Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Is this the end of an era? Sheep exports expected to conclude in Australia (Part 1)

At its peak in 2017-2018, the Australian live sheep export industry was worth over $160 million USD, exporting a total of 2 million sheep. Following this record-breaking year, journalists found through footage released to Animals Australia by a whistle-blower that over 2,400 sheep died aboard a vessel owned by Emmanuel Exports. The cause of the deaths was overwhelming heat stress. 

Since this catastrophic event, the Australian media, animal welfare organisations and the general public have subjects the live sheep export industry to scrutiny. In an attempt to address the growing concerns, the Australian Liberal government introduced restrictions that reduced export ships capacity for livestock by 28%. Further to this, far greater penalties for those who 'seek profit from breaking export rules around stocking densities and poor animal welfare practices' were also introduced. The penalties, which are still in place, consist of a maximum of $4.2 million for companies and a maximum of $2.1 million for directors. 

Fast forward to 2022: The good intentions of the Liberal government have been completely forgotten. Undercover footage taken in overseas markets exposed the inhumane treatment of Australian livestock once they reached international shores. What was once an issue within Australian control has been transformed into an animal welfare concern that seemingly has one solution: ending live sheep exports out of Australia. 

Shatha Hamade, a solicitor for Animals Australia, released footage to the Australian Broadcasting Commission's 7:30 Report. She captured it by posing as a buyer within Middle Eastern meat markets and livestock yards. The footage displayed highly distressing and shocking content of sheep being mistreated and sold illegally in Oman

A question that bounces around a lot is why don't we just introduce legislation to protect the treatment of sheep for live exports? Well, there's already regulations in place - the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System ('ECAS'). The problem is that it doesn't appear to be working. With the absence of appropriate civil penalties, corporations have significant leeway to not satisfy the regulations. This idea will be explored through part 2 of this blog series. 

Australia is the only country out of 100 livestock exporting nations that has a regulatory framework in place for the protection of their animals' welfare once they have arrived in the importing country. This, however, begs the question: do the ESCAS regulations even have any effect in international territory? As Hamade eloquently stated;

[E]ffective regulatory framework is only as good as it is policed and enforced, and ESCAS is not policed by the Australian government. 

The intention of the 7:30 Report exposé was to evoke an emotional response from the general public (similar to a discussion on another one of our blog posts which can be found here), who in turn, would place pressure upon the government for legislative reform. 

A petition with more than 43,000 signatures in support of a legislative end date to live sheep export was put before the Labour government on 31 August 2023. This petition has been one of the largest in the last year, and it is ranked within the top 45 most signed petitions in Australian history. The Labour government yet to release their public repsonse to the petition, but it is anticipated this will occur soon. 

Prior to watching the 7:30 Report piece, I had a complete and utter moral aversion to the Labour government's electoral promise to end live sheep exports. From my family's involvement within Australia's rural and agricultural media industry, I have developed an immense appreciation for Australian farmers and livestock. The thought of ending a multimillion-dollar industry that plays such an important role for Australian agriculture seems completely ludicrous. 

The very concept means thousands of Australians would be stranded with a specific skill set and nowhere to go. That doesn't even take into account the local economies that would take an absolute battering. With 97% of all sheep exports departing out of Western Australian ports, it's highly likely that smaller Western Australian towns would become destitute. 

The harsh reality I have come to terms with is that the footage shown on the 7:30 report is not a once-off act. Nor is it something that has arisen in the last 5-10 years. The mistreatment of exported sheep has been an ongoing catastrophe that has been completely swept under the rug for decades, because the only parties who previously knew about it are the ones who are making the profits. 

There comes a time sooner or later where you have to ask yourself, when is enough, enough? How much longer are we going to tolerate the mistreatment of livestock? It their torturous suffering really a good trade-off for our profit?

It appears that all conceivable efforts to find a balance between being able to assure adequate livestock elfare and continuing to practice live exports, has potentially been exhausted. Further amendments could take the form of increased civil penalties for non-compliance - however, this avenue wouldn't necessarily have the desired effect. 

Much like Australian penalties for non-compliance within mining practices, million-dollar penalties for large corporations merely acts as a deterrence for non-compliance, as the potential financial penalty is an insignificant amount in comparison to the revenue they generate. There are many circumstances where it is more beneficial for corporations to breach legislation regulations and pay a penalty than not to commit the breach at all (such as the Rio Tinto destruction of a 46,000 year old Indigenous Australian site). I fear that the penalties introduced in 2018 dud exactly that, and any further increase would have very little impact. 

At the end of the day, the real decision to make is one of a moral dilemma: do we place a higher value on the livelihood of animals or people? This idea will be explored through the second part of this blog series. 

If you wish to gain further insight on Australia's live sheep export industry, you can biew stories from the Australian Broadcasting Commission here, here and here

1 comment:

Caitlin Durcan said...

Thank you for writing about this topic. I never knew how important sheep were to the Australian economy. When looking at the intersection of environmental (or in this case animal rights) issues and rural employment, it often appears that there is no solution that would benefit both. I think this is particularly the case with farming. I hope that there can be a solution that doesn’t leave smaller Western Australian towns without their major industry while still protecting the rights of animals.