Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP Speaks on the Export Control Amendment (Ending Live Sheep Exports by Sea) Bill 2024

24 June 2024


There is a deep concern for animal welfare and safety amongst Warringah residents. This includes concern for the welfare of animals being shipped overseas as live exports. I have consistently said that it is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring an end to live animal exports. The science and research on the issues in the live animal trade is clear, showing the devastating impact on these animals. Our live export industry has consistently shown its willingness to condemn animals to extreme risk of suffering and death in the harshest of conditions. And, with temperatures ever rising during summer periods due to the climate crisis, we are already seeing examples from overseas where there are mass deaths of animals being transported in sweltering conditions. For example, during the 2022 UK summer, some 18,500 chickens died in transport, compared to 325 in the same period the previous year. It's clear the conditions are changing, and so too must the regulations and laws.

I commend the efforts of the Independent member for Clark and others in this place who have kept advocating for an end to live animal exports. As I've said before, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. This is an issue we have walked past for too long. It's also an issue that has been on the agenda for some time. So, whilst I appreciate there is a concern for many communities—and I will go to that in a moment—this is not a new development. This has been on the cards for some time.

In the UK just last month a new law came into effect banning the export of live animals for slaughter, including their cattle, sheep and pigs. New Zealand brought a live animal export ban by sea into effect in April 2023. Now Australia is beginning to catch up. We have a proposed law before us to stop the export of live sheep from Australia, the Export Control Amendment (Ending Live Sheep Exports by Sea) Bill 2024. Now, let's be clear: it is not coming into effect immediately. It has a long lead time for that adaptation to occur.

Australia's lamb and mutton export industry was worth some $4.5 billion last year, but live sheep exports by sea was in fact less than $77 million in 2023, so about 0.1 per cent of Australia's agricultural production. Historically, we've supplied a large volume of live sheep to Middle Eastern countries, peaking at around $415 million over two decades ago. The overall volume of live sheep exports by sea has been decreasing steadily over the last two decades, dropping by 27 per cent between 2018 and 2019, and then again in 2022-23. Over the last two decades our sheepmeat exports have grown in value by over 300 per cent—that is processed, not live animals—including exports to the North Africa and Middle East region, more than tripling in those situations in value over this period. This means there is a market for processed meats, and there are more jobs in the meat processing and slaughter industry available to Australians. That is where the opportunity lies.

Western Australia has been Australia's only source of live sheep exports by sea since 2019-20. It now directly employs fewer than 100 people, but I do appreciate that there are communities and farms where it's a long family tradition that will be significantly impacted. It does set the scene, though, when we appreciate the constantly decreasing size of this industry and when we start appreciating the growth in the processed meat industry. We can see where the opportunity is to combine economic opportunity, jobs opportunity and ethical and moral opportunity to stop this inhumane treatment of animals.

The government commissioned an independent report into the phase-out of live sheep exports by sea, which reported back in October last year. That report acknowledged the polarised feeling in the community on the issue of live export bans, in particular from those Western Australian communities. However, the review panel concluded that the WA sheep industry can remain viable and sustainable following a live export ban, provided there is appropriate government support. That's what this bill puts into effect. It bans the live export of sheep by sea and provides support to those who will be affected by this change. Again, I appreciate there is debate and discussion in relation to the appropriateness of the support proposed by the government and whether or not this is adequate.

It's important to be clear, though, that it doesn't ban all live animal exports. Live sheep exports by air will continue. Exports of other animals, including live cattle, will continue by sea and/or air. Following the passage of this bill, sheep producers, related businesses and markets have a clear timeframe of four years to manage the transition from the trade into new activities. It is not like they're getting the rug pulled out from underneath them. There is a four-year transition period. This bill does provide certain support to affected stakeholders. The $107 million proposed transition support package will be necessary to assist all parts of the sheep industry supply chain, from farmers to truck drivers, shearers and meat processors, to adjust to that future without live sheep exports.

I do hear, though, the concern in relation to the size of that transition package in that it does not seem to be adequate when one considers the size of what is being lost and the number of areas that need to be covered. The industry was valued at around $77 million in 2022-23, so we should have a package from the government that ultimately helps create new opportunities to grow the domestic sheep processing industry, grow local jobs and contribute to regional development. Already, the sheepmeat export industry is worth some $4.5 billion, so it clearly has the potential to take over and assist these communities in the transition.

I support this bill, but it is worth sensibly raising the issues it presents. Firstly, as I mentioned, I question the size of the support package at $107 million over five years. I would encourage the government to be open minded on whether further support will be needed to properly address the transition. Within the $107 million, the government has committed some $64 million over five years for supporting sheep producers and supply chain participants affected. If you start dividing that over the course of those five years, it really does highlight that it is not a big support package, and so that really needs to be the focus of the government. This involves providing funding for more rural financial counsellors, expanding domestic sheepmeat processing capacities and developing plans to help businesses re-orient their operations away from live exports.

I understand that in WA, from where 85 to 90 per cent of exports originate, the premier has said that the ban of live sheep export would cost the relevant industries up to $123 million per year, implying that the government's $64 million over five years might be less than one-tenth of what is in fact needed. The government has also allocated some $27 million in funding over five years—again—to enhance demand for Australian sheep products in interstate and international markets, but this is unlikely to stretch far enough, given the diversity and unique needs of the various international markets. Again, we all know how to divide by five, so just announcing a number to be a package over the course of five years does not in itself make it a significant package. When we divide that up over the course of five years, it's clear the package falls short in many areas.

I also remain concerned that the live sheep export trade will continue in its current form for another four years without any caps or quotas and with only existing regulations in place. Unfortunately, we know those regulations are all too often inadequate and insufficient. I would strongly encourage the government to reconsider the lack of caps and quotas over the next four years and instead implement measures to achieve a gradual phase-out of live sheep exports over these next four years. The existing regulations that apply to live sheep exports appear to be inadequate, given the cases of inhumane treatment of sheep on ships seen as recently as January this year.

We should be considering the live exports of cattle as well. I acknowledge that the live cattle export market was worth some $1.2 billion in the 2022-23 year, and there are much greater economic consequences of banning the live export of cattle by sea, but the government should still further consider what it can do to improve the welfare of cattle being exported overseas by ship. In many cases, cattle and sheep are transported on the same ships, and, in March this year, more than 100 Australian cattle died on a live export ship to Indonesia. That's one of the highest mortality rates ever reported on an Australian live cattle shipment. The government should be considering further measures to ensure the welfare of live cattle and all live animal exports to ensure that the inhumane treatment of animals is not occurring. The government should consider further measures to ensure the welfare of live cattle and all live animal exports to ensure that inhumane treatment of animals isn't occurring. Examples that have been proposed include mandating vets on all cattle shipments, as recommended by the RSPCA, or installing real-time monitoring systems to track cattle conditions, such as temperature, humidity and health indicators. Live cattle exporters should be required to plan optimal routes to reduce stress and health risks, and also avoid transport during extreme weather conditions.

I will support this bill; it's a good start, but it's clear that there's a lot more work to be done to balance animal safety and welfare, and to prevent cruelty within live export industries—particularly the growing challenge from heat that we'll see as the world warms with the climate crisis. I absolutely support ensuring that communities which are being asked to change can do so with the support of government through packages that adequately meet the needs that they face.