The mass deaths of live exports are no surprise; they show an essential conflict in the priorities of a department shaped by Barnaby Joyce. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The system driving live animal exports

Sheep on board the Awassi Express last year.
Sheep on board the Awassi Express last year.

This probably feels familiar. It should. Since at least 1985, when a senate committee report found that live exports were “inimical” to animal welfare, there has been a welter of media exposés, government reports, independent investigations, legislative tinkering and court cases about the trade.

Australians have now watched footage of its livestock being brutalised – via cynicism, necessity or religious prescription – in the abattoirs of at least six other countries. We have watched footage, or read reports, on crowded, unsanitary and heat-blasted ships carrying animals from our ports. We have also had sudden, impetuous export bans – controversial, economically damaging and of little consequence to animal welfare.

This was not the first time 60 Minutes had reported on the issue. It was its fourth story since 2003, when the late, pugnacious Richard Carleton quizzed then agriculture minister Warren Truss. “Minister,” began one line of questioning. “May I suggest it’s not very helpful talking to you if you won’t reveal the number of dead when the owners of the ship have posted a figure on their website and yet you’re trying to keep it secret.”

60 Minutes’ most recent report showed footage, secretly recorded by distressed navigation officer Faisal Ullah, of a voyage made in August by a ship operated by Western Australian company Emanuel Exports. Holding 65,000 sheep, the Awassi Express departed from Fremantle on a three-week voyage to the Persian Gulf. Allegedly 2400 sheep died, most from heat stress, when the ship predictably encountered the scorching temperatures of the region. The footage also showed overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, lambs born and quickly crushed. “I saw the animals’ condition on board and it was just terrible inside,” Ullah said. “The severity of the suffering animals were going [through] I couldn’t tolerate.”

As predictable as the region’s heat was the public’s outrage. Far less predictable was the fact it solicited a response from the responsible minister that echoed it. “I’ve seen that footage and I was absolutely shocked and gutted,” federal agriculture minister David Littleproud said. “This is the livelihoods of Australian farmers that are on that ship. That is their pride and joy and it’s just total bullshit that what I saw is taking place.”

Littleproud established a whistleblower’s hotline, encouraging those in the industry to report abuses. Meanwhile, the company responsible issued a statement: “Emanuel Exports has taken steps over more than six months to address the issues arising from our own extensive review of the voyage and the findings from the federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources investigation.”

This was not the first time Emanuel Exports had faced scrutiny for allegedly cruel practices. In 2007, it found itself in the Magistrates Court of Western Australia, accused by the Department of Local Government and Regional Development of causing “unnecessary harm” to livestock – a breach of the state’s Animal Welfare Act – on a 2003 voyage of Al Kuwait.

In November 2003, more than 100,000 sheep were loaded onto the vessel in Fremantle, and due – like last year’s Awassi Express – for Middle Eastern ports. The Al Kuwait is a converted oil tanker with seven decks. Within this, there were 256 pens with about 400 sheep in each. This amounted to three sheep per square metre. Because of the crowding and poor light, sickness was difficult to detect. So were the dead. A garbage bag was fixed to a plastic pipe, so that when the bag filled with air it rustled and slightly dispersed the living sheep – making the dead observable.

Three charges were made against the company. Two were dismissed. But the first – that “sheep were transported in a way likely to cause unnecessary harm” – was proved beyond reasonable doubt. The magistrate found in a 2008 judgement that Emanuel Exports had breached the WA Animal Welfare Act. However, the company was acquitted on this charge because of an “operational inconsistency” between state and Commonwealth law, rendering the state’s act invalid in this instance. In other words, Commonwealth law permitted what was otherwise criminalised by state law. “The Commonwealth legislation and [Australian Livestock Export Standards] are focused on facilitating the export of livestock as cargo, not animal welfare per se,” the magistrate found.

Live exports is a profitable business, but less so than the exportation of processed meats. Still, many Islamic markets demand livestock that can be slaughtered according to Koranic prescription. What constitutes halal slaughter varies between countries – and subject to practicality – but fundamental to it is that the animal be conscious when killed, most often by a single cut to the throat. In this instance, cattle can remain conscious for up to a minute-and-a-half while bleeding out. In Australian abattoirs, livestock must be stunned unconscious before death. While there is evidence that halal slaughter is only imperfectly practiced overseas, Saudi Arabia said in 2003 that any foreign suggestion as to how it slaughtered the animals it purchased was an encroachment of its sovereignty.

Islamic markets, and matters of diplomacy and trade, are only one part of the rolling scandals that plague the industry. Despite mushrooming regulations, the principal regulator – the federal Department of Agriculture – has long ignored its conflicted interest between producers and their livestock.  The trope of the “rogue trader” is neat but inaccurate. Despite decades of scandal, outrage and response, the Commonwealth has largely permitted the conditions exposed last week by 60 Minutes.


A few months before Al Kuwait’s voyage in 2003, the Cormo Express set sail from the same port. Destined for Saudi Arabia, the ship carried almost 60,000 sheep. After a fortnight at sea, however, Saudi inspectors alleged they had found examples of scabby mouth among the sheep and refused to accept them. In desperation, the Australian government purchased the sheep and attempted to sell them to other countries. It failed, and the Cormo languished in the Persian Gulf for two months while 10 per cent of the animals perished. The surviving sheep were donated to Eritrea.

During the crisis, which made international headlines, then agriculture minister Warren Truss criticised media reporting of the incident. He was more reticent about the independent report he had received on the industry only the year before, which found “evidence of systematic failures within the whole live animal export program”. New Zealand responded by voluntarily refusing to export livestock, and passed law in 2007 banning export for slaughter. Today, there are some exemptions to New Zealand’s trade – mostly the export of breeding or dairy animals – but the country has long focused on the exportation of high-grade processed meat rather than live animals. Australia responded by conducting yet another review.

It is difficult to square all this with the expressions of shock offered this week. Dr Sue Foster, a livestock veterinarian and spokeswoman for Vets Against Live Export, also found it hard to square. She told Guardian Australia: “If we look at the footage that everyone’s all carrying on about … that ship is stocked according to Australian law. That is how every ship goes out of Fremantle.”


One of the more astonishing consequences of this latest scandal has been the response of Minister Littleproud. Not merely his blunt expression of disgust, but his excoriation of his own department. “Ten days ago I received a report from my department, who is the independent regulator in respect to live trade, around an incident that happened in August 2017,” Littleproud said this week. “I became concerned by that report not finding any breaches of standards by the exporter in question and subsequently asked the department to provide me with further information around their actions with respect to that incident and whether they had investigated that to a satisfactory level. I have only just received that brief back last week, but before that, I saw the chilling footage provided to me by Animals Australia… Quite candidly, that vision does not marry up with the report I received, and that is quite disappointing to me.”

He went further – much further – and said that he had “engaged with the attorney-general’s office to help me undertake a review of the skills and capabilities and culture, for that extent, of the regulator in providing better investigative powers, to make sure that any of these events are done in a far more thorough way that gives confidence to the community”.

The minister was saying that he did not have confidence in his own department –a portfolio held until recently by Barnaby Joyce, who had been the minister since 2013. While Littleproud questioned the “skills” of his department’s staff, it’s not likely that incompetence is the salient point here – in fact, staff have diligently reflected Barnaby Joyce’s indifference to animal welfare and preference for the industry to self-regulate. That is Joyce’s legacy on this matter.

Littleproud has assumed control of a department that is simultaneously charged with protecting the welfare of both farmers and animals – sometimes a complementary matter but often a conflicting one. Under Joyce, this conflict of interest was usually resolved by an unthinking deferral to farmers. The objection is not to farmers, nor the trade of livestock, but the former minister’s blithe indifference to the administrative conflict. WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan described Joyce this week as an “uncritical and unthinking supervisor” of his department. This is Littleproud’s inheritance.

None of which is to forget the anti-live export interventions of the Gillard government. This, too, caused a mess. In 2011, Four Corners aired grisly footage of Australian livestock being tortured and slaughtered in Indonesia in a manner outlawed in Australia. These conditions wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — have been a revelation to the government. But the Gillard government’s temporary export ban wasn’t a response to the footage so much as a response to the public’s reaction to it. A political threshold of popular outrage was met. The result was an immediate ban, wrought from little consultation and applied to something that had long existed because of its own tacit encouragement. It was populist politics.

In response to the Indonesia ban, a class action brought by Brett Cattle Company went to trial last year. The action sought $600 million in damages. The Commonwealth has since accepted damages are owed, but the Federal Court has not yet determined the amount.


The simple matter is that public feeling, occasionally inflamed by secret footage, is insufficient grounds for debate or reform. And we should know this by now: we’ve been on this treadmill for decades. The result has been a swelling, contradictory mess of regulations, laws, economic harm and little improvement to animal welfare. It’s not enough to watch a gasping sheep on a hot ship.

For a start, we hear little about the incompatibility of state and Commonwealth laws, presumably because the complexity is not interesting. Yet it remains unresolved. Also lacking is any sophisticated economic debate. A $1.4 billion industry cannot be dismissed – but neither can the possibility that a greater focus on processed meats, potentially slaughtered in accordance with halal standards, may excite jobs, not diminish them. Live exports are a crude, low-value commodity – and the more live exports, the fewer abattoirs and processing plants that remain in Australia.

Missing also is any serious discussion about law and philosophy – where the demarcation is between animal and property. Crudely speaking, state laws carry the burden of protecting animal welfare while Commonwealth law prescribes the parameters of trade. That is, state law is more likely to view animals as sentient creatures; in Commonwealth law, as commodities. At the core of live exports is the concept of “necessary suffering” – if we permit the commodification of animals, we accept that inherent to that will be a degree of harm to them that is justified by their cultural and economic significance. But animal welfare law also draws a line. It’s far from a new concept. In an 1889 judgement, English Chief Justice Lord Coleridge said: “It is not necessary to sell beasts for 40 [shillings] more than could otherwise be obtained for them; nor to pack away a few more beasts in a farm yard, or a railway truck, than could otherwise be packed … These things may be convenient or profitable to the owners of cattle, but they cannot with any show of reason be called necessary.”

As the 2008 judgement regarding Emanuel Exports made clear – at least regarding the WA Animal Welfare Act – the sheer maximisation of profit does not reach the threshold of “necessary harm”.

But outside courts, government reports and academic papers we don’t much discuss the complicated mix of law, economics and politics of live exports. If we are to move beyond periodic bursts of outrage – and an already thick but ineffectual palimpsest of regulation – we will have to.

In Fremantle – the largest port of the largest state exporter of livestock – the same Emanuel Exports ship, the Awassi Express, has been delayed in its departure, subject to inspection by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. Stocked with 57,000 sheep, it’s understood that AMSA has demanded improved ventilation for the animals. At time of writing, the Awassi Express is still anchored in Fremantle. Alannah MacTiernan has spoken publicly about banning sheep exports during the northern summer – and, once more, possible prosecution under state law. But we have been here before.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 14, 2018 as "The system driving live animal exports".

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