Should we trust Australia’s Department of Agriculture to regulate live export?

My experience is that the department’s employees have little concept of the ramifications of their work. This was evident when I was working for them in 2007. I’d been directly involved in live export for nine years as a shipboard veterinarian.

No information from my sweaty, blood-soaked daily voyage reports, made from the ship’s bridge while we sailed through environmental disasters, war zones and pirate-infested waters, was used. The only information retained was the percentage of voyage deaths. Many cows I euthanised and threw into the ocean.

The department had hired me for my industry knowledge, but I might as well have scrubbed toilets and emptied bins. Within weeks I quit, returning to the “lion’s den” of shipping. There, as a vet, I knew I could make a positive difference. It was clear the government was making hollow promises of reform.

I did 57 long-haul voyages to many places that Getaway will never do a holiday special on. I put up with the crap, both literal and figurative. I wrote voyage and specialised reports, many containing grave welfare concerns. All ignored. A few times I wanted to see if anyone was paying attention in Canberra; I reported cause-of-death on daily voyage reports as “snakebite”, “assassination” and “bad attitude”. Not an eyebrow was raised!

In 2012, I returned to the department to be the technical adviser for the rewriting of the Australian Standards for Exporting Livestock (ASEL). I provided scientific and photographic evidence of legislative welfare failures. ASEL covers from the Australian farm-gate to when the surviving animals take their first step off of the ship overseas. Shipboard standards are 100% within the department’s control. It’s now 2016 and the needed changes have not been made.

I was told by the department that I had done my work competently and my technical expertise was valued, but they then refused to let me continue any work on live export or animal welfare-related topics because the industry, which the department regulates, didn’t like my involvement. This behaviour is legally defined as “regulatory capture”. It’s illegal.

The regulation of the live export trade clearly cannot, and should not, be trusted to organisations that concurrently profit from and/or promote this trade. It’s a direct conflict of interest and a disgrace.

The latest industry and government claims that continuing with the status quo provides the regulators some magical power over foreign practices and regulations is imaginative, at best. I call it a farrago of misinformation, misleading propaganda and corruption.

Industry and the government ride their PR “high horse”, extolling the virtues of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS). However, ESCAS was not prompted by the “regulators”, but by social pressure from an outraged Australian community.  We now have a charity taking considerable risks to investigate and report breaches of regulations to a department unwilling to appropriately sanction offending exporters.

The enemy of acceptable animal welfare is poor policy. Policy that allows a conflict of interest to prevent reform.

Focus in recent years has been on the abhorrent treatment of Australian animals in importing countries. What shouldn’t be forgotten is what animals endure before they get there. Shipboard reform attempts have repeatedly and vehemently been resisted on all occasions by industry and government.

The industry is notorious for trashing research findings that are not financially attractive. I’ve personally had researchers treat me like a Catholic priest to whom they make their confessions. Industry makes it clear their scientific findings are never to see the light of day as they confirm the trade cannot be commercially viable and have acceptable animal welfare guarantees.

It’s time to implement the research already done, stop wasting farmers’ and taxpayers’ dollars. Start treating our animals like the vulnerable, living, feeling creatures they are.

After having my eyes opened to the practices I was delivering animals to by Four Corners’ — “A Bloody Business”, in 2011 — I wished I had euthanised more animals on ships and not put them through the pain of healing, only to be brutally handled and killed elsewhere.

I strongly believe the toothless tiger regulators in this abhorrent trade have directly contributed to Australia’s agricultural economic instability.

My experience has shown me that this industry lacks loyalty to Australia’s farmers, workers and animals. The trade picks and chooses when it trades from Australia, based on global fluctuations and “product” availability.

Knowing that several exporters bought meat-processing plants immediately after Four Corners in 2011, I ask you, is this an industry out to enhance Australia or is this just another business that is hedging their bets?

All Australian animals, livestock workers, farmers and the reputation of Australia need an independent animal welfare regulator.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey