The report doesn’t hold back. It accuses the department of being incompetent partly because of its culture, partly because of inexperienced staff but also because of deep cuts in areas concentrating on welfare standards.
Philip Moss singles out 2013, the year Tony Abbott was elected prime minister and Barnaby Joyce was named agriculture minister, as the moment when things began to go wrong inside the department.
Joyce found $25 million worth of savings in his department, including scrapping work to establish national animal welfare standards, getting rid of the committee overseeing them, abolishing the department’s animal welfare branch and undoing measures introduced by the previous Labor government after shocking abuse of Australian cattle was exposed in Indonesia on its watch.
“No one supports animal cruelty, least of all farmers and all those reliant on the trade. But equally no one wants to see our farmers, exporters and others involved in rural industries go under if there is no market for their livestock,” Joyce said shortly after being named minister.
He called animal welfare standards red tape and said getting rid of them was common sense.
In the same year, the standards for exporting livestock were due for review but Barnaby Joyce aborted the process.
A year later, in September 2014, Joyce went further and announced he was cutting back the number of audits the industry would face “because all the extra paperwork and approvals don’t add up to a corresponding increased level of assurance or animal welfare outcomes”.
He focussed not on regulating the industry and ensuring Australian animals were transported as humanely as possible but on opening up new live export markets in Bahrain, Thailand, Iran and Lebanon as well as restoring the trade to Egypt – after past abuses uncovered there saw that route shut down.
The department followed its minister’s lead.
Moss wrote: “The focus on trade facilitation and industry deregulation appears to have had a negative impact the department’s culture as a regulator.”
Joyce’s actions ended up costing the lives of thousands of animals who died a horrendous death, effectively “cooking to death” in heatwave conditions on the high seas.
Moss found the culture inside Joyce’s department was so lax he had to make a formal recommendation it use science as its basis to calculate animal welfare standards and suggest it put those standards at the centre of its function as regulator.
The department’s systems were so dire, Moss found, there wasn’t even a phone line a vet could call to report an emergency or crisis situation unfolding on the high seas if the bureaucrats in Canberra had gone home.
There is not even a basic IT system or reporting standard for exporters to send in their data so that it can be assessed.
There are more sinister reports. Moss writes of a culture where those who did try to raise concerns were ignored or rejected. In one case, it appears a report of a mass death was deliberately changed. The department’s carpets must sit a foot-high with all that has been swept under them.
The department is not innocent but as minister Joyce was responsible for its culture.
If Labor is elected it looks set to end the industry. If this happens, Joyce will be the author of its demise. The now Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is trying to save the industry but it is now a matter of when not if.
A damning report of the department’s handling of the live export industry found the bureaucracy was unwilling to use its powers to protect animals.
“The live export trade underpins jobs and prosperity in rural and regional communities across Australia and the Coalition will always support producers and workers that rely on the trade,” Joyce said shortly after becoming minister.
Joyce promised to be the industry’s best mate.
But by failing to curb the worst elements of the industry – a repeat offender when it came to animal abuses – he has led to its downfall.
Latika Bourke is a SMH journalist.