Senator Mehreen Faruqi – Estimates questions relating to live exports to Israel

photo of Senator Mehreen Faruqi
February 13, 2024

Thank you, Chair. Good afternoon everyone. I do note the published reasons that the department has provided for rejecting the application to re-export animals on Bahijah. This transparency is very welcome and I’m sure that many stakeholders will appreciate it. But I also have some questions on that. Your statement of reasons indicated that you did not believe the exporter’s contingency plan was adequate or reasonable, as the exporter did not have an approved ESCAS for the alternative market. Can you tell me what exactly was the contingency plan for this re-export for the Bahijah?

Senator FARUQI: Thank you, Chair. Good afternoon everyone. I do note the published reasons that the department has provided for rejecting the application to re-export animals on Bahijah. This transparency is very welcome and I’m sure that many stakeholders will appreciate it. But I also have some questions on that. Your statement of reasons indicated that you did not believe the exporter’s contingency plan was adequate or reasonable, as the exporter did not have an approved ESCAS for the alternative market. Can you tell me what exactly was the contingency plan for this re-export for the Bahijah?

Mr McDonald: Yes, Senator. As indicated before, according to the original 4 December notice of intent to export, this exporter had a number of markets situated around the Persian Gulf in the Middle East where they had written agreement with another exporter to utilise their access arrangements.

Senator FARUQI: That was the original?

Mr McDonald: That was the original contingency plan that we considered and agreed with the exporter, based on written confirmation that they had arrangements in place with the other exporter, who had the approvals for those ESCAS arrangements.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. But what was the contingency plan which wasn’t approved for the re-export?

Mr McDonald: The re-export proposal was that upon return to Australia the boat be re-provisioned with supplies, including fodder and other goods, and that it would then sail again via the Cape of Good Hope around the African continent, around to the Mediterranean, and access an Israeli port on the Mediterranean.

Senator FARUQI: So for the contingency plan, which is one of the reasons, as I understand, that you have rejected the application—it was different to the original contingency plan? That’s what I’m trying to get at.

Mr McDonald: The contingency plans around the Persian Gulf markets related to the original export proposal. When they were advised that they were unable to access those original contingency markets, they then put a number of other proposals to us, and I’ve alluded to them in my statement of reasons.

Senator FARUQI: This is when the ship had already gone. This is the first time around. This time around, when the re-export application has been submitted, what is the contingency plan in that?

Mr McDonald: I will take it on notice so I’m absolutely certain. But they had obviously another market that they were accessing from the Mediterranean side of Israel.

Senator FARUQI: But your statement says that the plan was not adequate or reasonable. That is not adequate?

Mr McDonald: Which page are you referring to?

Senator FARUQI: I’m not sure but you should know; you’ve written it.

Mr McDonald: I don’t want to mislead you, Senator.

Senator FARUQI: I understand that the contingency plan this time around for the re-export—your statement says that it wasn’t adequate or reasonable as the exporter did not have an approved export supply chain assurance system for the alternative market. So obviously the contingency plan this time around is different to what it was last time.

Mr McDonald: Yes, it was.

Senator FARUQI: Could you provide us with that contingency plan?

Mr McDonald: I’ll take that one on notice.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. And—if you could answer that again—which alternative country was intended to provide supplementary fodder and vet supplies under the original plan?

Mr McDonald: In terms of the original voyage, when they diverted away from the Red Sea, there was a proposal to access fodder and veterinary supplies from an African nation. And the Israeli competent authority did not approve that because of concerns they had around the sourcing of that fodder. They also put some further plans to us around providing fodder and other supplies to the vessel from a southern European nation or two. And that involved being able to transit that fodder down the West African coast and meeting the ship and being able to transfer that fodder across. What’s important here is that, just like any animal, when you change feed, you need to blend it so that it doesn’t upset their stomachs and those sorts of things. You have to do it with cats and dogs. You have to do that with livestock as well. And so one of our concerns was there wasn’t adequate breathing space in those plans to enable that to happen and there to be sufficient reserves on board for all that to take place, which is why the direction to return the vessel to Australian waters on 19 January was made.

Senator FARUQI: So it’s not in the contingency plan that in case, for security reasons, they are not able to go to the alternative export markets, they should have a place to provide supplementary fodder? That’s not part of the contingency plan?

Mr McDonald: No.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. So did the exporter actually provide evidence confirming with the competent authorities of that country that it will be in a position to provide those supplies? Is there any evidence that the exporter has to provide?

Mr McDonald: In this instance, this was being managed in real time. There would have been degrees of evidence provided. The exact—I’d again like to take that on notice so I’m accurate in my responses.

Senator FARUQI: I understand from the reasons that you have provided that there were multiple factors that led to your decision to reject the re-export application. But is it fair to say that the absence of an adequate contingency plan would have been sufficient reason on its own to reject the application?

Mr McDonald: What I would say is that there’s no single factor that should be read into my reasoning as the determinant factor. They all were given weight and they all have weight in terms of my decision-making. That was one of several factors.

Senator FARUQI: But if every other thing was fine and the contingency plan wasn’t adequate, would the department reject the application?

Mr McDonald: In certain circumstances we would give consideration to that, yes.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. And I also note from your statement of reasons that much reliance, as you said earlier, was placed on the extended long-haul management plan. Could you provide a copy of that plan?

Mr McDonald: I’ll take that on notice. We’d have to look at it from a commercial and privacy perspective.

Senator FARUQI: I just want to know what is in this plan to mitigate the various risks animals are faced with. Is that part of the plan?

Mr McDonald: Yes, absolutely. What it involved was, with the longer duration of the nature being proposed, there were things such as destocking so that there was greater capacity for the animals to move around and deal with their longer journey. There were going to be additional, veterinary supplies made and taken on board above minimum requirements. There would have also been other considerations around the assessment of the animals, around their fitness for the onbound journey and how those animals would either have been treated or been humanely euthanised if that was required during the journey as well. So there were lots of things of greater detail. But again, I’ll take the finer points on notice, Senator.

Senator FARUQI: Thank you. In your statement of reasons, you said:

In terms of processing capacity, the information before me indicated that there was a six-week wait for capacity at WA, SA and VIC abattoirs.

What exactly was the information before you at this point? Did the department approach, for instance, any processors to assess capacity to process these animals?

Mr McDonald: The department had multiple conversations along these lines.

Senator FARUQI: With the processors?

Mr McDonald: There would have been several conversations.

Senator FARUQI: Who would have had those conversations?

Mr McDonald: Not all by me, Senator, so I’ll take it on notice around the exact conversations. But the engagement was through personal communication.

Senator FARUQI: Personal communication with the abattoirs? What I want to know is if the department actually checked with the processors to assess capacity to process these animals. Or were you just relying on the information by the exporter?

Mr McDonald: No, we weren’t just—we were doing our own inquiry into this. And as I said before, there would have been other individuals beyond me who would have made such inquiries or had conversations. Moreover, the processing sector’s representative body was also deeply engaged in our interactions as we were looking at contingency.

Senator FARUQI: Could you provide on notice the processors that you approached and what their responses were in terms of capacity?

Mr McDonald: I’ll take that on notice.

Senator FARUQI: Thank you. You have said already many times how much time this incident has taken the department. Mr Fennessy, you’ve been involved. It seems everyone, from top to bottom, from the department has been occupied in this. Would it be possible to put an estimate on the amount of staff time and departmental resources which have been expended dealing in this with this matter of Bahijah over the past few weeks?

Mr McDonald: It’s something that we’re still compiling, Senator, because activity is still ongoing. We are trying to make, as best we can under best endeavours, some sort of record of the cost to the department in dealing with this.

Senator FARUQI: I’m presuming it would be substantial. So could you take that on notice and provide me with a calculated estimate of staff time and resources used in this matter. And I take it that the department will not be recovering any of this expenditure from the live export industry.

Mr McDonald: Senator, the cost recovery impact statements don’t provide the precise charging mechanisms that would allow us to recover the full gamut of costs related to this. Some charging could be considered, but that’s still before us and still to be evaluated.

Senator FARUQI: Could you advise what current level of cumulative costs the department is facing for live export regulatory services not covered under the department’s cost-recovery scheme? And maybe you can take that on notice as well. I think you’ll have to figure it out.

Mr McDonald: I’ll take that on notice as well.

Mr Fennessy : Senator, in response to your earlier question, I said that we take a very strict approach to what’s recovered under the cost-recovery framework and not—just so that’s clear to all members. We will take that on notice.

Senator FARUQI: Thank you. You’ve also said in your reasons that the department had never before approved a voyage of over 60 days in duration and that if you approved the re-export application, the total voyage time would have exceeded 65 days and possibly even 70 days. Is there a maximum voyage time beyond which the department will not consider approval?

Mr McDonald: We don’t have a maxim Senator. What we classify as an extended long-haul voyage is 31 days or greater, under the Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock. So anything that’s greater than 31 days is an extended long-haul journey and requires additional assurances from us around the health and welfare of the livestock on board. The previous longest journey was back in 2018, and that was 51 days.

Senator FARUQI: Technically, though, this would mean that an exporter could apply for any length of time. So I’m just thinking—even with a long-haul plan, has the department actually considered what is just too long? Is it 70 days? Is it 100 days? Obviously there is a limit, no matter what the conditions are.

Mr McDonald: I appreciate the sentiment, Senator. We probably haven’t gone to an upper limit or threshold in that regard because it is such a rare event. It’s something we would have to reflect on after this.

Mr Fennessy : Senator, just to add to Mr McDonald, our clear approach is we evaluate on a consignment by consignment basis. That’s the strict approach we take under the legislation. And then we consider it for that particular application.

Senator FARUQI: But it would be good if you would reconsider. These rare events keep happening. You know what I mean. I noted also that the decision to reject the application to re-export animals on Bahijah relied on advice from the animal welfare branch as well. Could you please provide that advice?

Mr McDonald: I’ll take that on notice, Senator.

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