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Tuesday, 7 October 2003
Page: 20631

Mr HAWKER (3:08 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Minister, will you provide an update on the Cormo Express and the government's efforts to secure a market for the 52,000 sheep on board?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the honourable member for Wannon for his question. He represents many of the sheep growers of Australia who have a particular interest in this trade—although, to be fair, the sheep on board the Cormo Express come from Western Australia and not from the electorate of Wannon.

On 21 August the Cormo Express and its cargo of 57,000 sheep was rejected by Saudi authorities because of claims that the sheep had a high level of scabby mouth. There is a specification which allows up to five per cent of scabby mouth on sheep for this trade. The Australian vet on board the vessel is an experienced vet who has made many trips. He believes that the percentage of sheep on the vessel with scabby mouth was about 0.3 per cent. The Saudis initially claimed it was 30 per cent and then later adjusted that figure to six per cent. For whatever reason, they rejected that shipment and, since that time, the government, in cooperation with the shipper and others associated with the trade, has been seeking a satisfactory destination for the sheep. We do not fully understand the reason for the rejection, but other countries have joined in refusing to receive the sheep on the basis of the Saudi's original rejection because of scabby mouth.

This is an important trade for Australia. It involves about 1.5 million sheep. Indeed, our live trade to Saudi Arabia last year was worth about $195 million. But, clearly, we cannot have this trade continue whilst there is this uncertainty about whether or not shipments will be accepted in that country. So, on 26 August, I moved to ban any further shipments to Saudi Arabia whilst these issues are unresolved. I point out that trade to other countries in that region has proceeded without incident. There have been 10 ships subsequently unloaded at other destinations in that area without any incident.

Obviously our priority is to seek to find a new destination for the sheep on board the Cormo Express. The vessel is currently in Kuwait and is taking on additional provisions to enable it to go to sea again. Whilst in Kuwait there has been a small fire on board, and that has delayed the taking on of provisions. We now expect it will be Wednesday or probably Thursday before it is able to leave Kuwait. Whilst the Cormo Express has been in that port, the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Gardner Murray, has boarded the vessel to inspect the sheep and also arranged for an international vet—Dr Ghazl Yehia, from the OIE—to inspect the sheep for an independent assessment. I think it is very important that there be this public assurance in relation to the health and quality of the sheep, and the best way to get that kind of independent assessment was through the OIE.

In his official report, the OIE veterinarian confirmed that the sheep on board the Cormo Express are fit, healthy and suitable for human consumption. He has confirmed that there is no evidence of any infectious or contagious disease and there is no evidence of any disease to suggest a consignment would be unsuitable for admission to any country in the region. He has also said that there is no evidence that there has been a significant outbreak of scabby mouth aboard the vessel at any time during the voyage. This comprehensive report backs up the Australian assessment that these sheep are in good health. This report has been provided to around 25 countries in the region which originally expressed concern about the health of the sheep, with a request that they reconsider their objection to receiving the sheep.

There have been any number of offers to receive the sheep—any number of potential places where the sheep could be placed—both for commercial reasons and as aid. However, to this date, none of the relevant countries have been prepared to grant an import consent. Our efforts—diplomatic, commercial and with the trade—have been directed towards seeking to obtain consent from a country to enable the sheep to be unloaded somewhere in the region. That remains our priority. It is clearly the best outcome for the sheep, and major efforts are being devoted to that purpose.

In the event that something cannot be achieved in that regard, we are also naturally working on the fallback options of either slaughter somewhere else in the region or returning the sheep to Australia under very strict quarantine conditions. I emphasise that our preferred position remains that we find a destination in that region for the sheep. Our priority is the welfare of the sheep. In those circumstances, I would hope that we would have the support of all members of the House in seeking to secure a satisfactory negotiation so that a destination can be found quickly.