NEW England MP Barnaby Joyce has controversially flagged relaxing rules governing live animal exports in a bid to gain access to the lucrative Saudi Arabian market.
The federal agriculture minister held discussions with representatives from the oil-rich kingdom during a ministerial trade delegation to the Middle East last week.
The Saudis ceased sourcing live animals from local producers after Australia introduced the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) in 2012.
ESCAS gives exporters a level of control over supply chain arrangements, such as transport, management and slaughter, which the Saudis say impinges on their sovereignty.
It was introduced by the Gillard government after a series of videos depicting shocking animal mistreatment in overseas abattoirs emerged.
Since taking on the agriculture portfolio, Mr Joyce has aggressively pursued an increase in live export opportunities for sheep and cattle producers.
But he concedes changes might have to be made to ESCAS in order for Saudi Arabia, which has told Australia not to meddle in its affairs, to lift its ban.
“The contentious thing is people are going to say ‘Oh you’re going to get rid of the ESCAS system’,” he said.
“No, I’m going to try and make it work in such a way that the Saudis would accept it and we will be as happy as we can.”
The timing is poor for Mr Joyce as the industry is set come under fresh scrutiny over claims this week one of Australia’s largest live exporters has deliberately ignored ESCAS safeguards.
Emmanuel Giuffre, a lawyer with animal welfare advocate Voiceless, said Mr Joyce’s intention to soften ESCAS would make “a mockery of the entire system”.
“What Barnaby Joyce is proposing is a relaxing of ESCAS which, in our view, is paring away a regulation that already doesn’t go far enough,” he said.
“It already doesn’t ensure that animals receive the basic standards of welfare, it already cannot be monitored effectively and it already lacks enforceability.”
Mr Joyce said the Saudis could take as many as one million sheep a year at a price of about $40 a head, if exports were to resume.
“What we’ve got to try and do is say: ‘How about you tell us what you do in your country’ and if we think that is going to work, maybe we could find some medium ground here,” he said.
“All the time while I’m in this job I want to get a better return back through the farm gate. I’ve always made that my mantra, so therefore you have to try and get markets moving.”