LAST UPDATED: 15 May 2019
A chaser boat pursues a sperm whale across choppy, freezing waves. Exploding harpoons pierce the huge animal's body and she is dragged, bleeding, onto the deck, to be butchered back at the whaling station... But this isn't Antarctica, and those aren't Japanese whalers.
It was 20 November 1978, and the last whale had just been killed by an Australian-based whaling company off the WA coast, after two centuries of slaughter and the deaths of tens of thousands of animals.
Earlier that year, Australia's government had set in motion the Frost Inquiry into whaling, in response to conservation concerns and community campaigning. Following the Inquiry's recommendations, in 1979 the Fraser government banned whaling in Australia.
The Government's decision ... has been influenced by community concern not only in Australia but throughout the world for the need to preserve these unique creatures.Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, 4 April 1979
32 years later, the Australian government, buoyed by public support, stepped into the ring to fight for whales once more — calling out Japan's supposed 'scientific' killing of whales in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary with legal action in the UN's highest court. Whaling in this region was banned in 2014 — though the international battle to protect these animals continues.
For more than 20 years Australia engaged in diplomacy to convince Japan to end its whaling program, while protest groups like Sea Shepherd engaged in a long-running and at times dangerous campaign to convince Japan to cease its unlawful slaughter.Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus, 2 April 2014
Exchanging one cruelty for another
Whaling ended in Australia about 40 years ago. In the decades since, while our country stuck its neck out for marine mammals, a new local trade in cruelty picked up steam, largely hidden from the wider Australian community: live animal export.
Animal protection groups have since spoken out repeatedly about the abuses endemic to the trade, uncovering case after case of systemic cruelty to Australian animals exported live. Yet this industry continues to receive government support — despite causing untold suffering to literally millions of Australian sheep, cattle, goats and other animals over several decades.
Image credit: Pope via Canberra Times
The case for whaling
Australian whaling was, historically, a significant contributor to our country's economy, particularly in towns like Albany in WA. When campaigning against it gained momentum in the late 1970's, similar arguments were made in its defence which we now hear in support of live export: jobs depended on it; whaling underpinned regional economies; and what would local communities do instead?
But ethics were put ahead of economics and four decades later the cruelty of whaling is so obvious and so outrageous that many people are shocked to learn that it was ever defended in our own country on the basis of profits.
It's likely that one day we will look back on Australia's participation in the live export trade with similar shame.
The transition Australia has made over the past quarter-century, from a whaling nation to a world leader in whale watching and whale conservation, is remarkable. It ... reflects a genuine sea-change in Australians' attitudes to our marine environment.Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP, 17 Oct 2003
The economic alternative
There is a notable difference between the end of whaling in Australia and the proposed end to live animal export, which strengthens the case for the latter.
When whaling ended, that was it. There was no direct alternative for those involved in the industry, although whale tourism has helped to generate revenue to some degree in former whaling communities like Albany. In contrast, we have a viable alternative to live export — boxed meat — yet the current Australian government insists on maintaining the live export trade despite the high demand for this boxed Australian meat overseas.
The vast majority of jobs currently supported by live export — producers, stockmen, shearers, truck drivers — will still exist if all animals are processed domestically. In fact, the boxed meat trade is already worth eight times as much to our country's economy.
A series of reports produced by respected economic researchers lay out clearly how a well-planned transition could be managed to minimise effects on producers, and produce net gains for our economy and rural communities.
And, of course, the positives for animals are obvious as they would no longer be subjected to long sea journeys, only to face fully conscious slaughter in countries with no effective laws in place to protect them from cruelty.
A kinder future without live export
History has shown that small interest groups — in this case the whaling industry — can slow change — but in the long run, the voice of the growing community who oppose whaling will get louder and louder.Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, MP, 17 Oct 2003
Something changed in the Australian psyche to lead us from cruelty towards compassion for whales. What will it take for the same to happen for exported sheep, who we have seen starving and suffocating in unbearable heat, unable to move or lie down for days on end aboard these ships? How many times must we watch cattle hauled off to slaughter in countries with little to no animal welfare supervision? Turning away from their suffering does no honour to the Australia that went out to bat for whales.
With the world's eyes on our country's decision makers, it's important to reflect on how hard our government fought to stop those killing boats — and what needs to happen in our community for the live export ships to stop, too.
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.Martin Luther King Jr.