart from an Inspector General that you are proposing?
FITZGIBBON: Well I would be doing something far more quickly on that northern summer sheep trade, but again I think that it is important to wait for the review. Although I think Minister Littleproud could speed up that process. We have a six point plan going to the last election. I think it can be further strengthened. In addition to the Inspector General, we promised to create an Independent Office of Animal Welfare, because animal welfare goes well beyond of course the live cattle and sheep trade, and many of those issues are predominately matters for the States. So I would like this independent office to be a creature of COAG so we cover the field of animal welfare. I promised more transparency and accountability to the Parliament for example. I wanted to resurrect another thing Barnaby Joyce abolished and that is a National Animal Welfare Strategy, which was a very, very effective group of people, experts, working together to constantly and consistently improve animal welfare. And on the matter of COAG can I say, the Ag Ministers are meeting in Brisbane next week, that is David Littleproud and the State Ministers, and I would like to see these issues put on the COAG agenda next week. If they are not on the COAG agenda next week, they should be and David Littleproud should be explaining why they are not on the agenda. A number of State Ministers have expressed a deep concern over live exports, Alannah MacTiernan, in particular, in Western Australia. This is something they should be discussing next week, and by the way, David Littleproud could do what I did when I was Minister and appoint today, an interim Inspector General for Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports to be consolidated by legislation down the track. David Littleproud can embrace Labor’s policies today and appoint an Inspector General today.
O’BRIEN: Are you comfortable with the Department remaining the regulator? Or as you mentioned before, are you concerned it has been captured by the industry?
FITZGIBBON: Well I think we have seen evidence of regulatory capture. I mean this is a department which examined the events that lead to the 60 Minutes program a little over a week ago and found no breach of the standards. Now you can only come to two conclusions there: either the standards aren’t sufficiently strong; or the Department aren’t sufficiently doing its job.
O’BRIEN: So should it remain the regulator?
FITZGIBBON: We do need to revisit those standards. Should it remain the regulator the question becomes, who does become the regulator if it is not the Department? And that is a really hard question to answer. I investigated this in the short period I was the Minister. It seems the Department is probably the only choice, but it is why you need an independent person overseeing the Department to ensure that it is properly investigating these things and it is holding people to account.
O’BRIEN: And you touched on this before, some vets say that ships just shouldn’t go at all from June to September because it is just too hot. Are you comfortable with them going there through that period?
FITZGIBBON: No, I am not comfortable with them going there through that period. 60,000 sheep on a relatively small vessel at sea for many weeks in the most extremely hot conditions; unable to access water without climbing over one another; without being able to lie down for many weeks at a time. I said that review we will await impatiently, but I will be very surprised if that review comes back and says that that is okay going forward and indeed I will be challenging and questioning the review if that is what it says.
O’BRIEN: Joel Fitzgibbon thanks for talking to us this morning today from Newcastle.