Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has appointed former Australian Crime Commissioner John Lawler to investigate claims that seven former staff members of the Agriculture Department were advised by senior officers to suppress allegations against private exporters.
The claims were uncovered by former public servant Phillip Moss, who authored the Moss Review into the culture, capability and investigative powers of the live export industry’s independent regulator, released last week.
Speaking from Western Australia today, Mr Littleproud said he instigated the investigation after Mr Moss alerted him to the findings.
The Moss Review did not detail the seven allegations against the private live export companies, but it did allude to suppression of claims of poor animal welfare made by Department staff in its United Arab Emirates office.
“There was a reluctance to take meaningful action in response to mortality events to prevent re-occurrence,” the review said.
“On occasions, in our view, reportable mortality reports were revised or redrafted to dilute or expunge findings which adversely reflected on the regulatory framework.”
The review reported that a number of staff said there was little point in raising concerns to senior officers “as they would not be well received or fairly considered”.
Accredited veterinarians told the review that some vets who had reported concerns about animal welfare on board livestock vessels said that they would not be asked to work for that exporter again.
Mr Littleproud said he continued to support sheep live exports, but poor animal welfare is a “culture that I’ll never accept”.
He said Mr Lawler’s investigation could help get the industry get back on track.
“No-one is beyond reproach, but if we get this right now, we’ll have a sustainable industry into the future,” Mr Littleproud said.
Mr Littleproud and the sheep live export industry have committed to implement all 31 recommendations from the Moss Review.
Following the report’s release, Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon, who wants to ban the live trade, laid blame for many of the failings on former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
The report said the Department lacked animal welfare expertise and was conflicted in its twin role of trade facilitator and industry regulator.
A Principal Regulatory Officer will be appointed to oversee the reform process and bring up to speed departmental staff who “need to become professional regulators”.
The Department has also committed to reinstate the independent Inspector-General of Live Animal Exports, which was abolished by former Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
Under a red tape reduction push in 2013 the government also cut 21 staff in the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS), which was tasked with developing intergovernmental animal welfare practices.
The Department should re-establish the Animal Welfare Branch, part of the overarching AAWS to “improve policy development and contribute to an effective regulatory culture”, the review said.
The Animal Welfare Branch will now develop new policy in with researchers to set new standards on animal welfare indicators in the first half of 2019.
The Moss Review found “a sense of disconnection” between departmental policy staff and the regional staff who engage with the industry.
Industry pays for the regulation of its live animal exports.
The review found some parts of industry “appear to think they are paying for a service” which is an attitude that puts good governance at risk.
The department has been advised to set in regulation the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock (ASEL), with appropriate penalties, to improve compliance.
The Department should also bolster the approved arrangements model for live animal exports by introducing full inspections of consignments on a random unannounced basis.
The review recommended the department develop a system to ensure any concerns raised by staff are addressed in a transparent and timely manner.
Accredited veterinarians and staff members told the review that some vets who had reported concerns about animal welfare on board livestock vessels said that they would not be asked again to work for that exporter.
“There is at present a concern by a number of operational staff members that there was little point in raising concerns, as they would not be well received or fairly considered,” the review said.