In early April, Animals Australia released some disturbing footage. It was broadcast on 60 Minutes. It detailed the journey of an Emanuel Exports ship that left from Fremantle, WA, bound for the Middle East. It was carrying 63,804 live sheep. 2,400 died, mostly due to heat stress. On similar voyages, the core body temperature of recently deceased sheep was at 47C. The animals suffer under the gruelling Middle Eastern heat. The deaths on this ship meant a mortality rate of 3.76%.

The footage and ensuing investigation has triggered a national debate on live exports – not for the first time. The entire practice may be banned. If this happens, it’ll be a landmark decision for the LNP Government, and a politically bold move.

Is there a good side to live exports?

Live exports have always received the ire of animal welfare activists. But the industry is an economic powerhouse. The 2016 National Livestock Export Industry Sheep, Cattle and Goat Transport Performance Report says the total economic value of the trade is at $1.6b billion.

We exported 1.7 million sheep in 2017. That’s the lowest number since records began in 1985. In 2017, 12,377 sheep died – or 0.9% of the total exported.

Chief among those who defend and protect the live export industry is the former head of the National Party, Barnaby Joyce, who has a long history of halting any increase to regulations. He’s popped himself in front of microphones just in the last couple of days to  warn the government against banning the industry. Farmers, he says, will end up poorer, and the political backlash would make the next election virtually unwindable for them.

2011, Cattle and Labor

We’ve been here before.

In 2011, disturbing footage was broadcast by the 4 Corners program of a ship packed with cattle on its way to Indonesia. In response, the Gillard government suspended all trade to Indonesia within days of the program being broadcast.

The knee-jerk reaction was politically explosive. Cattle that were supposed to be loaded onto ships were stuck having to be fed and watered with nowhere to go. They suffered. Cattle farmers were left with no knowledge of a viable future. Many lost huge volumes of money and remain in law suits. Politically, the move back-fired. It was a mess.

Still, increased regulation on the cattle industry has helped: cattle live exports had a mortality rate of 0.1% in 2017. Sheep were at 0.9%.

Why hasn’t this been fixed before?

Various reports and whistleblowers have emerged noting systematic failures and conflicts of interest within the industry.

Immediate responses to mortality rates of over 2% trigger an immediate investigation. But recommendations are often as simple as reducing the load of exports by 10%. This works, of course, because you have fewer sheep dying. But you’re putting fewer sheep on the ship to begin with.

Animal welfare groups point out that investigations by the Department of Agriculture suffer from a conflict of interest. The department is simultaneously responsible for regulating live exports, while also promoting the interests of farmers. Investigations by The Guardian point to many instances of live exporters breaching animal welfare, but no examples of the exporters being penalised or punished in any form. There are only recommendations for measures such as asking a vet to join the next voyage, or for fewer sheep to go on the next load.

Just as a matter of interest, New Zealand effectively banned live exports many years ago.

Will Australia ban live exports?

Maybe.

There’s been mounting pressure for the government to, at the very least, ban live export trade in the Middle Eastern Summer.

The Australian Veterinary Association has recommended an end to live sheep exports in the Summer. They’re joined by the Western Australian government, and the federal opposition. The Greens, meanwhile, want to ditch everything, and replace the trade with local meat processing.

The Government have put forward some new rules. They’ve introduced laws to increase the space on the ships by 39%, and directors of live export companies who disobey can face up to ten years in prison. They promise that’s as far as they’re going to go, and it’s enough.

But they’re facing push back from within their own party. Yesterday Liberal MP Susan Ley introduced a bill to ban the trade in the Middle Eastern Summer. And it’s gaining support from within the party. They promised they wouldn’t ‘cross the floor’ to force a vote (which may very well pass with support from Labor and the Greens).

Ley says that the trade doesn’t make sense on economic or ethical grounds:

“If the rules were actually enforced — access to feed, water and rest and avoidance of high heat stress — no commercial operator would undertake the trade. Exporters have explained to me that it would not be viable. Unfortunately, this is an industry with an operating model built on animal suffering.”

We’ll keep you updated as the story evolves. It’s shaping up to be a potential in-fight within the Liberal National Party, which could have important impacts on the Government’s political standing. It’s looking as though the ban is just one vote away.

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Photo at the top thanks to Guardian Media Services.

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