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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 4364

Senator BROWNHILL (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy)(10.44 a.m.) —The government was going to agree to this motion being called formal, but to vote against the motion when it was moved. I want to just mention a couple of points that Senator Margetts has brought up about the animal welfare aspects of the trade. Yes, everyone is very concerned about animal welfare, wherever they happen to be. It was the previous government that established the National Consultative Committee on Animal Welfare. That committee is still in operation and will continue to be in operation. So that looks after those aspects of animal welfare.

In relation to the other point Senator Margetts mentioned about there being no consultation, we contacted her office about this to ask Senator Margetts to either agree to defer the motion or try to find an agreed version of the motion. But, as far as the motion is concerned, I do not believe that would be possible to do with her.

I would just make a couple of statements about the motion. The Uniceb is a live sheep vessel that sunk in the Indian Ocean at the end of August. The ship was carrying 67,500 sheep, destined for Aqaba in Jordan. The Uniceb had passed an Australian safety inspection and was inspected for animal welfare conditions immediately before its last voyage.

The Uniceb was registered in Panama and owned by an Italian group. Under the International Convention for the Safety of Ships at Sea, the authority and responsibility for undertaking investigations into the sinking of vessels lies with the country of the flag registry. Australia has no rights under the international convention either to participate in that investigation or, if we were to initiate our own investigation, to require the cooperation of the flag registry, the underwriters or the owners.

The Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Anderson, has undertaken that, should the report of the Panamanian investigation point to any failures on the part of the Australian shippers or any others, the matter will be thoroughly investigated and appropriate action taken. The minister has met with both the RSPCA and the Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies to discuss the incident and also ways and means of improving animal welfare conditions on livestock export vessels. Both the RSPCA and ANZFAS have agreed to work with the minister in addressing issues of concern. Both groups have prepared submissions which are under consideration.

No-one could be unmoved by the suffering involved in the death of the ship's engineer, as well as so many thousands of animals. Nonetheless, we do not believe it is a productive use of the Senate's time to debate the motion which we are now debating. I seek leave to have two documents incorporated in Hansard. One is about the live sheep trade and the other gives full details of the Uniceb incident. I think they have been incorporated in Hansard during another debate in this place.

Leave granted.

The documents read as follows


A fire broke out on Saturday 31 August in the engine room of the Italian owned (Sistren Services), Panama flagged, live sheep vessel `Uniceb' which is chartered to exporters Wellards. The vessel left Fremantle on 23 August carrying 67,500 sheep bound for the Red Sea port of Aqaba in Jordan.

Most reports indicate that the fire broke out on either Saturday 31 August or Sunday 1 September, but this is yet to be verified. It is most likely the ship was 900-1000 miles north-east of Seychelles when the fire broke out.

It appears the fire commenced in the engine room and spread rapidly to accommodation areas above causing the crew to abandon ship. The ship's engineer was lost overboard during this time.

The crew later reboarded the ship and endeavoured to fight the fire, but were driven off by heat and smoke. They then drifted in life rafts for 20 hours or more until picked up by a passing ship the `Mineral Century' on Monday 2 September. (This vessel arrived in Suez on Tuesday 10 September.)

We are not aware of any radio, phone or beacon contact during the fire. Upon hearing of the fire by radio from the rescue vessel on the Monday, the Italian owners dispatched on Tuesday a fire fighting tug from Djibouti to the vessel in salvage/rescue attempt. The owners also on Tuesday diverted the `Cormo Express' to the scene. This vessel had just completed unloading sheep in Karachi.

Both the salvage tug and the `Cormo Express' arrived at the point of last sighting on Friday 6 September. A US military aircraft also participated in the search on either the Friday afternoon or Saturday covering approximately 200 sq miles.

On the Tuesday 10 September reports confirmed that debris consistent with the sinking of the `Uniceb' had been sighted floating in the vicinity and it was concluded that the ship had sunk. The search mission was then called off.

The ship's charterers, Wellard Rural Exports, believed the ship sank soon after the fire began. This is based on the fact that two explosions were heard by the crew drifting in lifeboats after they were forced to abandon the ship and that, in the period between the ship being abandoned and the sighting of the debris, there were no reports of a ship on fire in a major shipping lane into Suez and the Middle East.

Under the International Convention of Safety of Life at Sea, the flag registry, in this case Panama, is required to undertake an inquiry. This is now being conducted by the Panama representative in Bombay and is expected to take some months. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has contacted the Panamanian authorities noting the implications for Australia and requesting a copy of the report of the inquiry into the incident. Further action by Australian authorities will be decided in the light of the report of the Panamanian inquiry.

As reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (6/9/96), the Maritime Union of Australia alleged that the Uniceb had left port hurriedly before the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) could investigate International Transport Workers' Federation concerns about conditions for the crew and stock on board.

AMSA has confirmed that allegations were made about unsatisfactory conditions on the vessel. These related to operation of the crew accommodation air conditioning system, incorrectly flushing toilets and suspect drinking water quality. AMSA has confirmed it investigated the claims and in relation to the toilets and drinking water found them to be without substance. AMSA also was satisfied with the outcome of discussions with the ship's engineer regarding air conditioning in the crew's accommodation. AMSA reported there were no problems with the animal accommodation and that the ship had passed inspection in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control and the Marine Orders. The `Uniceb' had a track record as a good, reliable vessel meeting all AMSA standards.


The trade to the Middle East began in the 1960s and, with the advent of larger and more technically advanced vessels, expanded rapidly to meet strong growth in demand in the region for freshly killed meat.

1. Last year Australia exported some 5.5 million sheep worth around $207 million. Figures to end June 1996 are currently running at the same levels as last year. The Middle East is the primary destination for shipments (99%) with the UAE and Jordan the single largest importing countries.

2. There are currently 25 licensed livestock exporters and 63 importers in 29 countries of Australian sheep. The majority of animals used in the trade are sourced from producers in WA, SA, VIC, and southern NSW.

3. While there was an increase in the carcass trade following the halting of live exports to Saudi Arabia in 1991, it should be noted that there was a corresponding significant increase in live exports to neighbouring countries in subsequent years.

4. The AMLC estimates that, at a minimum, 800,000 Australian live sheep are exported each year to other Middle Eastern countries, particularly UAE and Qatar, and then slaughtered and exported to Saudi Arabia as sheep meat. The UAE has undergone sustained growth since 1990, becoming Australia's second largest market for live sheep.

5. This points to the fact that a number of countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, retain a strong preference for freshly killed meat which can only be met by the live animal trade.

6. The AMLC maintains a regular promotional program to encourage increased consumption of chilled and frozen sheep meat. Through its overseas offices in key markets the ALMA promotes the trade through a comprehensive program of consumer and trade advertising and sales promotion backed up by a technical support service.

7. The advertising strategy focuses on newspapers and magazines portraying Australian sheep meat as high quality and produced by a professional industry. General merchandising and point-of-sale material is also provided to stores carrying Australian sheep meat to differentiate the product from competitors. The AMLC technical officers advise retailers and consumers on the characteristics and specifications of Australian meat and conducts butcher training programs on handling, preparation and presentation.

8. The AMLC's efforts to promote sheep meat consumption also extend to regularly contacting government officials, importers and agents to maintain Australia's reputation as a supplier of high quality and safe product and reassure them, where appropriate, of the integrity of our export certification system.

Everything has been done that can be done by the government of this country. I was also a part of the live sheep export inquiry undertaken by the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare. I believe that everything which was put in place by that inquiry has been adhered to. We are wasting a lot of time in the Senate debating something that was discussed in a previous agenda item last Thursday in this very place.