Ban Live Export! Is it the right thing to do?

Last week, one of our daughters sent the following email to her local MP:

“Last Tuesday I took my 2 year old son to the Royal Melbourne Show. I thought it would be a fun day out and we especially wanted to visit all the animals. We spent considerable time admiring the sheep and the cattle. I showed my son how to gently pat the sheep and explained how the mother was protecting her babies. I stopped short at emphasizing that he shouldn't stab, club or bury the gentle animals alive. My 2 year old knows better than that, he is thoughtful and shows empathy even at his young age.

“So when I heard that 10,000 sheep have been so cruelly disposed of, and 21,000 more are penned in, unable to move or lie down whilst waiting for conscious slaughter, our contrasting encounter at The Show was not lost on me. I am used to feeling enraged and distressed by animal cruelty, but why are we proudly displaying our farm animals in all their freshly washed glory, and at this same time sending their equally worthy cousins on a fateful journey?

“Do we need to sit our Prime Minister down, the Principal of our country, with senior staff member Senator Joe Ludwig, for a pre-school lesson in how to treat animals? Maybe we could arrange an excursion to Edendale farm and they could gently pat the animals and tap into their inner 2 year old.

“On the same day at The Show, my son and I admired all the lovely cattle and watched a calf suckle from its mother. How long can I protect my son from the knowledge that these lovely worthy creatures are packed off on a nightmare ship with the barest conditions?

“That lactating mothers are left dehydrated and dying? That calves die a slow painful death?

Is it not a contradiction to expect our children to demonstrate care and respect for animals whilst the Government casts them aside? Maybe the Government could send us parents an education booklet, like the ones about saying no to drugs, so I know exactly how to explain this to my son.

“This is how the booklet should read:

“Fact: The Government is responsible for the tragedies unfolding due to live export. They are the Parent. Humane treatment off our shores can never be guaranteed.

“Fact: The Meat and Livestock Industry cannot be trusted. They had known about the cattle abuse in Indonesia over 12 long years ago.

“Fact: Australia is a wealthy nation. We can redirect money from improving abattoirs in Indonesia to reopening languished local ones.

“If you ban live export, you might lose some customers, you might upset some farmers. Oh dear, you might even lose some votes - but it's the right thing to do. Our friendly sheep rearing neighbour New Zealand can surely give us some tips on how to export meat in pieces rather than whole. Think of the carbon miles you'll save Julia!

“The arguments for live export don't stack up; it is unethical and unnecessary. Labor, we used to be friends but one of us has changed. I implore you to go back and find your inner 2 year old. It's the right thing to do.

“Reference: Animals Australia “

Very strong feelings are generated among much of the community when animal cruelty is exposed. Whether it was a farmer or an animal owner who let his livestock starve or become diseased or debilitated, or whether it was the gross cruelty that we saw last year when Four Corners exposed the grotesque slaughter of cattle in Indonesian abattoirs, the people became enraged. Politicians all over Australia were inundated at that time with hostile emails insisting that action be taken to stop the cruelty immediately. Politicians commented that they had never before encountered such an avalanche, much greater than evoked by acts of cruelty to human beings in theatres of war or civil strife. So massive were the protests that the Government was compelled to act quickly, and chose to immediately ban the export of live animals to Indonesia until better conditions for animal slaughter were in place. Animals Australia was particularly active and vocal.

The ban lasted a month, much to the chagrin of some Coalition members and cattlemen, who thought it was an overreaction. ''The Indonesians won't like it,'' said Bruce Warren, who operates a state-of-the-art feedlot and abattoir in Java. ”If the trade stops, it will be hard to start again … The Indonesian government is already talking about this in terms of an opportunity for self-sufficiency.''

Once the Government was satisfied that conditions in Indonesia had improved to the extent that slaughter could be humane, although ‘stunning’ was still not mandatory but ‘encouraged’, the ban was lifted and trade resumed. The outrage subsided among the people, but some cattlemen and Coalition members still felt the ban was too hasty, quite unnecessary, and certainly had cost them a lot of money and probably loss of future trade with Indonesia. Though in a small online poll of just over 2,000, seven out of ten respondents thought it was not right for Australia to resume live exports to Indonesia.

The most recent episode of animal cruelty involved a shipment of 21,000 sheep to Bahrain last month. Rejected by that country because the sheep were said to be diseased with ‘scabby mouth’, they were sent to Pakistan, where there were suggestions that the sheep may also have anthrax. The outcome was that some of the sheep were clubbed to death, stabbed and even buried alive. The rest remain in a feedlot crammed together so tightly that they cannot lie down or gain easy access to food and water. There is still doubt about whether or not they are diseased. More outrage was evoked among the people, and protest rallies against live exports have been organized for the weekend.

Live cattle export is deemed necessary because in Islamic countries a particular mode of slaughter is required, one that these countries prefer to carry out themselves.

The basic Islamic guidelines are as follows:

“The sacrifice should be performed during the daytime, not at night. The knife to be used to cut the animal's throat should be very sharp, so much so that the least amount of force or pressure is needed to slice the animal's jugular vein, so it feels the least amount of pain when its skin is thus cut. The knife should not be shown to the animal, but the latter should be fed well and laid down facing the direction of the "Qiblah" (Muslim direction of prayer - the Ka'ba) in Makkah. The person who will perform the sacrifice should be well-versed in their job, and should not hurt the animal by clumsily jabbing away at the latter's throat with a blunt knife, causing pain and fear. The one performing the sacrifice should be swift and deft. He should say "Bismillah Allahu Akbar" before slicing the animal's throat. The owner of the animal should recite an invocation before the sacrifice.”

To meet these requirements, Australia has a long history of live exports, which is a very profitable enterprise. There have been examples of animal cruelty going back to before the Howard years. Some awful instances at that time occurred during transportation rather than in the recipient country. In her submission to the Independent Review of Australia’s Live Export Trade, animals activist Kathryn Woolfe wrote: “During the last three decades of Live Exports, one hundred and fifty million sheep and cattle have been tortured, and brutalized, before suffering agonizing deaths. Most of these animals were conscious when their throats were cut.”

As with all policy matters complexity confounds thinking. At one end of the spectrum of opinion sit the RSCPA, Animals Australia, the Greens, animal welfare groups, several Labor parliamentarians, Independents Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon and countless citizens who want an immediate and permanent ban on live exports. At the other end are cattlemen, Meat and Livestock Australia, The Cattle Council of Australia, the NT Cattlemen’s Association, and the National and Victorian Farmers Federation, who value the trade and view with apprehension a ban on live exports, which would seriously imperil their trade and destroy its profitability.

It should be emphasized that cattle producers and exporters are adamant that they do not condone animal cruelty and insist their trade must be humane. They claim they are very fond of the animals they breed. Some people though feel that despite their affirmations against cruelty, they cannot be trusted to put animal welfare ahead of profit. Islamic culture also deplores and opposes any form of animal cruelty, including during the slaughter process. So how is it that with both producers and overseas recipients of livestock opposed to cruelty, it still occurs?

In any endeavour, there are always the good guys and the rogues. Clearly, despite the best intentions of the producers and exporters, sometimes things go wrong. Animals are sometimes subjected to appalling conditions during transport. Cramped conditions, excessive heat or cold, inadequate access to food and water have characterized many live export journeys. How does this occur? The authorities that oversee live exports know that some operators are slack, careless and uncaring about animal welfare; their only concern is getting their cargo loaded, out of port, and to its destination with minimal casualties. The authorities know that strict regulations are needed, and that they have to be enforced rigidly. They know that despite their best efforts shonky operators will try to get round the regulations, and will do so unless they are policed strictly. Thus, from time to time, we have appalling episodes of obscene animal cruelty that evoke intense anger and outrage among those who loathe animal cruelty.

So is a total ban on live exports the right thing to do? Like in all political issues complexity abounds.

To simply ban live exports precipitously would ruin some farmers, businesses and industries, and result in the loss of many jobs and all that entails. Live trade would be lost overnight, and alternatives would take substantial time to establish. Would it be fair to those who have built up such businesses to be suddenly put out of business and perhaps rendered bankrupt? Most reasonable people would say that would not be fair.

On the other hand would it be reasonable to allow the trade to be continued without tightening of the regulations governing it and strengthening the monitoring of live exports? Many would approve continuance of the trade if they could be certain that animal cruelty could be totally prevented.

Others believe that because there will always be shonky operators, animal cruelty would still be bound to occur despite the strongest regulations and the most intense oversight. They would see a total and permanent ban as the only solution.

So where does the answer lie?

To accommodate competing claims, would it be reasonable to commence a planned phasing out of the live export trade over a period that enabled those who rely on it to adjust. Since New Zealand banned live exports in 2003, it would be possible to do it here, and according to NZ PM John Key, harmonization of live exports between our two countries would be of mutual benefit and reduce frustration occasioned by the two countries having different policies. How long the phasing out would need to be would need to be agreed by consensus – a year, two, perhaps longer? In place of live exports, animals destined for the Middle East would need to be slaughtered in Australia according to the customs required by the recipients, as in New Zealand. This would boost jobs and profit in the meat-processing sector, while reducing them in the live trade transport industry. Compensation and adjustment might be required. But it is possible.

Is it possible that the antagonists to, and the protagonists for the live export trade might negotiate a new arrangement that would satisfy those seeking a ban while securing the future of those engaged in the livestock industry?

Of course it is possible, but how probable would it be when vested interests fight to maintain the status quo even in the face of strong adverse public opinion, and political pressure to ban live exports?

It seems likely that only strong Government intervention could achieve that outcome. Federal legislation to this effect would likely pass even if the Coalition opposed, as the Greens and at least two independents would vote for it.

Would the Labor Government have the desire, the determination and the courage to carry this through? Many would hope so.

What do you think?