Peter Khalil: It really is past time that this government took action to ensure high standards of animal welfare are enforced. After the footage from the tragic voyage of the Awassi Express was aired on 60 Minutes in April 2018, it took only minutes for the first of my constituents to contact me—and I am sure it was the same around the country—and share the horror and sadness they felt. Within days, there were hundreds of emails and calls to my office asking for action to be taken on the falling animal welfare standards in the live export sector, especially in relation to those voyages to the Middle East in the hot, unbearable conditions of the northern summer. It was later found that, on that voyage in August 2017, more than 2,400 sheep died due to the soaring temperatures and cramped conditions on board. I have received thousands of emails from constituents expressing their disappointment in this government. As recently as last week, I was being contacted by people asking me why action by the government is taking so long.
The member for Braddon said we should not have a kneejerk reaction. But Labor has long advocated and recognised the need for robust regulation of the live animal export sector in order to ensure that best practice is upheld and enforced and that the Department of Agriculture is able to thoroughly investigate any complaints or breaches of animal welfare standards. There is a feeling of deja vu in talking about this bill, because Labor introduced legislation to establish an inspector-general to oversee the live animal export trade back in 2013. After the election of this government, however, the then Minister for Agriculture, the member for New England, abolished the position of inspector-general, which, frankly, was one of the big factors that precipitated the beginning of a decline in standards and, indeed, the formation of a very lax culture in his own department.
So now we are here. This is what it has taken: six years of inaction by this government. In fact, they are walking backwards in their reversals. There have been countless incidents of animal cruelty; an investigation by 60 Minutes and the Australian media more broadly; the Moss review; the McCarthy review; and a campaign by members on the government side—their own backbenchers, one of whom is now the current minister. And after all of this the government was dragged kicking and screaming to finally restore an inspector-general. Whilst it is better late than never, many of my constituents would share my view that there is absolute frustration at this government’s failure to address these issues properly, promptly and in a timely manner.
Our position on the need for an independent inspector-general to oversee the industry hasn’t changed since we introduced the legislation six years ago. Whilst this government has been failing to act, Labor was also developing a raft of policies aimed at improving animal welfare. On that front, I commend the work of our leadership team—in particular, shadow minister Joel Fitzgibbon—in delivering the six-point plan for animal welfare put forward by Labor at the 2016 and 2019 elections. This included the immediate re-establishment of the Inspector-General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports. We also sought to provide more transparency and accountability by requiring the Minister for Agriculture to provide quarterly reports to the parliament about the quality of the live export industry. Labor also committed to re-establishing state and territory cooperation on animal matters to ensure a consistent national response, and we committed to working with state and territory governments, industry bodies and welfare advocates to update our national animal welfare strategy to ensure a consistent national approach to animal welfare. We also committed to review the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, the ESCAS, and announced that we would ban the testing of cosmetics on animals—an issue on which we committed to act in 2016 and on which the government eventually came to the table.
This legislation only passed when the government agreed to measures to address Labor’s concerns about loopholes in the legislation which we flagged back in 2017. It is counterhistorical, but, if we had won government at the last election, we would have moved to immediately ban the northern summer live sheep trade and proposed a plan which would phase out live sheep trade within five years. When I spoke in this place back in May 2018 on the legislation to ban the long-haul export of live animals during the northern summer, I quoted Mahatma Gandhi, who once said:
The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
I think that’s a pretty good yardstick for Australia. I think it’s pretty self-evident that this government should be doing much, much more, not dragging their heels on this issue as they have done.
I want to reach out and say to the hundreds of constituents who contacted me and called for action on this issue: our moral progress needs to go forward on this issue. That’s how we become greater as a nation: by tackling these issues with the degree of decency and humanity that demonstrates who we are as a nation, not by dragging our heels like this government has. And, on that front, I will continue to call on the government to do more. I say to my constituents, ‘Your voices are heard. They’re being heard. I won’t stop fighting for our values on these issues.’
Finally, to the organisations like the RSPCA and Animals Australia, who ran such organised and successful campaigns on this issue from day one, and to everyone across the country who made a call or sent an email to their local MP or to the minister or ministers or signed a petition: thank you; your voices were heard. That’s part of our democratic system. It’s part of our greatness as a nation that citizens can contribute to a debate like this and have their voices heard—citizens from across the political spectrum. This is not a Right or Left thing; it’s not a Labor or Liberal thing. These are decent people across the country who see something going wrong and want action taken by the government. It is a crying shame that the government have not only dragged their heels but have gone backwards, frankly.
At least the bill before us today restores what could have been in place for the past six years. It may not be everything we wanted, but at least this small step has been made. There was the advocacy of hundreds of thousands of Australians through their own decency, through their own desire for moral progress in this country. They understand that the way we treat animals is a reflection of how we are as a nation—our moral progress. This bill is, in large part, a result of that wonderful advocacy. I ask them to keep up the fight, because Labor is in your corner and will keep fighting with you. Thank you.