The view from Billinudgel

Turning a blind eye to live exports
Just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken?


The problem with exporting live sheep is that the practice is inherently unpleasant.

The animals are driven from their normal surroundings and pushed into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable confined space before being delivered to slaughter, not always humanely. Obviously they do not know what fate awaits them, but that hardly helps – they are kept in a prolonged state of stress and anxiety that exacerbates their physical and emotional wellbeing.

This may not be intended as deliberate cruelty, but it is clearly a long way from the ideals that both farmers and animal rights advocates would prefer. Short of closing the industry down altogether, there is very little that can be done to ameliorate what is, in the end, an intractable issue.

Unlike his predecessor in the portfolio, Barnaby Joyce, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud seems genuinely concerned to do what he can, and the reforms he announced last week may help. But since the economics of transporting animals halfway around the world do not allow for measures that can seriously guarantee animal welfare, it is a safe bet that corners will be cut and another atrocity will, sooner or later, be back on our TV screens.

And even if the recommendations of the review from veterinarian Michael McCarthy (who formerly worked for the live export trade) are followed to the letter, the deaths at sea are certain to continue. Easing the numbers will improve what was, frankly, lethal overcrowding, but according to the Australian Veterinarians Association, the real killer has been the heat – sheep incarcerated in the ships’ pens simply cannot survive the temperatures in the Middle Eastern summer.

Ventilation is not sufficient; only proper air-conditioned cooling would make a real difference, and that is clearly beyond the lean profit margins of the exporters. And many, if not all, would also go broke if the trade was suspended for four or five of the hottest months.

The exporting farmers would not be too happy either. So Littleproud’s impossible mission is to find a way between his National Party constituents and a very large group of voters who are far from the Green extreme, but are outraged and disgusted by what they have seen on the news.

And this means making a philosophical decision as well as a political one: just how bad do things have to get before we declare the system broken? We know there is a degree of suffering for the sheep even on the best-run voyages; at what point does that degree become unacceptable?

Some, like the former Health Minister Sussan Ley, say that point has already been reached: the industry cannot be maintained in a decent society, so it should be phased out. Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon is testing that proposition too, but remembers the ferocious backlash when the Gillard government temporarily suspended the live cattle trade to Indonesia.

But the crunch is coming. For many years Australians were able to turn a blind eye to even the most egregious examples of animal abuse, including many of deliberate cruelty. The fact that so many have been exposed by whistleblowers and activists, in areas ranging from greyhounds to sheep and beyond, has meant that the complacency has been shattered.

The live sheep trade is now seen to be inherently unpleasant. Just how unpleasant a trade we can tolerate will be a decision not just for the government, but ultimately for the voters.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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