A sheep at the wheel

Even the farmers admit it is an increment – the decision by Malcolm Turnbull’s government not to ban live exports over summer, despite evidence of the risk to animals, despite footage of mass deaths and calls from vets to end the trade.

“What I can give the public a guarantee about is a better system than we currently have,” the president of the National Farmers’ Federation, Fiona Simson, said. “This is a [step towards] improvement and that is, I think, what we have to continually strive for. We have to strive for a culture of continual improvement and change.”

The initial release of the report into live exports was cancelled after cabinet deliberations. A special meeting was called with stakeholders. Politics is slow and uneven.

“The key thing we would like to avoid is making the same mistake as has been made in the past, as has been made by the former Labor government and seemingly repeated by the Labor Opposition today, and that is not to make a knee-jerk response here,” Resources Minister Matt Canavan said after the release was delayed.

“This is an industry that employs thousands of people. Their livelihoods and jobs are reliant on governments that make well-informed and considered decisions and I’m confident that Minister Littleproud is doing exactly that.”

The changes finally announced by Agriculture Minister David Littleproud would not stop summer exports. They would simply reduce the number of sheep that can be crammed onto a boat. Depending on the size of the ship, many sheep could still die without arousing the concern of regulators.

As Michael McCarthy, responsible for the review, was criticised for his previous work for live exporters, Littleproud crowed over his changes: “In a sweeping change, Dr McCarthy recommended a seismic shift from stocking density based on animal mortality to one based on animal welfare. The greater mortality is heat stress. Dr McCarthy has created a new model which goes towards addressing this deducing the probability of sheep with heat stress and ventilation and airflow on boats.”

The shadow minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, said this was nothing more than a “political fix” designed to push off real reform. By this, he meant a summer ban.

“The changes the government announced today should have, and would have been, made a long time ago if Barnaby Joyce had not stalled our progress on animal welfare reforms, and would have been put in place if we’d had an independent inspector-general for … animal welfare.”

The truth is, this is an industry of undue political clout. There are economic arguments against live exports, good ones. There are obvious welfare arguments, too. But this government is unwilling to offend a constituency of farmers willing to pack animals onto boats and send them out to sea. As with so much else, their concern is not for the vulnerable in this situation; it’s for who will keep them in power.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 19, 2018 as "A sheep at the wheel".

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