Disgust is a powerful emotion but makes for a poor bedfellow when it comes to legislation.
The nation’s reaction to graphic footage of suffering during a shipment of live sheep to the Middle East earlier this year was understandably one of disgust; it was visceral and vocal.
And yet, while legislating to eradicate an entire industry to punish the deeds of one (now removed) miscreant might appease the outrage, it is hardly a formula for sound policy. It wouldn’t even improve the welfare of sheep.
Even if much of the opposition to live animal export is genuinely based on concerns for animal welfare, and not an attempt by animal rights zealots to impose their peculiar views on the rest of us, surely it is incumbent on protesters to ensure that a ban on live sheep exports would achieve better animal welfare outcomes.
It is hard to see how our Aussie sheep have special rights, separate and superior to their ovine comrades in say Sudan or Somalia. That’s relevant because the more sheep Australia exports, the less other countries will export.
It is a simple fact that Australian sheep are exported more humanely, with better animal welfare, than any other country. And because of our ESCAS (Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System), we don’t stop when they are offloaded. We actually tell our export customers how to look after the sheep, even when they’re no longer ours.
Australia is the only country in the world that actively works in overseas markets to improve animal welfare conditions. We are the only country that attempts to regulate livestock exports all the way from Australian farms to the feedlots and abattoirs overseas.
This comes at a cost. Millions of dollars in compulsory producer levies are used to fund training, education, research and development in animal welfare, both within Australia and in the countries that buy our livestock. And this costs us business too; some countries will not accept being told by us how to look after sheep which we do not own in their country. We could sell millions more sheep if we didn’t do that.
But such is Australia’s commitment to animal welfare in the live export industry. If we were to stop exporting live sheep, they would be replaced by livestock from other countries. As evidence, in 2007 Australia could not meet the Middle East’s demand for live animals due to drought, so animals were imported from Sudan, Somalia and Iran – countries that do not share Australia’s commitment to animal welfare.
Demands that the countries purchasing our sheep must convert to an exclusively pre-slaughtered boxed and chilled model show appalling arrogance, if not outright racism.
Such calls are essentially telling poor people in other countries how to live; to buy a refrigerator and purchase their meat already killed and packaged, just like us wealthy white folk do.
Even if they own refrigerators, the people in the countries that buy our sheep have their own culture which involves eating freshly killed sheep during religious festivals. Imagine if Australians were told by another country we shouldn’t eat ham at Christmas, and that they therefore wouldn’t sell us pigs.
Even if the markets for our sheep did start importing meat rather than live animals, odds are they wouldn’t buy it from Australia. We are a high cost source, and these markets need low cost meat.
Our livestock export industry not only provides affordable protein to some of the world’s poorest people; it also provides Australians with 13,000 jobs, including 11,000 in rural areas. In parts of Western Australia, the industry can form the entire backbone of a community.
I am a former veterinarian, which means I know a few things about animal welfare. This debate about live exports is not about animal welfare.
It’s about racists who want to tell brown people in other countries how to live.
It’s about arrogant people who assume people in other countries will obtain refrigerators and buy their meat already killed and packaged, just like they do.
It’s about cultural imperialists, who have no respect for cultures that involve eating freshly killed sheep during religious festivals, even if they own refrigerators.
If it was about animal welfare, we would be increasing our exports of live sheep.
David Leyonhjelm is a senator for the Liberal Democrats