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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
24/05/2018
Estimates
AGRICULTURE AND WATER RESOURCES PORTFOLIO
Animal Health Australia

Animal Health Australia

CHAIR: We now resume budget estimates for 2018-19 for the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee. I need to point out, Senator Stoker has had the rest of the day with Senator Macdonald. I have told her we're much gentler and more civilised here, so I would hope that no-one proves me wrong. Mr Quinlivan, I believe you have an opening statement, or do you want to leave that until—

Mr Quinlivan : I think we could have some questions with Animal Health Australia and then going to this might be the right sequence.

CHAIR: Let's do that. Welcome, Ms Plowman. Do you have an opening statement you'd like to make?

Ms Plowman : Just to clarify, Animal Health Australia is a not-for-profit public company. We are a member service organisation. Our members include the Australian government, state and territory governments, livestock industries and various providers and associate members, including Wildlife Health Australia and the Australian Veterinary Association to name a few. We work with our members in partnership to do more together and leverage off our partnerships in the animal health system and biosecurity.

CHAIR: Thank you for that.

Senator McCARTHY: Can AHA provide information about its current funding level?

Ms Plowman : Our current funding level has remained roughly the same. It's around $14 million annually. It comprises what we call subscriptions from our members which is approximately $4 million, and the rest is made up through what we call special projects where we partner with RDCs, universities, Australian governments or the livestock industries to deliver particular programs of interest to them.

Senator McCARTHY: But where does it obtain the majority of its funding?

Ms Plowman : The majority of our funding comes from levies, matching research and development money or from various government members.

Senator McCARTHY: Can AHA provide information about its staffing levels—

Ms Plowman : It certainly can.

Senator McCARTHY: and where its staff members are based?

Ms Plowman : All but one of our staff are based here in Canberra. We have a headcount of around 29 staff.

Senator McCARTHY: Where are the rest based?

Ms Plowman : We have one staff member based in Brisbane.

Senator McCARTHY: One in Brisbane and the rest are in Canberra?

Ms Plowman : Sorry, we do have someone on a contract—an aquatic industry liaison officer based in Cairns.

Senator McCARTHY: Could you provide the committee with an update on your top five priority animal health matters?

Ms Plowman : Our top five would be those of most common interest to all our members, so surveillance, traceability and biosecurity capacity and capability across our industry members and government are of particular concern for us. Also, in terms of the National Animal Health Information System and ensuring its currency in terms of data standards, there's a lot of work going on with the Commonwealth on those particular issues.

Senator McCARTHY: Has AHA attempted to facilitate discussion with its members about the following recommendation from the AVA? The recommendation states:

Irrespective of stocking density, thermoregulatory physiology indicates that sheep on live export voyages to the Middle East during May to October will remain susceptible to heat stress and die due to the expected extreme climatic conditions during this time. Accordingly, voyages carrying live sheep to the Middle East during May to October cannot be recommended.

Ms Plowman : We don't work in the livestock export animal welfare area. My members include members from the horse industry and the poultry industry. Yes, we do have cattle and sheep, but it's a broad membership. So, if you're asking whether we have spoken or worked collectively with our members around that particular matter, no, and nor would we.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you, Ms Plowman. I might just go to Mr Malcolm Thompson. In 2017, LiveCorp delivered a research development and extension update on the livestock export industry. On page 12, the report acknowledges that industry, government and the general public have a keen interest in monitoring the export patterns and mortality rates on board livestock vessels. Does LiveCorp also acknowledge that the public also has a keen interest in the welfare of exported live animals, especially those exported on long-haul voyages?

Mr Quinlivan : I think we've got LiveCorp here, so we can direct that question to them personally. But, since you've moved on quickly, if there are no more questions for Animal Health Australia, I think it would be a good structure if we made this statement which deals with the suite of issues and then come back to the specifics, perhaps with LiveCorp first. I think that would be an orderly way to go.

CHAIR: Ms Plowman, thank you. It's a pity more officials aren't like you. You've come and left very quickly. We appreciate your time and the effort to prepare for estimates, and we wish you all the very best on your journey to your home port. Thank you.

Ms Plowman : Thanks, Chair.

Mr M Thompson : I'd like to make a short statement on behalf of the department on live animal exports, and I'd like to update the committee on the department's work program with respect to live sheep exports to the Middle East during the northern summer. I will say at the outset that the footage provided to the department by Animals Australia on 4 April and shown on 60 Minutes on 8 April was extremely distressing and is completely at odds with both community expectations and our expectations as the regulator of live animal exports. This footage showed appalling conditions on a ship on consecutive voyages to the Middle East from May to November in 2017. The department takes any new information about animal welfare concerns very seriously. When this footage was provided to us, we took immediate steps to provide greater assurance that exporters were meeting their obligations in relation to animal welfare on voyages to the Middle East, and I'll say more about this a bit later.

In short, in response to the information provided to us, the department is fundamentally changing its approach to regulating the export of live sheep to the Middle East. In terms of our regulatory approach to date, the department is responsible for regulating the export of livestock from Australia. This means taking into account government policy, the interests of the meat and livestock export industry as a whole and the clear public interest in ensuring that exporters properly manage animal health and welfare on live export voyages. Up to now, the department's approach to regulating this trade has been based on the following elements: a regulatory framework that clearly requires exporters to ensure the health and welfare of animals in their care at every stage of the export chain; approved arrangements whereby exporters are assessed by the department as having systems in place to manage the export chain to achieve health and welfare of animals and meat-importing country requirements; a requirement by the exporter to outline how they will comply with the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock, or ASEL, before the exporter is granted a licence and an export permit by the department; the department issuing further specific conditions on a case-by-case basis on individual voyages; and a requirement to have an Australian government-accredited veterinarian on board vessels travelling to or through the Middle East.

The accredited vet is engaged by the exporter and is responsible for managing and reporting on the health and welfare of animals on the voyage. Their expertise is critical to assess and ensure animal health and welfare during the voyage, provide a daily report to the department and provide an end-of-voyage report within five days which must include any additional information about any unexpected animal health or welfare issues. The ASEL also define a two per cent mortality rate in consignments as the trigger for initiating a review of the preparation and management of sheep during a voyage. And the department also relies on requirements that make exporters responsible at the end of voyage for achieving specific animal welfare outcomes for exported livestock in the importing country through the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, or ESCAS. In addition to these parts of the regulatory framework, vessels must also receive an Australian certificate for the carriage of livestock from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. AMSA performs a range of checks on the vessel to ensure it is seaworthy and appropriate to transport livestock before issuing a certificate.

There are a few observations we would like to make about the evidence provided to us by Animals Australia, which, in turn, was the basis of the 60 Minutes footage. The first is that this was the first time we'd seen evidence of this nature. Secondly, apart from the emotional response we shared with others, it was immediately obvious to us that it revealed deficiencies in our regulatory approach. Until that point, we had actually seen a gradual falling in mortality and ESCAS breach rates as an indication that the performance of this trade had been improving over time. The information provided by Animals Australia clearly demonstrated a number of shortcomings in the department's reliance on mortality as a key performance indicator. The system relies on exporters and accredited vets reporting on conditions and outcomes of voyages. In this instance, the information provided to the department did not indicate animal welfare conditions on the voyage that would have warranted further regulatory action at the time. The vets' reports did not convey the extent of the problems on Awassi in August 2017 or on other voyages between May and November 2017. Clearly, these reports were inadequate. The footage of horrific animal welfare conditions experienced by sheep on the 2017 voyages has exposed the inadequacy of mortality as the predominant measure of welfare in our regulatory approach, in the heat stress risk assessment model used by industry and as a trigger above the two per cent threshold for further investigation by the department. The application of the current model for calculating stocking densities, given the risk of heat stress events and the characteristics of vessels, is clearly not working as intended. Importantly, the footage from the Awassi voyages also clearly identified that the department had insufficient means of assuring itself of exporter compliance with regulatory obligations while livestock were on the water. The ESCAS system, which operates at the end of voyage, only applies at the point of unloading. Lastly, the experience has identified limitations in the regulatory framework within which the department operates, including the lack of compliance tools available to us as a regulator.

As I noted at the outset, the department took immediate action on receiving the footage from Animals Australia, and I wanted to step through some of those actions now. The department is conducting investigations to determine if there have been breaches of the Meat and Livestock Industry Act, the Export Control Act or the Criminal Code Act as it applies to the AMLI Act and the Export Control Act. This includes investigating allegations of overstocking of the vessel, failing to have sufficient food and water available, injury and illness not being treated and accredited veterinarians and stockmen leaving the vessel prior to completion of unloading. A range of witnesses are being questioned and information is being examined by the department. As the investigation is ongoing, we cannot say more about this at present.

At the request of Minister Littleproud, the department has put in place the requirement to have a department vet observing on all voyages to the Middle East. This is in addition to the presence of the accredited vet. The department vet is also able to issue directions as required on the vessel to ensure the welfare of livestock. These officers have been in daily contact with the department, and I can advise that animal welfare has been well managed during the voyages to date and there have been no notifiable mortality incidents at this time. Given the burden of providing staff for this role, we are looking at other ways to deliver an independent observer service into the medium term.

Other conditions the department has imposed on long-haul voyages to and through the Middle East include reducing stocking density by up to 17.5 per cent and requiring first point of discharge to be Kuwait when travelling to multiple ports in the Middle East, providing greater space for the remaining livestock as they head towards higher humidity ports. These additional conditions were designed to provide additional assurance that the welfare of sheep on these voyages was being managed while longer-term measures were being developed for the industry. Some of these measures have been overtaken by the immediate implementation of some of Dr McCarthy's recommendations, which I'll get to in a minute.

As announced by Minister Littleproud on 9 April, the department has established a hotline to allow whistleblowers to provide information to the department, which is being followed up as required. The minister has made it clear that penalties and sanctions must reflect the seriousness of any offences under the legislation. The government bill to amend the current export legislation, which was introduced into the House this morning, will significantly strengthen penalties and consequences for exporters and directors of export companies that seek to profit from poor animal welfare practices.

In terms of the McCarthy review, as you know, on 10 April the government announced a short review to be undertaken by Dr Michael McCarthy into sheep exports to the Middle East during the northern summer. He provided his report to the minister on 11 May, and it was released along with the department's response on 17 May. Dr McCarthy consulted with and received information from a number of stakeholders. He conducted a peer workshop, which included the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer, based on a draft of his report. The chief vet has said the review is sound with appropriate recommendations.

The McCarthy review has set out a series of recommendations for consideration. These recommendations represent a significant and far-reaching shift in the regulatory approach. The department supports the recommendations made and will be working to progressively implement them, subject to further public consultation and testing of the findings in relation to heat stress risk assessment. As I've indicated, these recommendations in particular represent a significant and far-reaching shift in the regulatory approach. We intend to make a series of directions and orders aimed at implementing these recommendations. To do this, we intend to make decisions under the AMLI Act to put in place conditions on export licences that must be met by exporters. Conditions will reflect the new approach to the industry proposed by Dr McCarthy. Those conditions are intended to manage the risk of upcoming voyages, and will be subject to procedural fairness and consultation, as is standard.

As a regulator, the department is required to make decisions on a considered, reasonable basis and to give affected persons an opportunity to be heard and consulted. In making these decisions, the department will have regard to a wide range of relevant material, including government policy, the review itself, industry views and any information about the health and welfare of animals. Dr McCarthy's recommendations on how the management of heat stress should feature in risk assessments and flow through to stocking density represents a fundamental shift in the approach to animal welfare on voyages, as I've already said. It is reasonable that this aspect of Dr McCarthy's report is subject to further consideration and consultation with key stakeholders to understand its ramifications and impacts and to test if the recommended animal welfare outcomes can be achieved through other effective means.

In the meantime, the department will implement immediately an allometric model to determine stocking density. Allometric stocking means stocking that reflects the characteristics of the animals and their behavioural needs, given the length of the voyage. This is likely to mean stocking rates of up to 28 per cent less than those defined by ASEL. The notifiable mortality level for the sheep exported by sea to the Middle East will be reduced from two to one per cent and independent observer veterinarians will continue to accompany all voyages to the Middle East during the northern summer to provide further assurance of animal welfare and important information to assist the department as it considers Dr McCarthy's recommendations on managing heat stress. The department will also continue to work closely with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority where needed to implement relevant recommendations from Dr McCarthy's report.

In conclusion, the government has reaffirmed its policy not to ban live animal export during the coming northern summer. Animal welfare remains a critical consideration for the sustainability of this trade, and the McCarthy review has provided a sound basis on which to make changes to the regulatory framework based on science and evidence. In addition, the comprehensive review of the ASEL which commenced in February this year has been fast-tracked and will report back at the end of 2018. This review will examine the longer-term legislative requirements to ensure animal health and welfare on all voyages.

The department also welcomes the review into the regulatory capability and culture of the department in the regulation of live animal exports. This review was announced by the minister on 19 April and will be undertaken by Phillip Moss, who will make recommendations on improvements to our regulatory and investigative performance. Phillip Moss's final report is due to the minister by 24 August this year. As the regulator, the department is currently in transition and is working with all relevant stakeholders to increase the welfare outcomes for animals exported from Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Thompson. Do any colleagues have any objection to this being tabled? There being no objection, it is tabled. Senator McCarthy.

Senator McCARTHY: Thank you for your statement to the committee, Mr Thompson. I might put on the public record as a courtesy that when we discuss Dr McCarthy's review that there is no relationship between Senator McCarthy and Dr McCarthy. I think that might just need to be noted.

CHAIR: That clears up that conflict.

Senator McCARTHY: There is no family connection there that I'm aware of. Could I go to LiveCorp now?