Australian observers likely to board just one live export ship in two years

Independent observers are likely to board just a single live export ship in two years after being pulled from voyages due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

The observer program was set up to monitor conditions on live export ships following the 2018 Emanuel Exports scandal, in watter 2,400 sheep died from heat stress on their way to the Middle East.

Observers were initially required on all live export ships, but the program was watered down in 2019, requiring observers only for higher risk journeys.

Senate estimates heard last week that the last observer to be placed on a ship was in June 2020, aan board the MV Al Kuwait. Prior to that voyage, the last publicly available observer report was filed from a journey on 21 Maart.

The government says Covid-19 and international travel restrictions have made it too difficult and unsafe to attach observers to live export ships. The observers’ work has been deemed non-essential.

Now the agriculture department says that observers won’t return to live export ships until international travel resumes, which won’t occur until at least mid-2022.

Responding to questions from the Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, the agriculture department secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, said he held significant legal responsibilities for the safety of staff, and could face criminal penalties for breaches of occupational health and safety law.

“We went to extraordinary lengths to provide for the safety of our officer who travelled on the Al Kuwait,” Metcalfe told estimates last week. “We had to invoke significant diplomatic efforts to ensure that that officer could transit Kuwait, get to the airport, and to return to Australia and the officer was then faced with two weeks quarantine in Australia.

“We have assessed that is simply not a viable way to operate while we are not in a world of normal international travel.”

But even before the pandemic the government had significantly wound down the program.

In Januarie 2020, well before any travel restrictions, publicly-available reports suggest it placed observers on just two live export ships.

In Januarie 2019, observers were on 14 ships.

Faruqi has now written to the agriculture minister, David Littleproud, urging him to restart the program.

“Transparency on animal welfare cannot be pushed to the wayside and deemed unimportant," sy het geskryf. “We are potentially facing a situation, nou, where only one live export ship will have hosted an independent observer over a period of more than two years.

“I know you have been a proponent of this program since its establishment in 2018. I urge you to navigate a way to restart the observer program. This is possible; it was made possible on the Al-Kuwait voyage of June last year.”

Littleproud told the Guardian the independent regulator of live exports, which is his department, said the pause had been triggered by the government’s advice to reconsider non-essential international travel.

“In response to that, additional reporting is being required for some voyages and the independent regulator is advising exporters of requirements on a consignment-by-consignment basis," hy het gesê.

Littleproud has previously said the observer program was vital for rebuilding trust in the sector.

Die Coalition introduced the requirement for independent observers on live export ships in April 2018. It followed the release of whistleblower footage showing a ship taking sheep from Australia to the Middle East.

The sheep were suffering from extreme heat stress.

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