The agricultural industry, including live animal shipments, is one of Australia’s largest export earners. In beef exports alone, Australia ranks behind only Canada and France. Australian cattle are particularly in demand in Indonesia and Vietnam, while most sheep shipments head to the Middle East. The industry is currently estimated to be worth $2-billion annually; it employs over 10,000 individuals and is the backbone of various regional industries. Awareness of the conditions on board the Awassi Express livestock carrier, however, highlighted the need for reform. Consequently, Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud initiated the ‘Review of the Regulatory Capability and Culture of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources in the Regulation of Live Animal Exports’, otherwise known as the Moss Review.
The live export industry continues to be a sensitive topic, with many organisations and individuals calling for it to be outlawed; others demand higher standards of transparency and practice. As it is a leading export industry and one that is vital to many rural communities, the Morrison Government will take the latter approach.
In April 2018, the animal welfare group Animals Australia released footage taken on the Awassi Express to illustrate the conditions encountered by the animals on board. On a voyage made by the ship from Fremantle to Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in 2017, some 2,400 sheep died, mostly due to heat stress. The mortality rate on that voyage reached 3.76%, well over the two per cent threshold at which departmental review is required.
Confronted with this evidence, Minister Littleproud applauded Animals Australia for showing him the footage. He then took action by suspending the live export licence of the company responsible, Emanuel Exports, and appointing public service integrity expert, Phillip Moss AM, to conduct a review of the live exports industry. The recently released Moss Review made 31 recommendations to ensure greater attention to animal welfare and a more stringent duty of care while allowing the industry to continue.
The Moss Review highlighted a number of cultural issues and regulatory shortcomings that had contributed to failings on the part of the regulator, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR). Some of the initiatives carried out under the Abbott Government’s 2013 $1-billion deregulation agenda, for instance, came to have unexpectedly large indirect repercussions. These included the plans of then minister Barnaby Joyce to cut $25 million from regulatory compliance costs. The abolition of the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Welfare Branch and the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy reduced the commitment to, and awareness of, animal welfare within the industry and regulatory bodies. In Recommendation 14, the Moss Review recommended the reinstatement of the Animal Welfare Branch, to place animal welfare at the centre of its live export-related regulatory activities.
The Moss Review also uncovered a cultural issue within the department and the industry. Many DAWR employees had been afraid to report incidents within the industry. The review highlighted that attitude as a major flaw and recommended staff retraining and increased co-ordination and compliance with the Australian Maritime Safety Alliance.
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council (ALEC), whose members account for 96 per cent of the live export trade, welcomed the findings of the Moss Review. The ALEC employs veterinarians to monitor animal welfare onboard its vessels and is already strongly committed to greater transparency and compliance with the requirements of the World Organisation for Animal Health.
Minister Littleproud has subsequently announced plans to appoint an Inspector-General for Animal Welfare within DAWR, a role that could help address the shortcomings and promote the cultural change required within the department and the industry. The Minister describes it as appointing a tough cop on the beat to investigate and bring the industry back into line. He is confident that, by implementing the Moss Review recommendations, the industry can be successfully reset. Time will tell if that is the case.