All live export ships will soon be required to have an independent observer on board to ensure exporters comply with animal welfare requirements.
The Federal Government has introduced the new role in response to its review of the 2,500 sheep which died on board a live export shipment to the Middle East last year.
Employed by the Government, but ultimately paid for by the exporters, the independent observers will receive nearly $1,300 a day — and more than $1,800 a day on weekends — plus flights back to Australia via business class and work requirements of 7.5 hours a day.
The live export industry has concerns, the RSPCA thinks the reforms could be better, but the Federal Government is backing its plan to get “the truth and proof” from ships.
Live export trade sails into unknowns
Chief executive of the Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association (NTLEA), Will Evans, has written an extensive list of questions to the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources seeking clarification around what is expected when the independent observers start working.
He said there were a lot of unknowns.
“There’s a fair bit of ambiguity at the moment around what they’re actually meant to be doing while on the boat,” he said.
“They’ll be working 7.5 hours a day because they come under Federal [Government] employee guidelines.
“I just don’t think the realities of having these people on boats has been fully explored.”
Mr Evans said basic questions to Government, such as where observers would sleep on smaller vessels and who was responsible in the event of injury while at sea, were still not clear.
Why so much money?
Getting paid $1,290 a day is a lot of money, especially when a stockperson on board a live export ship receives $300-$500 a day.
Along with business class flights and the requirement to work 7.5 hours a day, northern Australia’s cattle industry is swamped in jokes about independent observers being “the best job in agriculture”.
Exporter Kevin Mulvahil from South East Asian Livestock Services (SEALS) does not see a joke, he sees the bill, and doubts the independent observers will achieve what the Government is promising.
“We’re all for transparency and we don’t mind paying extra if it benefits animal welfare,” he said.
In a notice to exporters, the Federal Department of Agriculture supplied a scenario where an independent observer flies from Melbourne to Broome, to board a live cattle ship bound for Malaysia — a 13-day voyage.
Under the scenario, the ship is delayed one day due to unforeseen circumstances.
The cost to the exporter under this mock scenario was estimated to be $24,694.
The department said going forward it would review each element of the observer program, including cost guidelines.
SEALS will stop exporting buffalo
Mr Mulvahil said his company would stop exporting buffalo if independent observers were introduced.
He said it was not safe to have someone on board with no experience with buffalo, and the company was not willing to risk losing its exporters’ licence on the possibility that someone with no experience would misinterpret the behaviour of the feral animals and file a negative report.
“My understanding is we don’t get a say with who is on our boat, it’ll be an auditor from the Government. We’re unsure of their background and whether they even have any expertise or experience in handling animals,” he said.
“I just can’t see SEALS exporting buffalo next year because of the risks associated with having someone who’s perhaps inexperienced around buffalo on board the vessel.
“SEALS are Australia’s largest exporter of buffalo [and if we stop] the impact across the rural and regional areas of the Northern Territory will be huge.
“To lose that trade would be sad.”
In a statement to ABC Rural, the Federal Department of Agriculture said it had hired a number of independent observers with direct experience in the live export trade.
“While previous experience on livestock vessels is desirable, it is not mandatory for the role,” the statement said.
“Independent observers must have demonstrated relevant experience in livestock management, animal husbandry, animal welfare or related disciplines.”
RSPCA supportive, but with some concerns
The RSPCA said it had not received the “finer details” on how independent observers would work, but in principle supported the new role and believed it was long overdue.
“The lack of transparency in the trade has been a really big issue so I can only imagine this is going to be a positive reform for the industry,” senior policy officer Jed Goodfellow said.
Mr Goodfellow said the role should be referred to as an ‘independent auditor’ to reflect the true nature of what the job should involve.
“We’d also like to see the auditors appointed independently of the Department of Agriculture through some kind of third-party arrangement because we have some major question-marks in the Department’s role in regulating the trade,” Mr Goodfellow said.
“Under the current arrangement of having an on board Australian Government-accredited veterinarian, there is a conflict there because they’re placed in the untenable position of having to serve their employer, but at the same time report to the Government on matters that might have direct consequences for their employers.”
Where to next?
The Federal Government has already pushed back the implementation date from October 10 to November 1, and with so many questions still not answered, industry is anticipating more delays.
NTLEA’s Will Evans believed better consultation with industry would help Government achieve a result.
“We have a chance to implement something that’s effective and takes us down the path of fixing [the live export trade’s] social licence,” he said.
“This policy is well intentioned but not well designed. We want to work with the [Agriculture] Minister to get it right and improve transparency in the trade.
The Agriculture Department in its statement said that an internal recruitment process was underway for suitably qualified observers and there “will be veterinarian independent observers and non-veterinary observers”.
It said that based on modelling of the number of live export voyages that departed Australia in 2016 and 2017, between 20 and 30 independent observers would be required.