The promise by federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, to have a government inspector aboard every live export voyage, be it cattle or sheep, by the end of October is an over-reaction that could compromise safety and burden producers with unnecessary extra costs.
That’s the opinion of Fi Baird, a shipboard stockwoman with eight years experience in the industry and over 100 voyages under her belt, to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Speaking as her latest ship was due to leave Darwin harbour, Ms Baird said the announcement felt like a bandaid to keep people happy, as far as short-haul cattle voyages went at least.
“You can pick up any of the mountains of reports that we already produce and see we’re doing the right thing.
“It’s all very transparent and this extra person would be a waste of money.”
Speaking at a Queensland Rural Press Club lunch in Brisbane last Thursday, Mr Littleproud said he needed “truth and proof” on live export shipments.
“I have to protect this industry; I have to protect the livelihoods of those farming,” he said. “People in rural Australia deserve confidence that they can get up in the morning and make a dollar.”
Related: Littleproud demands ‘truth in proof’
Industry sources have said the plan, far from helping growers earn money, threatened to cripple the live beef export industry with the costs involved.
Mr Littleproud said the exporter would be paying for the cost of the inspector and described the $15,000 outlay for a 10-day voyage to Indonesia as insurance.
“Fifteen grand to put a government observer on there, taking photos, making sure we have truth and proof in this industry, for a total shipment of between $2m and $3m is not a big investment,” he said.
Ms Baird said it was a cost that wasn’t necessary as the Australian stockpersons, who were trained and accredited by LiveCorp, were already doing everything necessary for the welfare of the cattle on board, in a completely transparent manner.
As well as working with ship officers to ensure all areas of the ship were clean and comfortable and cattle were fed and watered and monitored continuously, daily meetings were held with the officers and crew, and reports were sent daily.
“The shipping company, the exporter, AQUIS, DAFF, all receive thorough updates on everything from weather, fodder and water consumption and any medical treatments on board,” Ms Baird said.
She also completed End of Voyage reports that covered everything from cargo hold temperatures, fodder and water quality, crew performance, maintenance issues and all veterinary treatments for cattle and how they travelled.
“This is submitted to government bodies, the exporter and the shipping company. The ship also completes their own report,” she said. “We are running this industry at the highest level – an animal can’t step on a wharf unless all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.”
Mr Littleproud said Australians were “outraged” at the conflict of interest created by employees of the exporter being also the only source of information, but Ms Baird said she’d received government-approved training and was 100pc accountable for her work.
Ms Baird didn’t believe the practical question of where the observer would sleep had been taken into consideration, saying on smaller ships carrying 2000 to 3000 head, there were no spare beds.
“They would have to take a crew member off, so that becomes an issue – the ones left are going to become tired.
“All people on board these ships play a pivotal role in the welfare side of shipping a consignment.”
The Department is understood to be investigating ways of getting independent observers onto small cattle boats.
Mr Littleproud told the Rural Press Club lunch that when he first became minister, he was averaging a crisis a month, with sheep live export featuring as one of those.
He described that as one of the most challenging moments of his career.
“I don’t want to have an incident in cattle live export as we did in sheep – we have to be proactive,” he told the audience.
Ms Baird asked him to look at the success rates in short haul shipping.
“I could understand this proposal if there were constant issues on short haul, but there isn’t, or not in my experience in eight years of short haul with various exporters.
“This appears to be a knee-jerk reaction to keep animal lobbies onside. The bottom line is, there is no need for this extra cost.”
Read more: LiveCorp stockperson training