So rattled is the government by that sickening footage of dying and abused sheep on yet another of Emanuel Exports’ voyages of torture that Agriculture Minister David Littleproud yesterday did something you almost never see in government: he went out and tipped an enormous bucket on his own department. And did so on the central issue of both the latest example of Emanuel Exports’ shameful cruelty and the wider problem of the live export trade — that the Department of Agriculture simply refuses to regulate animal welfare:

[T]en days ago I received a report from my department, who is the independent regulator in respect to live trade, around an incident that happened in August 2017. I became concerned by that report not finding any breaches of standards by the exporter in question and subsequently asked the department to provide me with further information around their actions with respect to that incident and whether they had investigated that to a satisfactory level. I have only just received that brief back last week, but before that, I saw the chilling footage provided to me by Animals Australia… quite candidly, that vision does not marry up with the report I received, and that is quite disappointing to me …

Instead of being merely disappointed, though, Littleproud “engaged with the Attorney-General’s office to help me undertake a review of the skills and capabilities and culture, for that extent, of the regulator in providing better investigative powers, to make sure that any of these events are done in a far more thorough way that gives confidence to the community. The Attorney-General will be providing me with names to be able to undertake that with the people that have the skills to be able to undertake proper investigations.”

This was quite extraordinary: a minister coming out and saying his own department was so utterly unable to do its job that he had been forced to go to another department to get it to fix his, so that it could do its job “to undertake proper investigations”. It’s a colossal vote of no-confidence in the Agriculture Department. It’s also, implicitly, a rebuke of Littleproud’s predecessor, one Barnaby Joyce, who ran Agriculture from 2013 to late last year.

Joyce constantly made a point of using live exports to attack Labor, talking about how its “irresponsible policy plunged the northern Australian cattle industry into extreme hardship”. Now, Joyce’s long-term indifference to animal welfare has created another crisis for live exporters, and led to a dramatic change in tune from Littleproud.

“Can I thank Joel Fitzgibbon for his collaboration and forbearance through this matter. We have discussed the issue, particularly around penalties, the penalties that will be imposed on exporters,” the minister said yesterday, flagging that he wanted to dramatically escalate the penalties that would be imposed for breaches of live export rules. Of course, given the Department of Agriculture apparently couldn’t care less about breaches in the past, any escalation would be coming off a low base.

Littleproud was also effusive in his thanks to Animals Australia and repeatedly mentioned the “brave young man” who blew the whistle on Emanuel Exports, announcing a whistleblower hotline.

Savaging his own department for sitting on its hands, siding with animal welfare groups, lauding his Labor counterpart — what’s going on on the side of politics traditionally aligned with live exporters?

It’s panic — pure, political panic. That footage from Animals Australia, like the Four Corners expose in 2011, has engendered deep terror in the Nationals that the community will demand a permanent ban on the horrific live export industry. “Livestock being subjected to cruel and inhumane conditions on substandard export ships is unacceptable. The live export industry must comply with basic animal welfare standards or else there will be growing support within Parliament to phase it out, despite the economic impacts,” one MP tweeted yesterday. Not a Labor or Greens MP, but right-wing WA Liberal Ian Goodenough.

It’s not about animal welfare, or even about one company that regularly breaches rules, or the department that has manifestly failed to enforce them. It’s about doing whatever is necessary to save an industry that is founded on animal cruelty.

 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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