The photos the government didn't want you to see
The RSPCA has released shocking pictures of dead and dying animals taken on live export ships last year which the Government tried to suppress for nearly six months.
The animal rights organisation was forced to shell out "close to $1700 in processing fees" after requesting the images, which were included in government observer reports from ships that left Australia in April to June 2018.
The RSPCA finally won "partial access" to the report and photographs after a lengthy Freedom of Information fight.
According to the organisation, the "heavily redacted" documents contain information about eight different journeys which took place between two and four weeks, totalling 184 days at sea.
The reports were written after 2500 hours of observation and include 83 photos of animals, including sick, dead and dying sheep.
Hundreds of additional images and hours of footage have not been released.
RSPCA Australia senior policy officer Dr Jed Goodfellow said the documents and images proved the conditions on board the notorious Awassi Express in 2017 "weren't the exception but the norm".
He was referring to the disastrous voyages made by the vessel that year, which led to the deaths of 2400 sheep due to heat stress, outraging countless Australians.
"The conditions described and photographed in these documents represent the industry on its very best behaviour after the multiple disastrous journeys of the Awassi in 2017," Dr Goodfellow said.
"And yet, once again, we see conditions that would absolutely horrify the average Australian and the average sheep farmer.
"Perhaps even more alarming than the evidence of continued suffering on board these ships, are the pages and pages of redacted information, consistently where management of animals and heat stress on board are discussed."
Dr Goodfellow said the department had "flat out refused" to release the video taken on board the ships, which he claimed was "the only real means of truly appreciating the animals' behaviour and condition during the high heat stress periods".
"While this lack of transparency is nothing new from the live export industry, I think it's very clear the Government knows as well as we do, that the conditions on-board the Awassi
Express in 2017 weren't the exception but the norm, despite the best efforts from the live export industry to discredit the footage captured from those journeys," Dr Goodfellow said.
The RSPCA claims the reports show animals suffering from "moderate to severe" heat stress caused by high temperatures and humidity as well as proving the deaths of 1500 animals.
But agriculture minister David Littleproud told news.com.au changes had been made following the Awassi scandal.
"Since these voyages stocking densities have been significantly reduced and the Heat Stress Consultation for the coming Middle Eastern Summer is out for consultation now," he said.
"The decisions made around stocking densities were always based on the best science and many sources of data - not one video."
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources defended the report's suppression, claiming the release of the full reports would make "business information, commercial-in-confidence information and personal information public".
He also stressed that the hours of video footage was withheld largely due to privacy concerns.
"In less than 12 months, the department as the regulator has moved to provide unprecedented transparency on live animal export voyages," the spokesman said.
"We fully understand the high public interest in this issue and will continue to work with the industry and stakeholder groups to mature this transparency, while ensuring that we can continue to do our job effectively as the regulator."
The spokesman said the Independent Observer report summary process has now been "standardised and improved dramatically".
"These reports give the public an accurate and independently verified account of the voyage, including photographic evidence," he said.
"Third party organisations, including animal welfare groups, have been regularly informed of the development of these reports.
"The primary purpose of the full Independent Observer reports is as an information source for the regulator. The department does not generally disclose personal or confidential information collected in the course of obtaining the reports."
An RSPCA spokeswoman said while the Government referred to the documents as the "Independent Observer report", the observers in question were actually hired by the department itself.
The Government's Heat Stress Risk Assessment Report, which was developed by an independent panel of experts, recommended changes to the industry's heat stress model.
It is expected to lead to the end of the May to October northern summer trade.
Want full access to the best local, state and national news? Get a digital subscription for just $1 for 28 days with no lock-in contract.