So much has happened in the four months since vision of the catastrophe that is the live sheep export trade was first broadcast. So much that we thought we’d take this opportunity to look back on the story so far, and how we’ve gotten to this remarkable point in history.
It all started with one brave whistleblower…
It was Sunday 8 April when the horrendous footage on 60 Minutes showing sheep dying in the thousands from heat stress, disease and starvation on the Awassi Express hit our screens. Faisal Ullah, the brave whistleblower who worked as crew on board the Awassi, secretly shot the footage over five gruelling voyages. We saw lambs that had just been born being trampled; sheep unable to move in a slurry of their own waste and succumbing to heat, dehydration and starvation; and crew members throwing a live sheep overboard. As truly difficult as it was to watch this footage, we knew our only chance of stopping this horror was to make sure as many people as possible saw it and expressed their outrage to those responsible.
The government responded with three reviews.
The initial reaction to the footage was one of universal anger and sadness. Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, held a press conference the day after the footage went to air, describing it as “disturbing” and saying he was “shocked and gutted” after viewing it. That day, the RSPCA also held a press conference at Parliament House and met with Minister Littleproud.
The deluge of letters and phone calls to Minister Littleproud and government MPs began. We launched a portal on our website that allowed our supporters to write directly to political leaders to voice their concern and encourage them to support an end to live sheep exports. Within just a few days, thousands of people had phoned and written to their politicians, letting them know what they thought about the live sheep export industry.
On April 10 Minister Littleproud recruited live export veterinarian Michael MCarthy to conduct a ‘short, sharp review‘ of live sheep exports in the Middle Eastern summer; and set up a whistleblower hotline for people to register complaints or provide information on the industry.
Just one week after the initial story aired, 60 Minutes aired footage of another incident that showed abattoir workers in the Middle East throwing and beating Australian sheep. This fresh evidence further strengthened the resolve of concerned Australians who had watched the footage the week before, and were more determined than ever to end the trade once and for all.
The RSPCA outlined a clear way forward, backed by science and evidence.
While the live export industry continued to make excuses for its appalling performance and call for yet another chance to continue business as usual, it became clear to us that three things were needed for this cruelty to end once and for all. We called for a halving of the stocking densities on board all live export vessels, an immediate end to high-risk May to October exports (when 70% of sheep deaths occur), and a concrete transition plan to phase out long-haul live sheep exports altogether. This became known as our ‘three-point-plan’.
There was little sign of change from the industry.
However, no suspension to the trade was announced, and the Maysora - the next live export ship in line to leave for the Middle East – was loaded and allowed to leave Fremantle on April 12 - with only a 17.5% reduction in stocking density. The decision by the government to allow this export to proceed prompted one of the fastest and strongest responses from our supporters we’ve ever seen – with thousands of furious emails sent to the government overnight, protesting this decision.
The RSPCA’s offer to place our own independent observers on board live export vessels was ignored by the industry. At the behest of the Minister, the Department placed its own observers on each sheep voyage since the Awassi footage was aired but, worryingly, we are yet to see any of the images, video footage or reports from these observers.
As we approached the critical May to October period, the situation became more urgent.
On April 19 Minister Littleproud announced that Phillip Moss AM would be heading a review into regulatory culture and capability of Department of Agriculture. Amongst other things, the Moss Review would review and assess the powers available to the Department of Agriculture to ensure that exporters obey regulations, and would also consider whether an Inspector-General of Livestock Exports would provide more effective oversight of the regulator.
We wanted more clear evidence of what Australians really think about live sheep exports, so we commissioned independent polling that found that 3 out of 4 respondents want to see an end to live sheep exports. The poll also found that opposition to live exports was highest in South Australia and was also high in Western Australia, where the majority of the sheep are sourced and depart from.
At the same time, MPs and Senators started listening to their constituents, and began to speak out against live sheep exports. Despite pressure from farming lobby groups, a growing number of sheep farmers also started withdrawing their support for the industry, not wanting to see animals they had raised with care left to suffer and die in the horrific conditions on live export ships.
On May 3, the RSPCA held a another press conference at Parliament House where, along with Animals Australia, we pledged a combined $1 million to help the industry to adjust to a phase-out of the live sheep trade. That very day, the Australia Labor Party announced that they were breaking with their long-standing support of the industry, and were now committed to phasing out the trade should they be successful at the next election.
On 10 May the RSPCA welcomed a Bill in the Senate introduced by independent Senator Derryn Hinch and Lee Rhiannon from the Australian Greens. The Bill called for an immediate end to live sheep exports from May to October, a halving of stocking density to protect animals from the most extreme suffering, and a five-year timeframe to phase out the industry altogether, in favour of increasing chilled and frozen meat exports.
The results of the ‘short, sharp’ McCarthy Review were released on May 17. Sadly, the review – while continuing some improvements - ignored the available science provided by organisations such as the Australian Veterinary Association. While the government claimed to accept all 23 recommendations, crucially, it was revealed that Recommendation 4 - which would effectively end the export of sheep during the Northern summer - was not accepted by the government.
Importantly, the review did recommend changing the way in which risk is assessed from a model based on mortality to one based on animal welfare, and reducing the reportable number of deaths on live sheep export ships from 2 per cent to 1 per cent. This still means on a standard shipment of 60,000 sheep, 600 sheep can die before the Department of Agriculture needs to be notified and an investigation is triggered. Since 2006, at least 70 such investigations have occurred when 2% or more of sheep have died on board a vessel.
While the industry continued to stall and make excuses, brave individual politicians stepped up to act.
On 21 May, Liberal backbench MP Sussan Ley announced that she would introduce a Private Member’s Bill to Parliament to phase out live sheep exports. She was backed by fellow Liberals Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood, and supported in principle by several other government members.
On June 20, WA Government officials raided the Perth offices of Emanuel Exports, the company responsible for the shipments shown on 60 Minutes. At the same time, Livestock Shipping Services - Australia’s second largest live sheep exporter - announced they were voluntarily pausing their operations during the northern summer period as the government improvements to standards made exports ‘uneconomical’.
Late on June 22, we received the news that the Department of Agriculture had suspended the export licence of Emanuel Exports. Incredibly, this was on the basis of not just the Awassi voyages, but multiple historical alleged breaches of animal welfare standards.
A few days later, on June 27, Senators Derryn Hinch and Lee Rhiannon’s motion calling for compensation for farmers and the phase-out of live sheep exports passed the Senate.
After a nail-biting few days when our supporters once again rallied to the cause, an application by Emanuel Exports’ sister company, EMS Exports, to export the 45,000 stranded sheep to the Middle East was denied by the Department of Agriculture. The following day the Department of Agriculture conceded defeat in the Federal Court case brought by Animals Australia, and admitted that the granting of a permit to Emanuel Exports in June was unlawful.
Finally, over four months after the public had first learned the name Emanuel Exports courtesy of 60 Minutes, on August 22 we welcomed the news that the Department of Agriculture had permanently cancelled their export licence. Within hours, other companies were reported to be showing interest in filling the void left by Emanuels, and Emanuels indicated that they will appeal the decision.
There is still much to do
While we wait for our politicians to return to Parliament, and for the dust to settle on the political upheaval, there is still much left to do.
We must keep up the momentum – we are closer than ever before to ending the live export of sheep. By contacting your local MP and urging them to protect Australian sheep from live export, we can ensure they do not forget that this remains a critical issue to voters, and that we will remember their position on this issue come election time.
Make sure your voice is heard loud and clear at http://liveexport.rspca.org.au/take-action .