Speech: Don't weaken the Northern Summer Ban


On 5 April, the ban on live sheep exports to the Middle East was rolled back by the former Morrison government. This was just before the height of the northern summer. It was cunning timing, just before a federal election being called, as it meant the Senate was denied the crucial opportunity to scrutinise or to act on these last-minute changes. This motion seeks to reverse those changes which unwind the northern summer ban, which wasn't perfect in the first place but did provide protection to animals in some of the hottest months.

Let me make clear at the outset that the entire live export industry should be shut down, and it should be shut down as soon as possible. It is beyond repair. Its social licence has well and truly expired. It cannot be made safe for animals. The Greens have fought long and hard to ban the cruelty that is the live export trade, and this disallowance is one small step in the journey for animal welfare.

It is worth reflecting on some of the history to see how far we've come and how much further we have to go. In 1985, a review of the live sheep trade by the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare reported that, if a decision were to be made on the future of the live export trade purely on animal welfare grounds, there was enough evidence to stop the trade. Since 1985 at least 10 government and parliamentary reviews have examined live export, and the evidence in support of that statement has only piled up.

The death toll has been enormous, with tragedy after tragedy: in 1980, 40,000 sheep died aboard the Farid Fares; in 1986, 67,000 sheep died aboard the Uniceb; in 1999, 800 cattle died aboard the Temburong; in 2003, 5,000 sheep died aboard the MV Cormo Express; in 2014, 4,000 sheep died aboard the Bader 3; in 2016, 3,000 sheep died aboard the Al Messilah; in 2018, 2,000 sheep died aboard the Awassi Express. The sheep on the Awassi Express died in shocking conditions that were broadcast to the world on an unforgettable 60 Minutes episode, which showed sheep crammed into dirty pens, panting from heat stress and leaping over each other to access food. Piles of sheep carcasses were also shown. These disasters grab the headlines, but the reality is that every year thousands of sheep and cattle die on live export ships.

It is important to remember that it's not just the cruelty of deaths but that, while surviving, thousands of sheep and animals suffer unbearable heat stress and distress. Laboured breathing, open-mouthed panting and extreme discomfort is experienced by animals. Deaths are caused by a range of factors, from heat stress and disease to injuries developed on board. This is considered routine and fine as long as exporters keep their voyage mortality rates under what the government considers an acceptable level. However, those accepted mortality rates translate to thousands of deaths. How is that acceptable? And since 2006 there have been at least 70 occasions where that so-called acceptable mortality level was exceeded.

Animals suffering from heat stress literally cook from the inside out. They can suffer for days as their organs shut down one by one on these crowded floating ovens. Whistleblower live export vet Dr Lynn Simpson says she once took the temperature of a fallen sheep on the ship and was blown away to find it was 47 degrees Celsius—almost 10 degrees higher than normal. 'Their fat was melted and like a translucent jelly,' she said. 'They were cooking from the inside. After that, any animal that looked like it was about to collapse, I killed.' Lynn is one of the many brave whistleblowers who have exposed the cruelty of the live export trade, at great personal cost; trainee navigator Faisal Ullah is another, and I pay tribute to them today. Their courage led to the northern summer ban in the first place.

The ban officially came into force in 2019, in recognition of the fact that the risk of heat stress for sheep on live export ships to the Middle East during the northern summer months is simply too dangerous. Unfortunately, the ban only prevented live sheep exports from June to September. The science clearly tells us that it should be from 1 May to 31 October. Nonetheless, the ban has been important in reducing mortality rates and in keeping sheep off ships at the most dangerous time of the year.

And now, instead of listening to science and expanding the ban, the department of agriculture has wound it back. The Export Control (Animals) Amendment (Northern Hemisphere Summer Prohibition) Rules 2022 reduces the ban on exporting sheep to Red Sea destinations by two weeks in June and reduces the ban on exporting sheep to Qatar by 10 days in May. Animal welfare experts agree that this reduction is alarming. In its submission to the Northern Hemisphere summer prohibition review, RSPCA Australia stated:

The RSPCA does not support the proposal to reduce the prohibition to, or through, the Red Sea by a further fourteen days because the Indian Ocean equatorial region is hottest in May and June. Updating the Animal Rules in support of this proposal would be irresponsible given the scale of known animal welfare risk and the government's responsibility to protect animal welfare. The RSPCA understands that Red Sea destinations … represented 22.6 per cent of the sheep exported from Australia under the current regulations in the three-year period between 2019-2021.

The Alliance for Animals, whose members include Animals Australia, Voiceless, and Humane Society International Australia, were also firmly against these changes, stating that allowing sheep to be exported through the Red Sea in June would push them to their biological limit and risk a significant mortality event.

Perversely, the department claims that the instrument is a win for animal welfare because the rules also, ostensibly, introduce stricter conditions for a 10-day period in May for some Persian Gulf destinations. However, there are no additional monitoring and enforcement measures to ensure these conditions are met. Given that the current monitoring and enforcement framework is already inadequate, we can safely conclude that these conditions will be meaningless.

Again, the Greens aren't alone in this view. The RSPCA were also critical of the effectiveness of imposing additional conditions, stating:

… such conditions have not proven to protect animal welfare to date due to inadequate inspection requirements and insufficient enforcement.

The insufficiencies are significant. For example, the additional new conditions include that each individual sheep be of a certain weight and have a certain length of wool to mitigate against heat stress, but the enforcement framework does not require sheep to be assessed individually. They are assessed in groups, which makes it impossible to ensure that necessary heat mitigation conditions are actually being met. There is also a lack of independent third-party inspection arrangements and a lack of independent and appropriate veterinary care. Only one accredited veterinarian is required on long-haul voyages that can carry tens of thousands of sheep at one time across multiple decks.

The department of agriculture justified rolling back the ban based on climatology data, but in a warming world this is a patently laughable excuse. In fact, the department didn't even consider the increasing temperatures associated with climate change before deciding to send more sheep to the Middle East in the hottest times of the year. Predictive climate analysis on expected future temperatures was also not considered, despite this being an important indicator of the level of heat that sheep would be exposed to. Even worse, the department made these changes before it had even finished its own review into the ban, which we are still waiting on.

It's hard to conclude that the changes were based on anything other than the commercial interests and profit margins of live exporters, who have been lobbying the department to wind back the ban. Sadly, the department's capitulation is not surprising. It has a long history of failing to adequately prioritise animal welfare. The department is inherently and fundamentally conflicted because it is also responsible for promoting the interests of farmers and exporters. Animal welfare will always come second to profit-making.

I don't make these assertions lightly. In 2018, Philip Moss released a comprehensive independent review into the regulatory capability and culture of the department. The review found that there had been a catastrophic failure to regulate the live export industry and that a culture of fear within the department meant staff were not reporting their concerns about animal welfare within the industry. It was a pretty damning indictment. The report found:

On occasions, in our view, reportable mortality reports were revised or redrafted to dilute or expunge findings which adversely reflected on the regulatory framework.

Following the Moss report, John Lawler was appointed to investigate whistleblower allegations that staff were dissuaded from reporting the full extent of animal welfare breaches. This investigation stopped due to whistleblower protection laws. Those accused of wrongdoing have never been forced to explain their actions, nor do we know if the culture of secrecy and fear within the live exports regulator has been adequately addressed. The community should have no faith in the ability of the live export industry to operate ethically or the regulator to oversee animal welfare. The rot is set too deep. What we desperately need is an independent office of animal welfare to protect animals from cruelty and exploitation. As long as animal welfare remains the responsibility of the department of agriculture, the interests of animals will be ignored.

The end of the Liberal-National government is welcome news from any perspective, but particularly from an animal welfare perspective. Labor may have gone to the election with a promise to end live sheep exports, but they have refused to commit to a time line since coming to office. Prime Minister Albanese has ruled out an end to the trade in this term of government. That is a bit of a slap in the face of anyone who cares about animal welfare. It would be another slap in the face if Labor voted against this motion. It would practically guarantee that the Morrison era changes to the ban would continue, and it would seal the fate of thousands of sheep.

Senators here, and especially the Albanese government, have a chance today to show that they care about animals by supporting the Greens motion and by introducing a new instrument which expands the northern summer ban so that it extends from 1 May to 31 October, just as experts are calling for. Then let's quickly move to end this brutal trade once and for all.

But whatever happens, the Greens will keep pushing for a clear and swift time line for the end of live exports, with a careful transition for workers and a plan to transform the live sheep export trade to a locally processed chilled meat trade. A clear majority of Australians agree with that position. Fifty-eight per cent of people in Australia support a ban on live sheep export within this term of government, according to a poll conducted by Lonergan Research in June. RSPCA Australia commissioned an independent poll in January 2022, and the results show that around eight out of 10 people in Australia are opposed to reducing the northern summer prohibited period for live sheep exports. Two-thirds want an end to the live export of animals, including 66 per cent in rural or country areas and 70 per cent in Western Australia.

So I implore the government to listen to our communities. Don't unwind the northern summer ban; commit to a deadline to end live export in this term of government. The Greens have been steadfast in our position. We first introduced legislation to end live exports back in 2011. In 2018 my bill, co-sponsored by then senators Hinch and Storer, to ban live sheep export passed the Senate but languished in the House. In 2019 we again introduced legislation to end live exports. We will continue to fight for animals in this term of parliament because animals are not mere cargo. They are living, breathing, sentient beings. They are capable of fear and suffering. They have meaning and work beyond their commercial value.

Today this Senate has the power to undo these cruel cuts to the northern summer ban and insist that sheep deserve better than to be shipped off to cook at sea in torture chambers at the hottest time of the year. I urge everyone in this chamber to make the right choice and support this motion.