David Littleproud lines up Philip Moss to investigate Agriculture department

By Stephen Easton

April 23, 2018

Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud has appointed public sector integrity expert Philip Moss to review the “capabilities, investigative capacity and culture” of his department with respect to regulating the live export trade.

Meanwhile, the Western Australian government has taken a firm stance against the lucrative business after a showdown between its inspectors and one exporter, who refused to let them inspect the MV Maysora while it was docked in Fremantle until they returned with a warrant.

WA Minister for Agriculture Alannah MacTiernan accused the company Livestock Shipping Services of lying about the incident, and said WA inspectors had explained their “serious” concerns to the company’s managing director.

The ship was allowed to leave, but the RSPCA is demanding the release of video and photographs taken by the state government inspectors and the WA minister has put other live animal exporters on notice.

“There were legal questions at the time as to whether the WA Animal Welfare Act 2002 could allow for the ship to be prevented from departing,” said MacTiernan, adding the WA State Solicitor had advised that ships could be stopped under WA law if a “real risk of harm to animals” existed.

“The findings of the inspection report from the Maysora remain a serious cause for concern; we await a formal response from the Federal Government to these concerns,” she dded. “We would urge industry to face  up to their current situation; confidence in live export is at an all-time low, and real steps must be taken to restore that confidence.

“In the meantime, the WA Government will continue to exercise its powers under the State Animal Welfare Act to ensure decent treatment of livestock.”

The federal department — which is under review — said problems on the Maysora “were witnessed at the time a large volume of animals were being loaded onto the vessel for departure and do not reflect the conditions maintained on the voyage” and all the issues were investigated by two vets and a stockman. DAWR said it confirmed the health and welfare of animals on board was taken care of in line with the Australian standards — which are also under review.

MacTiernan also noted that an independent vet appointed by the federal department took no part in the inspection by state government officials.

As part of the review of DAWR’s effectiveness as a regulator, Littleproud has asked Moss to consider the value of establishing an inspector-general of livestock exports, which could be more independent of the minister’s office, depending on how it is set up.

“I don’t care who thought of the idea; let’s see if it’s a good one,” Littleproud said in a statement last week.

“The [Moss] review will also investigate the regulator’s ability to assess community expectations and its cultural capacity to respond, and its engagement with key stakeholders.”

Moss, a former law enforcement integrity commissioner, has become a go-to reviewer after his efforts related to the Nauru detention centre, federal whistleblower legislation and a death in Canberra’s prison. He will report against 10 terms of reference on August 24, and has full access to DAWR staff and records.

The minister continues to take a much more aggressive line against the companies involved than his predecessor, Barnaby Joyce, and show far less interest in defending the department’s track record as regulator.

“What we saw on film this past fortnight must never happen again,” Littleproud said in the press statement.

“Those who do the wrong thing must be caught and nailed. The Australian public and the government must have trust in the integrity and regulation of the live export trade.”

Light-touch regulation

When live exports blew up in mid-2016, veterinarian Dr Lynn Simpson made a compelling argument that she was forced out of the department due to pressure from the industry in a clear example of regulatory capture.

In its response at the time, DAWR could not comment on her claims about why she resigned, but said it was important to work with live exporters and avoid “imposing unnecessary red tape or unreasonable costs” on them through animal welfare regulations, in line with the government’s general expectation that all regulators work closely with companies and take a light-touch approach.

The Parliamentary library details a long string of problems over the years, going back to colonial times; live exports were first suspended “due to the outbreak of disease” in 1889. The detailed chronology notes the current government has moved to expand the industry and “streamline” regulation:

Since the 2013 election, the Abbott and Turnbull Governments have placed a greater emphasis on industry self-regulation and have established export markets in China, Cambodia and Thailand and reopened trade to Bahrain, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt. During this time, amendments have been introduced to streamline the regulatory system, including:

  • removing the requirement for a Memorandum of Understanding (which set out the conditions under which the live trade can be undertaken, including assurances that animals be unloaded on arrival, regardless of the results of an initial animal health inspection) to be in place with any new live export market.
  • streamlining the export certification process to require that exporters submit ESCAS applications for each new export market rather than for each consignment; and
  • the introduction of new risk-based auditing requirements.

Littleproud continues to resist calls for an outright ban on live exports from opposition leader Bill Shorten, the Greens and some government backbenchers.

“I’m determined to make decisions on science not emotion,” Littleproud said, pointing to another “short, sharp review” he has commissioned into the actual conditions on the ships that transport Australian livestock to the Middle East over coming months. 

“I will not make a knee jerk reaction with the science three weeks away. A knee jerk ban would punish farmers who have done nothing wrong.”

Littleproud claimed Shorten had “broken away from a bipartisan approach to make a political statement” while shadow minister Joel Fitzgibbon was “honourable and good to deal with” over the issue.

Veterinarian Dr Michael McCarthy agreed he could complete his review in four weeks. He will look at “scientific literature, outcomes of recent voyages and reports from observers” to make conclusions about issues like stocking density, bedding, waste management, ventilation, heat stress, the training and size of the crew, and anything else he thinks is worth exploring.

“It’d be great if the live export industry led on this issue and had already taken strong action by the time this review comes back,” said Littleproud.

“If I have to drag them kicking and screaming, I will, but I’d prefer they led and proved to the Australian people they are serious about cultural change.”​

Dr McCarthy’s report will also contribute to the pre-existing review of the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock.

A new confidential phone line for live export whistleblowers takes anonymous tips: 1800 319 595.​

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