NFF President Fiona Simson

Meaningful changes made following sheep exports mea culpa moment

Following 60 Minutes on 8 April, the National Farmers’ Federation and our members did not mince our words – we demanded change.

Real and meaningful change that would bona fide guarantee the welfare of our livestock. Improvements that would meet the community’s expectations and secure a sustainable future for the farmers, workers and regional towns that rely on this industry.

Farmers more than anyone else, were appalled and horrified at the images of sheep suffering.

We raise and care for our livestock with their welfare as the number one priority. To see our animals endure such mistreatment was nothing short of blood curdling.

Ten months on and I am relieved to say, significant change has occurred.

Under the auspice of a determined Minister, the system by which sheep are transported internationally is today, drastically different.

An independent observer accompanies every voyage carrying either sheep or cattle and reports back daily to the Independent Regulator – the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.

If voyages do set sail during the northern hemisphere’s summer, sheep will have up to 39 per cent more space and overall stocking densities will be reduced by 28pc, via the application of new scientific algorithms. The changes are the result of the short, sharp review commissioned by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and undertaken by Dr Michael McCarthy.

Farmers felt let down by the Regulator and by the system. How were the conditions on our television screens that Sunday night allowed to happen?

To find out, the Minister commissioned a probe of Regulator, via the Moss Review.  The Review assessed the culture and capability of the Department. The result? The regulator was found wanting – more work was needed to reach the standard of ‘capable, trusted and effective’.

To achieve this the Minister accepted the recommendations that:

  1. An Independent Inspector General of Live Animal Exports be installed to oversee the Department in its role as regulator.
  2. An animal welfare branch be established within the Department.
  3. Animal welfare indicators be used as part of compliance systems.
NFF President Fiona Simson
NFF President Fiona Simson

Farmers were angry too with exporters, who we entrusted with the safe passage of our animals. The Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC) is a member of the NFF. This has allowed us to have frank and sometimes tough discussions about where to from here.

We acknowledge ALEC’s commitment, on behalf of its members, to do much better. (It is after all in their best business interests to do so.) We noted that regulator suspended and then cancelled the export licence of the offending carrier. We supported this.

The move significantly disrupted the flow of sheep from Fremantle. But, without such tough action, there was the material risk that the whole industry would be lost. We need a tough cop on the beat.

We welcome ALEC’s decision to implement a moratorium on northern summer exports until such time that exporters can guarantee animal welfare standards on voyages.

We hope the industry can adopt new technologies and management practices that will make this guarantee possible. But, until then, a moratorium is the only responsible approach.

It is fair to say, this year has required soul-searching from the whole exporting supply chain, from the Minister down. Farmers were betrayed by those they put their trust in – namely the regulator and the exporter in question.

But is it enough anymore to place such unquestioning trust in those handling our stock post-farm gate?  Farmers have too much to lose if something goes wrong – albeit something not in our direct control. On-farm, the welfare of our animals is our sole responsibility and there too we are committed to continuous improvement.

While I am the President of the NFF, the organisation will continue to monitor closely the performance of the Regulator and through the Regulator, the performance of exporters.

We’ll be quick to call out any instances where the treatment of animals hasn’t met expectations. And we’ll keep advocating for further improvements.  In particular, the NFF is calling for bi-partisan support for tougher penalties for exporters found to be in breach of regulations, as recommended in the McCarthy Review.

Livestock exports employ 10,000 people across northern and western Australia alone, providing much needed economic to many regional and remote communities. We export livestock to more than 28 countries. Australia has world-leading welfare standards. We are the only country where the Regulator is required to oversee the entire supply chain, from farm, onto ships, and to final point of slaughter in international markets.

In 2019 and the beyond, the future of sheep exports will continue to be under pressure.

The NFF is committed to informing our elected officials and the wider community about the importance of the sector to our farmers, the improvements we have made and industry’s dedication to doing even better.

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson

Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a farmer from the Liverpool Plains.

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