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Tuesday, 8 May 2018
Page: 3275

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (15:19): I thank the House. Most people view the current live sheep trade controversy as an animal welfare issue, and it certainly is, first and foremost. But it is much more than that. It is true that the vision we saw on 60 Minutes right on a month ago, I think, was horrible and totally unacceptable. Indeed, the live sheep trade is neither acceptable nor necessary. This debate is not just about animal welfare; it is also about the rights of the workers on the ships which cart those sheep to the Middle East in particular, and it's about the economics of the trade and its impact on the Australian economy—and I want to say something about all three things.

Unlike the cattle industry, the live sheep sector has proved itself unable to demonstrate a capacity to meet the animal welfare expectations of the broader Australian community and, indeed, I'm sure, anyone in this place. It's not as if the industry hasn't been given plenty of opportunities; it certainly has. Reports of animal cruelty in the live sheep trade go back to at least the early 1980s. My first experience of it in this place was in 2006, when the then Prime Minister, John Howard, suspended the live sheep trade. The breaches keep occurring and promises of reform keep coming, but, sadly, nothing ever seems to really change.

A month ago, I came to the conclusion that a bipartisan approach was necessary to reform this sector. It was my very firm view that the best way to secure deep, meaningful and broad reform was for the major parties to work together, and I still believe that to be true. I extended a bipartisan hand to the minister, who, I'm pleased to see, has joined us for this debate—I think that's important—and he accepted that bipartisan hand, and I've been somewhat encouraged by his responses in the course of the last month. It is a big change from and a great contrast to the responses that I used to receive from the former minister for agriculture and that I'm sure I would have received if the member for New England had still been the minister for agriculture. That is because one of the core issues here is regulatory capture and the culture of the regulator, and direction of the culture within the regulator—which in this instance is the department—comes down from the minister of the day. The problem was that when the member for New England provided a free pass for the sector, unconditional approval of the sector, as you would expect we got the wrong culture in the sector, complacency in the sector and risk-taking in the sector. The manifestation of all of that, of course, was what we saw on 60 Minutes a month ago.

I just want to take the House through 10 key things the member for New England did to retard our progress on animal welfare improvements. He ignored industry warnings. We saw that front and centre with the Wellard letter which was leaked last week—the industry warning the department itself that things were going awry. He delayed the review of ASEL, the key standards for the sector, but not by a period of months. I as minister, I think, if it wasn't former Minister Ludwig, commissioned the review in 2013. Here we are in 2018, and we're told that the ASEL review is due in mid-2019. The ASEL review is critical to improving the standards. The member for New England rejected Labor's review of ESCAS, the other auditing trail for protecting animal welfare. He abolished Labor's Inspector-General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports. He rejected the idea of an independent office for animal welfare. He rejected regular ministerial parliamentary reporting on animal welfare and live exports. He abolished the Australian animal welfare advisory committee. He defunded the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. He abolished the Office of Animal Welfare within his own department. He allowed exemptions from animal welfare standards without sunset provisions, something we read about in the newspapers as recently as last week.

The minister will be asking why I said we were prepared to wait for the so-called McCarthy review report before taking a firmer decision on the northern summer trade in particular but on the live sheep trade more generally.

I'll say, first of all, that the minister has now commissioned four reviews. I welcome all of them, but the timing of some of them has me a little concerned. There is a review into the Awassi Express incident, which is the incident we saw on 60 Minutes. The regulator reviewed the incident and declared there were no breaches. Despite the vision we saw, it declared there were no breaches. To his credit, the minister has asked the regulator to revisit that. There is a review into the horrible summer trade, where 60,000 sheep are put on a voyage for four weeks in the hottest of hottest conditions on this planet and in the deepest humidity—50-degree heat and deep humidity. There's a review into the minister's own department. I welcome and congratulate the minister for having the robustness and the courage to ask the Attorney-General's office to have a look at his own department to find out what in the hell is happening there. But I think, again, you'll find it's the culture pushed down by his predecessor. And, of course, there is a review into the ASEL standards which, unfortunately, because of the member for New England's delays, won't report until 2019. I have spoken to the minister, and I know he will endeavour to bring that ASEL review forward.

So, why aren't I waiting for McCarthy to report on the review of the summer trade? Why isn't the Labor Party waiting? It is because we heard from the industry itself last week the admission that what happened with the Awassi Express was a climatic event, which was out of the control of anyone in this room, anyone in the industry and anyone in the Australian community. It was an admission from the sector itself that, no matter how much we improve standards, no matter how much we strengthen regulatory oversights, no matter how much we strengthen penalties and enforcement, the industry can't guarantee another Awassi Express incident won't happen. I don't need to wait for the McCarthy review. The industry itself has told us what the outcome is, or at least what the outcome should be.

Then there is the worker welfare. Those who read the Latika Bourke story, I think, on Saturday, would have been horrified—the image of workers trying to lift sheep off the dirty decks of those ships to be thrown overboard, only to have their limbs coming away, only to be squirted by boiling blood. They are underpaid and overworked in the most atrocious conditions.

On the economics—Labor wants a strategic red meat industry plan. We want to add more value here in Australia, create more jobs here in Australia, create more foreign exchange here in Australia and, of course, lift animal welfare standards. And we can do this. With the guidance of government and with the wit, we can do this in partnership with the sheepmeat producers, with the processors, and with everyone else along that supply chain. I'm absolutely determined that sheep producers will be better off under Labor's plan, not tied to the live export trade but heading for premium markets and getting bigger returns.

Here's the economics of this trade at the moment. Animal welfare cruelty is being externalised. By shoving 60,000 or more sheep on a ship, you are able to deliver a premium to the sheepmeat producer. Sheepmeat producers think that's not a bad thing. However, what does that do to the competitiveness of our abattoirs? Abattoirs can't compete, because they're overstocking and sharing the benefit with the farmers. Now, I don't mind farmers receiving a benefit, but not at the expense of animal welfare. We can do better than that. Our markets are changing. Community preferences, consumer preferences, are changing right around the globe. There is an opportunity to push those farmers up the value curve, to head them in the direction of premium markets and to create those jobs in Australia. This will take time. We can't transition sheepmeat producers out of the live export trade in a hurry. But we can do it, and we're best placed to do it if we're working together. I do appeal to the minister, again, to work with us on a bipartisan basis. We can get this done. Everyone in that supply chain can benefit and, of course, the broader community will secure its expectations on animal welfare standards.