The government’s failure to do anything of any substance in relation to systematic violations of its own animal welfare standards in relation to live sheep exports is consistent with its actions since 2013. As Agriculture Minister from 2013 to late last year, Barnaby Joyce worked assiduously to give the live export industry a freer hand in its abuse of animals, after Labor had toughened standards following the revelations of appalling treatment of cattle by the ABC in 2011.

Joyce’s first step was to kill off a process that had been commenced under Labor to review the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock. One of the issues on which the ASEL review team — composed of a wide range of bureaucrats, industry representatives and some animal welfare representatives — couldn’t agree on in its 2013 report was on reducing the stocking densities on board export vessels — one of the issues contributing to the high mortality rate and sickening conditions in which sheep are being exported to the Middle East. Rather than allow the issue to go forward for public consultation and risk pressure to reduce the maximum stocking density, Joyce killed off the entire ASEL review process when the Coalition entered government.

It was only after Joyce had left the portfolio that a review of the ASEL was allowed: one commenced in January under Joyce’s Nationals replacement David Littleproud. But who was appointed to chair the advisory committee overseeing the review? None other than Joyce’s former Senate colleague Chris Back, who was live export’s greatest political supporter in 2011. Back is a conspiracy theorist who argued that footage of horrendous slaughter conditions shown by the ABC was fake, and that pastoralists would slaughter their cattle by the thousands by poisoning waterholes if live export was banned.

That man is now in charge of the process of reviewing the ASEL.

Before the end of 2013, Joyce also killed off the Australian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, silencing one of the few institutional voices for animal welfare within the agricultural bureaucracy at the federal and state levels — as the Productivity Commission has noted, agricultural industry interests dominate regulation in regard to animal welfare. Joyce also killed off the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy, designed to bring consistency to animal welfare standards at a national level, with grants programs cut off mid-financial year and the animal welfare branch of the department shut down.

Next, Joyce moved to water down the existing live export regulatory framework. To enable the expansion of live exports to Iran, rules were dumped that had been put in place to prevent a repeat of the notorious 2012 incident where Bahrain and Kuwait rejected shiploads of Australian sheep. Certification processes to ensure animal welfare standards from embarkation to slaughter were curtailed to a one-off “system” check rather than checks for every livestock consignment. Worse, performance audits for exporters were significantly reduced, with the department allowing a “risk-based” approach to auditing, and even allowing different companies to “share” audits.

Admittedly, in one sense this watering down didn’t particularly matter — the Department of Agriculture under Joyce refused to do anything even when it knew companies were violating its standards. Agriculture found companies like Emanuel Exports in breach of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System dozens of times — often “critical” or “major” breaches. For example, the department over several years under Barnaby Joyce routinely found breaches by Emanuel Exports and other companies in Kuwait involving sheep being on-sold there to outdoor markets rather than slaughtered at an approved facility. In response, the department declared the companies’ “Supply Chain Management Plans” were working fine. Predictably, the breaches kept recurring. In June last year, it happened again, involving several hundred Australian sheep from — you guessed it — Emanuel Exports. Yet again, the department said everything was fine:

Previously published reports have included similar issues with animals outside the approved supply chain found at the Al Rai market. All exporters were required to implement supply chain management plans (SCMP) in 2016 in response to these reports. Compliance with the SCMP is a condition of ESCAS approval and the department has audited exporters against their SCMP during 2017. Exporters took prompt action consistent with their SCMP to investigate and apply corrective action in response to the non-compliance. The actions taken by Emanuel and LSS were appropriate and immediately addressed the non-compliance.

The department had taken its cue from its minister: animal welfare standards in live exports were to be systematically ignored.