OPINION: Live export jumps onto the election agenda

OPINION: On AUG 19, 2013 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

The 30th May 2011 was a defining moment in Australia. That evening, the Four Corners program “A Bloody Business” on cruelty to live exported cattle in Indonesian abattoirs went to air.

The public reaction to the distressing exposé of the horrific cruelty suffered by these Australian cattle was seismic. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people across the country became passionate, vocal animal activists, compelled to speak out against the shocking cruelty they had just witnessed on their televisions sets. Politicians were besieged with emails and phone calls from upset constituents angry at the live export trade’s callous disregard for animal suffering, and the government’s support for the on-going trade.

Shocked by the footage and the community backlash the Gillard government acted, announcing a temporary suspension of the live export trade to Indonesia while it investigated the allegations against the trade.

The live export industry went into damage control mode, portraying the Indonesian footage as an “isolated incident”, just an aberration in the long-running live cattle trade to Indonesia.

In fact, these “isolated incidents” have been occurring as long as the trade has existed. Previous investigations by animal welfare organisations Animals Australia and the RSPCA had documented the brutal reality Australian animals faced when slaughtered overseas after gruelling sea voyages. On being presented with this evidence, successive Agriculture Ministers and the industry bodies have failed to act effectively to prevent further gross cruelty occurring in the live export trade.

Given that animals are sent to be slaughtered in countries beyond Australia’s jurisdiction with much lower animal welfare standards, the cruelty of the live export trade was never likely to be “fixed”, and for those reasons alone it remains unfixable. The fate of the shipload of Australian sheep turned away from Bahrain last year and re-routed to Pakistan, where they were brutally killed (many were buried alive) only served to reinforce the impossibility of guaranteeing even the most basic animal welfare standards.

Australia currently exports over 3 million live animals for slaughter each year - mainly cattle, sheep and goats - to markets in the Middle East and Asia. They are exported under OIE standards (OIE is the French acronym for the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, to which Australia is a signatory). This has allowed the live export trade, the Government and the Opposition to claim that Australia is complying with international standards. Don’t be fooled.

Crucially, the low-bar OIE standards do not mandate pre-slaughter stunning, as is generally required in Australia, and the OIE’s animal welfare guidelines merely discourage the terrible cruelty animals still endure at slaughter, including being beaten, dragged, thrown, inverted in medieval slaughter boxes banned here in Australia, having their tails broken, their eyes gouged and stabbed, and their leg tendons slashed to disable them, before having their throats cut while fully conscious.  

As we saw in the Indonesian footage, animals are routinely slaughtered and butchered in front of their fellow doomed creatures, adding to their distress and terror. Who could ever forget the sight of the trembling black steer, corralled, watching and waiting his turn to be butchered?

The great majority of Australians abhors animal cruelty and wants an end to the cruel live export trade. A recent pre-election poll commissioned by animal welfare organisation WSPA found 86 per cent of Australians were more likely to vote for politicians who support phasing out the trade, and 61 per cent of voters in marginal electorates surveyed were more likely to vote for a politician who supported an end to the trade.

Predictably, the live export industry claims this is not the case. Glossing over the animal cruelty issues, industry spokespeople maintain that the economic benefits of continuing the trade outweigh any other considerations. Let’s take a look at this argument.

Live export accounts for just 0.3 per cent of our total exports, and most Australian livestock farmers are not engaged in the live export trade – in fact, many are strongly opposed to it. In 2012, only 8 per cent of our cattle and 11 per cent of sheep went into the live export trade. Furthermore, the shift away from live export is already occurring, with a 50 per cent increase in “boxed” lamb exports to the Middle East in 2012. This export alone is worth $60 million more than live sheep exports to the Middle East. It also spared 4.7 million animals a hellish sea voyage, in which many animals suffer and die, and cruel slaughter at their destination.

New Zealand ended its live export trade in 2003, on animal cruelty grounds, and the sky didn’t fall in. Here in Australia, profits for the vested interests involved in the live export trade, and its associated jobs, cannot justify the wide-scale animal cruelty inherent in a trade that knowingly sends millions of animals to be brutalised.

If profits were the only measure of a trade’s validity, then arms dealing, drug trafficking and the sex trade could also claim legitimate status. Ethical considerations must also be taken into account, especially when it comes to these vulnerable animals, and the live export trade clearly fails the ethics test. In the wake of the Four Corners’ programs, several former live export veterinarians have spoken out against the trade, adding further weight to the overwhelming evidence of cruelty and the arguments for ending live export permanently.

Contrary to the misleading claims of the live export industry, most of the jobs currently engaged in the live export trade would still exist if it ended, and in fact many additional jobs would be created in the meat industry here - 2,000 new jobs are projected in Western Australia alone following a transition away from live export.

This is the first Australian federal election where animal welfare has had such a high profile, with the ABC’s Vote Compass website identifying live export as one of the top 30 election issues in 2013.

Disappointingly, both aspiring Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are in favour of continuing the live export trade, though Labor is promising greater regulatory oversight and an independent Office of Animal Welfare (a good move as the Agriculture Minister is conflicted overseeing both animal welfare and the live export trade). The LNP Coalition is markedly, and unsurprisingly, more gung-ho in favour of continuing the live export trade, with Abbott even promising to apologise to Indonesia for the five-week suspension of trade in 2011, while failing to address the cruelty that precipitated the suspension.

The toxic politics of the last few years and the manipulation of asylum seekers into a dominant political and quasi-national security issue for vote-winning purposes by both the major parties have prevented other important issues gaining the prominence they deserve in this election. Post-September 7th the live export issue will still be with us, and whichever party is in power will have to deal with it.

While I’d like to live in a world where no animal has to undergo the distress of live export, or slaughter or the misery of factory farming, in the meantime I will continue to speak out and vote against animal cruelty. For me and many other Australians, live export is a vote-changer.

Stop the (live export) boats!

By Roslyn Wells, SBS

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