Liberal MPs Sussan Ley and Sarah Henderson and the crossbench have vowed to keep up pressure on the government to ban live sheep exports aftera damning review by public sector integrity expert Phillip Moss was released on Wednesday.
The federal government has promised to overhaul the agriculture department and establish an inspector general of animal welfare following the review into the regulation of the live export trade.
In a statement Ley and Henderson – who cannot cross the floor to bring on a vote for their own private members’ bill since accepting promotions in the Morrison government – promised to “continue to advocate with our Coalition colleagues for a five year phase-out of long haul live sheep exports”.
“For too many years exporters have knowingly based their business on animal cruelty and an inefficient or inept overview of their operations – that business model is now dead.”
The Moss review found that the department was “lacking to the required extent” the characteristics of a good regulator; that it employed protocols that “can lead to poor investigative outcomes;” and that it was “unable to report the outcomes of investigations in a timely manner”.
It also found the department’s dual focus on promoting and regulating exports was “contradictory” and “appears to have had a negative impact the department’s culture as a regulator”.
Moss criticised the department for failing to complete a review of the Australian Standards for Live Export (ASEL) in 2013, which was paused due to a disagreement between animal welfare groups and exporters. He said the standards should be reviewed regularly and be converted into regulations to which penalties applied.
He said a 2013 decision by the then agriculture minister, Barnaby Joyce, to scrap the Australian animal welfare strategy as part of a broader government push to reduce red tape “detracted from the department’s ability to achieve the right balance” between its role as a regulator and its role in promoting industry.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said the Moss review was further proof the trade needs to be shut down. He said the recommendations would amount to “only a small improvement to a trade that is systemically cruel”.
Independent Kerryn Phelps has also publicly called for the live sheep export industry to be phased out within five years and said the Moss review “does nothing to change my view”.
“The live sheep export industry has had plenty of chances to lift its game and in my view is beyond redemption,” she said.
The agriculture minister, David Littleproud, commissioned the Moss review in April, following public outrage over horrific footage of sheep dying abroad the Awassi Express.
Littleproud said he accepted all the findings and would implement all 31 recommendations from the 100-page review, starting with re-establishing the department’s animal welfare branch and establishing a new role of principal regulatory officer.
He told reporters in Orange, New South Wales, he had been “disappointed” in the department’s performance as a regulator of live exports but dismissed concerns it was under the thumb of the industry.
He said he would not end the live export trade.
Animals Australia chief investigator Lyn White said it was “a relief to have the truth on the public record” in the Moss review, but there was “not a single valid justification for this industry being allowed to continue”.
“This is the third of three damning independent reviews into the live export trade over the past 15 years,” White said. “The sheer scale of intentional animal abuse and regulatory breaches over decades demands that the industry be shut down.”
The RSPCA said it had no faith in the department’s ability to change, saying freedom of information applications to see evidence gathered by new shipboard animal welfare observers had been blocked despite public promises to increase transparency.
“Behind the scenes and as recently as last week, our experience with the Australian standards for export of livestock review process have confirmed these conflicts prevail,” senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow said.
Labor has pledged to phase out the live sheep trade if elected. A crossbench bill to ban live sheep exports, co-sponsored by the Greens, passed the Senate but failed in the lower house when three Liberal MPs who publicly supported the ban chose not to cross the floor.
Labor’s agriculture spokesman, Joel Fitzgibbon, said the review was a damning critique of Joyce’s actions as minister, which Littleproud denied, saying it did not single out any government or minister by name.
Fitzgibbon said Labor would support the creation of an inspector general of animal welfare and the restoration of the animal welfare branch of the department.
“The reality is our markets want live sheep,” he said. “If we take it away … you’re going to see live sheep from countries that don’t have the same standards, don’t have the same concerns that we do, that will be putting sheep onto boats in far worse standards.”
Littleproud said he had been “proactive” since viewing the Awassi footage in April by introducing independent observers on live export ships; commissioning a heat stress review that resulted in reduced stocking densities for the Middle Eastern summer; and introducing legislation to impose tougher penalties on exporters.
He called on Labor to provide written support for that legislation.
Animal welfare organisations say there is no safe way to transport large quantities of sheep in summer conditions.
The Awassi Express was stocked by the Perth company Emanuel Exports. The department cancelled its export licence in August following a two-month suspension, but this month granted a new licence to an affiliate, Rural Export Trading WA, which itself had lost its licence in 2004 after 25 high mortality voyages.