Australian observers expected to board just one living export vessel in two years | Live exports
Independent observers are likely to board a single living export vessel within two years of being withdrawn from voyages due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
The observer program was set up to monitor the conditions of live export vessels following the Emanuel Exports scandal of 2018, in which 2,400 sheep died of heat stress en route to the Middle East.
Observers were initially required on all live export vessels, but the program was watered down in 2019, requiring observers only for higher risk voyages.
According to Senate estimates, last week the last observer to be placed on a ship was in June 2020, aboard the MV Al Kuwait. Prior to this trip, the last publicly available observer report was filed on a March 21 trip.
The government says Covid-19 and international travel restrictions have made it too difficult and dangerous to attach observers to live export vessels. The work of the observers was considered non-essential.
Now the Agriculture Ministry says observers will not revisit live export vessels until international travel resumes, which will not happen until at least mid-2022.
Responding to questions from Green Senator Mehreen Faruqi, Agriculture Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe said he had significant legal responsibilities for staff safety and could face criminal penalties for infractions to the legislation on health and safety at work.
“We have made extraordinary efforts to ensure the safety of our officer who traveled to Al Kuwait,” Metcalfe told estimates last week. “We had to invoke significant diplomatic efforts to ensure that this officer could transit through Kuwait, get to the airport and return to Australia and the officer was then faced with two weeks of quarantine in Australia.
“We felt it just wasn’t a viable way to operate when we’re not in a world of normal international travel.”
But even before the pandemic, the government had dramatically cut the program.
In January 2020, long before any travel restrictions were made, publicly available reports suggested he placed observers on just two live export vessels.
As of January 2019, the observers were on 14 vessels.
Faruqi has now written to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud asking him to revive the program.
“Transparency on animal welfare cannot be dismissed and deemed unimportant,” she wrote. “We are potentially faced with a situation now where a single live export vessel will have hosted an independent observer over a period of more than two years.
“I know you have been a supporter of this program since its inception in 2018. I urge you to find a way to restart the observer program. It’s possible; this was made possible during the Al-Kuwait trip in June of last year.
Littleproud told the Guardian that the independent export regulator Live, which is his department, said the hiatus was triggered by the government’s advice to reconsider non-essential international travel.
“In response to this, additional reports are required for some trips and the independent regulator informs exporters of the requirements by batch,” he said.
Littleproud has previously said the observer program is vital in restoring confidence in the industry.
The Coalition introduced the requirement of independent observers on live export vessels in April 2018. It followed the release of whistleblower footage showing a vessel carrying sheep from Australia to the Middle East.
The sheep suffered from extreme heat stress.