Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Reframing the #animalcruelty debate: #ethics #economy #asylumseekers

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Australian Minister for Agriculture Joe Ludwig
speaking to Kerry Lonergan, long time rural journalist with
ABC's Landline.

One of the two major stories dominating Australian politics and civil society is the live export of cattle to Indonesia.  The other topic is the proposed live export of asylum seekers under the Malaysian Solution which, in my view, attempts to legitimise human trafficking.

On Monday 30 May 2011, the ABC's Four Corners broadcast an expose of cruelty in the slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesia.  There has been uproar ever since as consumers, meat-eaters, animal lovers, and cattle producers express their horror. You will find more videos here.

Australians owe a debt of gratitude to Lyn White of Animals Australia and Bidda Jones, Chief Scientist with the RSPCA.  Their undercover work unveiled the reality of animal cruelty and breeches of halal slaughter at meatworks in Indonesia. 

Meat and Livestock Australia is the body which, supposedly, has been in charge of supervising standards of the slaughter of Australian cattle in Indonesia.  MLA is supported by a 'per head' levy on producers. Producers are justified in questioning and blaming MLA for what is now happening. MLA have been involved in Indonesia for approximately two decades. Did they know about the cruelty? If not, why not? If so, have they deliberately covered up or walked away?

If MLA was properly acting for its constituency/membership, it would have sought to minimise and manage factors which pose a risk to the trade in live cattle.  It would appear that this has not been a driving factor for the MLA and its employees.  Because risk management - as well as animal suffering - clearly has not been front and centre, MLA has damaged Australian's name/brand.  

The Minister has today announced a six month suspension of all live cattle exports to Indonesia.  Joe Ludwig has dragged the chain on this.  It took him some days after the broadcast to announce a decision limiting exports and then to-day he has announced the six month suspension.  People concerned about animal cruelty won't be happy until there is a complete and absolute ban on all live cattle exports. Joe in manner, speech and substance has displayed a great deal of hesitancy.

Cattle producers will tell you how wide ranging the suspension or possible banning of live cattle exports will be.  It will impact at many levels across the Australian economy.  Its biggest impact will certainly be north of the Tropic of Capricorn - in West Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland.

I sympathise with the producers but I also have a long memory - and one can't help saying that what goes around comes around.

There used to be thriving export meatworks in Northern Australia.  I remember a picture from my social studies book when I was about twelve of frozen meat being loaded into aeroplanes at Wyndham in West Australia.  I grew up beside an export meatworks where my father was an executive. Cattle producers didn't like the costs associated with long distances to meatworks. They didn't like it if their product was in anyway hampered by industrial disputation.  Their industry organisations worked single-mindedly to destroy export works so that they would be free to establish live export markets which, they believed, would be more profitable.  

The concerted elimination of export works in Northern Australia affected communities, caused loss of skills, and value-added production in the Australian industry.  The producer associations didn't think twice about eliminating the livelihoods of those people, those communities but will seek sympathy now when their own livelihoods are threatened.

I can't help wondering if the MLA or the cattle producer organisations understand the changing values of Australians.  They might like to engage the services of a sociologist.  Increasing numbers of Australians are altering their diet: Meatless Mondays; declining meat consumption; vegetarian and vegan diets.  Once upon a time, one could have denigrated these factors and their proponents with the pejorative terms of 'cranks', 'activists' and so on.  And my suspicion is that the cattle producers and their organisations still do this.  They talk to one another and reinforce each others views.  They take these views into that rural rump of politics, the National Party.  

Meanwhile, Australians are better educated and more skilled.  Many of us are earning more money than Australians have earned before.  Many of us may have deserted the churches but hold to a strict set of personal and social ethics. Increasing numbers of Australians are taking to heart health messages advocating a lower meat intake than is usual in the Australian diet.  Increasing numbers of Australians are adopting ethical standards about the treatment of animals and human degradation of the environment.  Has no one in the beef industry considered that somewhere, sometime there would be a tipping of the balance and their product could be adversely affected?

Lyn White and Bidda Jones are intelligent and well-connected women.  I haven't met Bidda but I have met Lyn and find her competence and commitment to animal welfare exemplary.  These women cannot be dismissed easily - and nor have they been.  They have impacted a nation.  I don't think it too much to say that matters affecting industrial animals may never be the same again.

The suspension of live exports is no simple matter.  The banning of live exports is so simple matter.  Lawyers and barristers involved in cases of animal welfare say that while the suffering of domestic animals and pets can be redressed in the courts, the fate of industrial animals is quite different.  Agricultural/Primary Production industry organisations have developed industry standards.  They capture the ear of the relevant state or federal minister.  The result is that if producers are charged with cruelty toward industrial animals, producers can use as a legitimate defence that they are acting in accord with industry standards, irrespective of how low those standards might be.

As Australia begins to understand this situation and come to grips with what lies behind the Indonesian situation, we need a national understanding.  We need to take care in how we frame the debate. No more lowest common denominator industry standards. Australians need to find a way to express respect and understanding for widespread ethical standards on animal care and environmental circumstances.  Australia's own self-respect is at stake in all this.  Somehow we have not managed the care of industrial animals very well.  And this can be reflected in how we treat people as well - because we are not treating the sojourner very well at all. 

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