What do whaling and live export have in common?

Australia's historic fight to protect whales from 'scientific' slaughter by Japan reflects our society's changed values. So what does it say about our continued involvement in the cruelty of live export?

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LAST UPDATED: 12 April 2018

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.

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 less than 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 small industry continues to receive government support — despite causing untold suffering to literally millions of Australian cattle, sheep, goats and other animals over several decades.

500-live-export-whaling-scientific-carto
Image credit: Pope via Canberra Times

The case for whaling

Australian whaling was, historically, a significant contributor to our country's economy. During the 19th century, whale products represented some of our largest exports. By the mid 20th century the industry had declined, but killing whales still underpinned employment in towns like Albany in WA.

When campaigning against whaling gained momentum in the late 1970's, similar arguments were made in its defence that we now hear in support of live export: jobs depended on it; whaling underpinned regional economies; and what would local communities do instead?

But this is one time in our history where ethics were put ahead of economics and some 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 on offer.

It's likely that one day we will look back on Australia's participation in the live export trade with similar shame.

The economic and ethical alternative

There are, of course, some important differences between Australia's whaling industry and our current trade in live sheep and cattle.

Killing whales for commercial purposes had driven Australian whale populations, especially those of sperm and humpback whales, frighteningly close to the edge of extinction.

And much of the early demand driving whaling was for whale oil, which was later superseded by petroleum. Other economic pressures, including fuel costs, meant that in some ways, the whaling industry was likely sailing towards the end regardless of public opinion.

But even still, the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company at Albany, WA, had killed about 1,000 whales each year in its three and a half decade history — and was only a few whales short of its annual quota when its boats returned to port for the last time in late 1978.

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

Contrast this with 2014, and the current Australian government's steadfast support for live export despite the growing demand for Australian boxed meat overseas — with exports of boxed beef and sheep meat at record levels.

But the differences between whaling and live export only serve to strengthen the case for ending 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 — and it is already worth eight times as much to our country's economy.

The vast majority of jobs currently supported by live export — producers, stockmen, shearers, truck drivers — will still exist if all animals are processed domestically.

What's more, shifting away from live export towards boxed meat exports will in fact reap economic benefits.

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 cattle, who we see again and again with leg tendons slashed and eyes gouged, and throats hacked open with short, dull blades? How many times do we need to see Australian sheep stuffed in car boots and slaughtered brutally in the streets before our decision-makers say enough? Turning away from their suffering does no honour to the Australia that went out to bat for whales.

With our country's pride burning bright thanks to our efforts on behalf of whales, and the International Court of Justice's decision, it's an appropriate moment 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.

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