Australia’s Conflict of Values over Live Exports: P.S. Cottier reviews Backlash by Bidda Jones & Julian Davies

Review by P.S. Cottier

As I was reading Backlash, the NSW State Liberal Government and the ACT Labor (with a dash of Green) Government announced that they would both abolish greyhound racing in their respective jurisdictions. When this happens, in mid 2017, I believe it may be the first time in Australia that a whole industry will close based on animal welfare concerns.*

The campaign against the live export industry is different, in that it is not calling for an end to beef cattle and sheep being raised in Australia; it is not a demand for an end to farming. About three million animals are sent overseas per year to meet their fate.  While this export represents the ‘largest planned mass transport of animals in human history’ (Backlash, p189), it actually involves only a small proportion of the number of animals raised in Australia.  Most are killed at home for our own people, and for export as meat.

Backlash is a fascinating book in that it deals with the ethical and political background to live export, while having an actual narrative shaping the discussion of these issues. The narrative pivots around the 2011 program ‘A Bloody Business’, with the lead-up to that Four Corners exposé of slaughter of cattle in Indonesia, and the follow-up, forming the arc of the story. There is a colourful cast of characters in the book, ranging from Barnaby Joyce to Lyn White of Animals Australia, through to one of the authors, Bidda Jones, who ‘leads the science and policy team’ at the RSPCA.

In 2011, after the program was broadcast, live export was briefly banned under the Gillard Government.  The ‘backlash’ of the title refers to the reaction of subsequent governments and the industry to that decision, and the way that criticisms of live export have been managed and distorted.

The detail in the book will fascinate those who would like an insight into how our political system works. The committees, the enquiries, the lobbyists, the spin merchants and the media all take their places on the pages. Canberra residents and fly-ins will recognise some of the places in which discussions, both official and non-official, took place.

I can remember the rallies that occurred after the broadcast of the program, and attended the Canberra one, where the author (Jones) apparently spoke, although I can’t remember that. (I was too busy patting dogs.) For me, and for many other people, the revelations of the Four Corners program demanded a response. Indeed, the public response was unprecedented. Over 100,000 letters to the PM were generated within a few weeks through the Ban Live Exports site, for example (p102).

Backlash coverHowever, the Abbott Government has since closed down animal welfare committees and abolished parts of the relevant department that concerned itself with animal welfare. These moves are detailed in Backlash. Malcolm Turnbull has not changed this, although the Productivity Commission has recently said that an independent national animal welfare body should be established.

There is an obvious impossibility in enforcing Australian standards of slaughter once the cattle leave our shores, and the book investigates the minimal standards that do exist, and the ways that these minimal standards are now only subject to self-regulation in practice. Having all animals slaughtered in Australia would obviously create more jobs here, and avoid the industry’s exposure to rabid fluctuations in the market, which are an inevitable part of this trade.  It would mean that the way animals are killed can be monitored and legally enforced.

I find it fascinating that one of the tactics used by the animal welfare groups in publicity material was to name the animals portrayed in the footage of violent slaughter. If not humanising them, this elevates them closer to the status of a pet; that privileged caste of animal that crosses into the household. This is, I believe, why greyhound racing may actually be on the way out (despite NSW Labor’s shameful support of the industry); people see dogs as a special category. Cattle (the word derives from the same old French one that gives us ‘chattel’) or livestock are not often given this status. Malcolm Turnbull’s website contains a sub-blog apparently written by a cute pet dog called JoJo (now egregiously out of date); this type of anthropomorphism is a staple of the web, but is not so often extended to other animals, particularly the ones that most of us eat.

Some of the responses to calls for animal welfare are quite hilarious, implying that ‘city-slickers’ have no right to comment on how animals (except, one assumes, the JoJos of suburbia) are treated. This is in stark contrast to the supermarket chains, which are responding to pressure by consumers and animal welfare groups and sourcing more ethically produced meat and eggs. The urban and the rural are inextricably linked, and all Australians have a right to comment on what our governments allow, whether it affects animals, people, or both. The moves towards a cessation of ‘mulesing’ (stripping away a sheep’s skin to avoid fly-strike in the Australian wool industry) show how those with little direct experience of raising animals can bring about positive changes in an industry, and Backlash touches on this.

In amongst the fog of ugly manoeuvring that Backlash navigates, a few things shine brightly, primarily the gut-wrenching commitment to hard work by the various animal welfare professionals. People like Bidda Jones and Lyn White. Occasionally even a politician emerges over the ramparts of murk; Andrew Wilkie has been a consistent spokesperson for animal welfare, for example.

Backlash also describes how farmers have been recast as the victims of the temporary stay on exports. This is despite the fact that most farmers are not engaged in live export, and many argue that its existence distorts the industry and holds Australia back from gaining a reputation for ethically produced meat. New Zealand, for example, has concentrated on exporting meat based on such a reputation, and does not export live animals for slaughter elsewhere.

After the outrage at the Four Corners program, and the temporary suspension of exports, there has been the development of a system designed to track each head of cattle from Australia to slaughter. (Sheep are not individually tracked.) Backlash examines how this system seems to have inadequate safeguards, and the government seems content, if not delighted, to stand back from any real role in regulation, thus avoiding responsibility. Attempts to introduce ‘ag-gag’ legislation, whereby anyone filming inside private facilities is necessarily committing an offence, walk hand-in-hand with such policies. (The attempt to legislate was by a private member’s bill.)  Without such film, it is impossible for anyone outside the industry to know what is happening. Such people are to be commended, not treated as criminals.

The arguments that Australia can improve animal welfare outcomes by exporting animals to countries with dubious welfare practices is dissected by this book. A special sort of slaughter box we exported, for example, has been shown to contribute to animals’ suffering, and the whole idea that we can enforce our own expectations in another country is highly problematic. The oft-repeated argument that we have a responsibility to export meat is, of course, not an argument for live export, and is also subject to scrutiny in Backlash.

The actual journey of animals for weeks in inadequate conditions is as important as the way they are killed, and the book thoroughly details this aspect of the industry, which is less dramatic than the slaughter, but arguably, at least as cruel.

Indeed, the thoroughness of Backlash is admirable, and my only criticisms are minor.  Firstly, I did not like the fact that so many people featured in the book as involved in the campaign against live export also provided blurbs for the back. No-one believes that blurbs are neutral missives fallen from the sky, but many of these seem a little too embedded. Secondly, the cover’s bleakness, while in some ways appropriate to the content, showing an extreme close up of an animal’s body against a black background, is rather off-putting, and may discourage a casual reader. Both of these criticisms are of presentation, rather than of the content, which is invaluable.

I hope to live to see the end of live exports, as it is a stupid and brutal industry, providing only insecure employment to people and certain pain to animals.  The vested interests supporting the industry have a great influence on the Government though, far more than is the case in the greyhound industry (putting aside the gambling lobby, of course). Barnaby Joyce is quoted in the book from a press release: ’If it’s protein and walks on four legs or hops on two and is bigger than a guinea pig than we are going to try and find a market for it’.

Animal welfare is back on the back-burner, it might seem, at least as far as live export is concerned.  But the numbers of responses generated by the Four Corners program show that the ground is shifting. Backlash is an important book, detailing one incident in the long process of sentience being accorded respect. Cattle are not dogs, but gradually they are being seen as so much more than four-legged commodities.

* True, there was once a bounty on koalas, that may have resulted in as many as eight million being slaughtered for fur.  Whether the cessation of that trade was based purely on animal welfare concerns is another issue.

Backlash: Australia’s Conflict of Values over Live Exports
Bidda Jones and Julian Davies
Finlay Lloyd, 2016
208 pages, RRP $22


image credit: Geoffrey Dunn

P.S. Cottier
is a poet, anthologist and writer who lives in Canberra.  She wrote a PhD at ANU on animal imagery in the works of Charles Dickens.  Her latest book is a pamphlet called Paths Into Inner Canberra, which describes a bike ride and the animals that live near, if not in, Parliament House.  This work was described as ‘engaging’ in The Canberra Times.  Her blog as is updated with a new poem nearly every Tuesday, and she even reads poems in public.