Widespread claims animal activists have paid whistleblowers for shocking footage of animal cruelty in the live export business will be investigated by the federal government. Agriculture Minister David Littleproud made the announcement in the wake of explosive media stories of emails linking anti-live trade groups to payments and directions on the most desirable footage.
The national media attention on the way groups such as Animals Australia operate sparked further revelations from within the live export supply chain, indicating the paying of workers to distress animals in order to obtain footage was not unusual.
Prominent cattle business leader Troy Setter, from Consolidated Pastoral Company, said on social media he had been to abattoirs “where staff have told me they have been paid to do the wrong thing. I have had my staff offered money in Australia to film the wrong thing being done.”
Other industry leaders said allegations of tens of thousands of dollars changing hands for footage and staging of cruelty on board ships and in overseas abattoirs had been long-standing. Producers, exporters and the wider agriculture sector have been outraged by the claims and pressure for an inquiry was immediate.
Central to media reports have been questions over footage of sheep on the Awassi Express, which aired on 60 Minutes early last year. That story sparked a federal government investigation into the ship and the suspension of its licence.
Mr Littleproud said the Department of Agriculture had now started to formally investigate under what conditions footage of the Awassi’s May to October 2017 voyages was obtained.
He said the department would investigate whether payments were made that ultimately changed conditions on the voyages.
If animals were deliberately mistreated for even one piece of footage, those responsible must be brought to justice, Mr Littleproud said.
Media organisations will be asked for information to assist. Under a barrage of attack on social media, and calls for its charity status to be revoked, Animals Australia has said little about the accusations.
It previously told this publication 60 Minutes did not pay for the footage, however, this week has declined to directly answer the question of whether it has ever paid, or offered to pay, for footage of animals suffering.
It said the whistleblower in the Awassi matter was now a key witness for the Commonwealth in a major criminal justice investigation, that Animals Australia had assisted this investigation and would not be commenting further while it was underway.
The organisation also said the whistleblower was brave and “came forward because of his genuine concerns about the suffering of animals in this disgraceful trade.”
“The indisputable evidence of animal abuse obtained by whistleblower, Mr Fazal Ullah, was corroborated by other workers from the Awassi Express who were similarly concerned about the suffering of animals on the vessel. The overwhelming evidence of suffering across five voyages, confirmed in End of Voyage Vet Reports, was accepted by industry associations and Government regulators,” a statement said.
Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association chair David Warriner said the allegations were extremely serious and warranted more explanation than what had been offered.
“The industry has accepted responsibility for what occurred on that vessel and has taken significant steps to ensure that such incidents do not happen again,” he said.
“What we must not forget is the events that the footage triggered. Government investigations into individual exporters, three different independent government reviews, independent observers put on vessels and the partial shutdown of the trade out of Western Australia resulting in significant hardship for producers and supply chain stakeholders across Australia.”
“If there is any question as to how this footage was obtained or under what circumstances, then thousands of people across Australia who have suffered as a result deserve a proper answer.”
Producer groups said it should be kept in mind Animals Australia has reported it spent $4.4 million in the 2017/18 financial year on campaigns to end the live sheep trade and had a total income of $9.3m for the year.
Those making donations had a right to know if some of that was spent on paying for footage, they argued.
Mecardo agriculture market analyst Matt Dalgleish, who has worked extensively on researching the value of the live trade industry to Australia’s economy, said if it proved to be true that Animals Australia paid for footage, “then irrespective of whether they intended to or not, by merely paying for footage they are encouraging some to collect footage/payment by any means.”
This includes purposefully mistreating animals, he said.
“If they are paying for footage they are creating a market in animal cruelty.”