Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has announced the Federal Government will take the first step towards phasing out live sheep exports. A panel has been set up to consider how to approach the change, including whether the industry should be compensated. The ban itself will not come in until after the next election. The ban is supported by animal welfare groups but opposed by the Opposition and the WA Government (almost all of Australia’s live sheep exports come from WA).
Australia exports a small percentage of its sheep and cattle alive rather than as meat. There are a number of reasons for this, including culturally-specific slaughtering practices. Live exports have declined significantly in recent years. There have long been concerns in both the sheep and cattle industries about the implications of live exports. Concerns include the conditions for the animals on board export ships and the way they are treated in destination countries.
Moves to ban
In 2011, the Gillard Labor Government banned live cattle exports to Indonesia after footage of mistreatment became public. The ban was later overturned, but tighter restrictions have since been imposed on shipping conditions and abattoir conditions in receiving countries. In 2018, after footage emerged of thousands of sheep dying on an Australian-owned export vessel, Labor promised to ban live sheep exports if elected. The Coalition resisted a ban but introduced tighter standards in the industry.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says the industry has “lifted its game” on animal welfare and he is “not in a rush” to implement a ban but says he remains committed to doing so. He has established a panel to guide the process and says he is open to financial support for the industry. He has also suggested the industry in WA (where almost all live sheep exports occur) could shift to processing the meat before exporting. The ban will not take place before the next election and Watt has said he has no plans to consider a similar ban for cattle.
The WA Government opposes the change but has now acknowledged it is inevitable. Federal Nationals leader David Littleproud, who oversaw changes to welfare standards when he was Agriculture Minister, has accused the Government of acting “on emotion” and promised to reopen the trade in government in future. “We’ve reformed this trade, the industry themselves I think need to be congratulated, they’ve actually faced up to the wrongs and they’ve actually led now the world in the standard they’ve put,” Littleproud said in a radio interview yesterday.
Littleproud argued the trade would continue with worse welfare practices elsewhere, whereas Australia had “the science” to support welfare. “Please don’t jump to conclusions about what this industry does”. The Liberal Party also opposes a ban but it’s not clear whether they would reverse it in future. Deputy Liberal leader Sussan Ley previously supported a ban but said last week she had been “reassured” welfare standards had improved.
The RSPCA calls the sheep export industry “unfixable and inherently cruel”, arguing animal welfare science has shown “time and time again… the only way to remove [the] risks is to stop exporting sheep. The basic welfare needs of sheep cannot be met or protected on live export vessels.” The RSPCA has called on the Government to bring forward legislation for a ban in this term of Parliament instead of after the next election.