By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – An Australian backbencher on Monday introduced legislation to parliament to ban the export of live sheep after the death of 2,400 animals on a ship bound for the Middle East, an incident that led to widespread criticism of the A$250 million ($190 million) industry.
The bill threatens to expose fractures within the ruling coalition government, which last week introduced tougher oversight of the shipments but stopped short of banning them altogether.
Backbench lawmaker Sussan Ley said the new rules did not go far enough.
“A 60-kg sheep will be allocated space equivalent to just under two A4 pieces of paper,” Ley told parliament in one of the world’s largest exporters of livestock.
While the bulk of Australia’s meat exports are processed, markets such as the Middle East and Indonesia prefer to buy live animals.
Australia’s chief commodity forecaster in March said it expected 1.9 million live sheep to be sold this year, worth A$250 million.
“For Australian farmers, animal welfare is our highest concern. We need to fix the industry, not ban it,” said Fiona Simson, president of the National Farmers Federation.
The proposed legislation puts Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a political bind.
Emboldened by opinion polls that show nearly three quarters of voters support an end to the trade, two members of Turnbull’s Liberal Party have said they support Ley’s bill, joining forces with the opposition Labor Party.
The rural-based Nationals, the junior member of the coalition government, opposes a ban, insisting it could inflict widespread damage on Australia’s agricultural sector.
“This strikes at the heart of the coalition arrangement,” said Nick Economou, senior lecturer in Australian politics at Monash University in Melbourne.
“The prime minister cannot let this go forward, he cannot afford to upset the National Party.”
The political alliance that has existed since 1923 was strained this year after an extramarital affair by then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce triggered a war of words between Australia’s most senior lawmakers.
Turnbull’s government will likely seek to delay the passage of the bill, analysts said, through its control of parliamentary business.
The Labor Party could force a vote on Ley’s bill if it secures the support of two independent lawmakers, a vote that could potentially be too close to call.
($1 = 1.3291 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Joseph Radford)