IN THE NEWS: On AUG 31, 2019
The Department of Agriculture has refused to release video of sheep on board a ship bound for the Middle East, saying it could be used selectively to lobby for a ban on the live-export trade.
Animal welfare charity RSPCA Australia, which first requested the footage under freedom of information (FoI) laws 12 months ago, said the decision was "outrageous" and raised more questions than it answered.
Former agriculture minister David Littleproud last year ordered independent observers to accompany livestock export voyages following the 2017 Awassi Express disaster, in which 2400 sheep died in searing heat.
The footage sought by the RSPCA is from a 30-day voyage last May by the MV Al Shuwaikh to Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Of the 69,117 sheep onboard, 609 died, for a mortality rate of 0.88 per cent - just below the 1 per cent threshold at which a review is automatically triggered.
While the independent observer's report concluded the crew managed the livestock in line with Australian standards, it noted that for eight days, sheep were "open-mouth breathing" and "attempting to gain position around the ventilation vents on all open and closed decks".
"This was more notable on hot days with higher humidity. In these instances, death by smothering was an observed outcome and six to 11 of the observed mortalities around the ventilation vents could have been attributed to smothering," the report said.
The RSPCA requested 20 minutes of video footage taken each day for seven days by the observer.
But Tina Hutchinson, assistant secretary of the live animal exports branch within the Department of Agriculture, said releasing the footage could expose the exporter to "unfair treatment" and lead to "unfounded or unwarranted adverse criticism of the live animal export industry as a whole".
"It is possible that the footage would be selectively used by those who are opposed to the industry to lobby for the banning of the trade, to the commercial detriment of the organisations involved in the subject voyage," Ms Hutchinson said in a letter to the RSPCA rejecting its application.
"In particular, the footage is capable of being manipulated without adequate explanation of the overall animal welfare outcomes on the subject voyage, which are outlined in the publicly available documents."
Ms Hutchinson said this would be her default position on any FoI requests to see footage of conditions for all live-export trips because the department would have no control over how it was used once it was released.
The FoI Act states agencies cannot refuse requests on the basis of "embarrassment to, or loss of confidence in, the government", "misunderstanding" or "confusion or unnecessary debate".
RSPCA Australia policy officer Jed Goodfellow said the rejection was completely at odds with the spirit and aim of the FoI Act.
"If the department believes the footage could be used to advocate for an end to the trade, you've got to ask, just how bad is it? What does it show and why is the government trying so desperately to hide it from us?" he said.
"It appears the Department of Agriculture is still unable to balance its dual roles as a promoter and regulator of the trade."
Dr Goodfellow said the RSPCA would challenge the decision because the public had a right to know what was happening to animals on live export vessels.
"Footage of how animals behave on live export vessels is a crucial means for assessing their health and welfare and informing the ongoing policy reform process," he said.
A review into the Department of Agriculture last year was highly critical of its performance as regulator of the live export trade.