Live Export

Opinion: Livex discussion should help bridge social divide

Stuart Kemp, 14/07/2016
Stuart Kemp NTLEA

Stuart Kemp, NTLEA

THERE is no denying Australia’s livestock export industry has again been put under the microscope in recent weeks.

Those of us lucky enough to work in the live export sector share the outrage stirred by instances of animal cruelty and the men and women of our industry are absolutely appalled by any inhumane treatment of any livestock – Australian or otherwise.

Unfortunately, it seems too easy for some of our critics to feed off the myth that our industry is comprised of greedy, faceless cowboy operators who exploit producers and livestock with reckless abandon, all beyond the reach of any form of effective regulatory control.

Far too rarely does mainstream Australia get an insight into the real men and women working in our industry because on the rare occasion that metropolitan media shows any interest in the trade, its brief portrayal is quite clichéd and plays on outdated stereotypes of northern Australia’s cattle industry.

Evidence of animal welfare failures, the likes of which seen in the past month with the release of Vietnamese abattoir footage, affects the entire livestock export industry directly. Exporters, producers and other livestock sector stakeholders take supply chain break-downs very seriously because it not only affects our businesses, but it also impacts on us personally.

The suspension of cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011 provided the Federal Government with an earth-shattering lesson on the dangers of having a one-dimensional view of an industry like ours. Scant regard was given to the wellbeing of the station families, stockmen, truck drivers and other professionals involved in the supply chain when that snap-decision to close the trade was made.

Notwithstanding the massive economic and human cost of that suspension, one hopes the Federal Government has learnt from the experience and is now more circumspect when it comes to our multi-faceted modern industry. One-dimensional views fueled by stereotypes are dangerous, which is why exporters and cattlemen have worked hard in recent years to listen to the concerns of animal welfare groups and better understand community expectations.

Sadly, this spirit of empathy often seems to be too much of a one-way street. Recent weeks have produced more compelling evidence suggesting too many members of the animal welfare lobby and city commentators continue to view both the live export trade and the northern cattle industry in far too simplistic terms.

The most disappointing aspect of this imbalance arises when the lines between animal welfarist and journalist seem to be blurred. Recent contributions from Sydney lawyer Tim Dick (link), The Age’s economics editor Peter Martin (link) and socialist commentator Andrew Hunter (link) have been prime examples of how geographical distance, naivety and seemingly entrenched policy views seriously compromise the integrity of an argument.

Comparisons between live export cattle and asylum seekers seem rather desperate and in poor taste, while howls of misguided outrage about the lack of regulatory oversight and suggestions we can simply replace our industry with domestically processed meat for export hardly warrant further comment. They have been categorically disproven and debunked a thousand times, but no matter how many times we explain the framework of ASEL and ESCAS, or point out the lack of electricity and refrigeration in importer countries which underpins the demand for live animals, it seems the facts continue to fall on deaf ears.

Another favourite argument, that Australia should follow New Zealand’s lead and ban live exports, overlooks the fact that NZ still exports thousands of breeding animals every year. Of course, NZ also lacks the advantages in supply, proximity to market and an in-country supply chain assurance system, which all combine to ensure the export of feeder and slaughter livestock from Australia makes economic and ethical sense.

Rather than helping to bridge the divide, contributions like those made by Dick, Martin and Hunter effectively drive a wedge between their mostly metropolitan readers and rural Australia, especially those of us in the north. It treats men and women working in the livestock export industry with contempt. Particularly appalling is the complete disregard for the thousands of professionally trained feedlot and abattoir workers in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam whose livelihoods depend on the humane treatment of Australian cattle in their care.

The fact is that nothing excuses exporters from the full force of the law where there has been a deliberate contravention of the laws governing the trade.

Exporters know that footage showing animal cruelty calls into question our genuine efforts to tighten supply chain controls. And our critics often say that animal welfare isn’t a high cultural priority in Vietnam, but the regulatory and practical progress being made in-market, with Australian assistance and encouragement, is compelling evidence to the contrary.

Furthermore, we are regularly self-reporting problems, as well as investigating and resolving incidents which compromise the integrity of our supply chains.

Alongside the regulatory platform, it is the work of exporters, customers and their staff, including Australian and locally based animal welfare trainers, that is having the biggest positive impact. Our people are our most valuable asset, which is why Australia has trained over 9000 people in handling and slaughter practices across 23 importer markets. Millions of dollars spent by exporters and our overseas customers in new infrastructure and equipment including stunners and restraining boxes is assisting in-market animal welfare officers and supply chain managers in overseeing the day-to-day wellbeing and welfare of exported livestock.

We are playing a vital role in a sophisticated professional system which, while not perfect, exists in a class far above any of the other 100 livestock exporter nations’ supply chains. It should be at least acknowledged and respected by those speaking out against the trade, even if they don’t care about the world-leading role Australia is playing.

Our industry is not afraid of being part of the mainstream policy discussion. We welcome all-comers to participate in a well-informed ongoing conversation.

We don’t shy away from scrutiny because we know a successful, sustainable livestock export industry goes hand-in-hand with providing leadership to improve animal welfare practices. Exporters are determined to openly address the concerns of all stakeholders, understand the in-market challenges and find common ground on solutions for continuing to support and ethical and economically viable animal welfare. While others in this debate employ other methods, we believe it is important to bridge the divide, rather than exacerbate it.

  • Stuart Kemp (pictured) is Chief Executive Officer of the Northern Territory Livestock Exporters’ Association.

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Comments

  1. Pete Mailler, 14/07/2016

    Hugh, you write with great authority, but not much insight.

    You are guilty of the same simplistic assessment of the industry that Stuart is objecting to.

    You presume the only motive is profit, when it is not. If profit were our only motive, we would not be involved in agriculture. Profit though is what enables the industry to improve and invest in better systems. The reality is that demonstrating that best practice is actually more profitable (which it is) is what drives practice change. Best practice is developed and proven by industry experience not magically conjured by bureaucrats.

    You presume that the Australian Govt and the Australian trade’s actions only relate to Australian cattle. The reality is that the proactive work being done by the Australian industry is improving animal welfare outcomes for cattle imported from other countries too. If we ban the trade our influence is gone and the opportunity to improve animal welfare standards across the board are gone. This will likely result in greater animal cruelty in those markets than if we remain in them and keep doing what we are doing.

    You presume independent oversight will be better. This is not the case, because you are assuming that our customers are willing to be judged in this way. They are not.

    The reality is that more onerous regulatory intervention is counterproductive and the idea that the Government actually understands best practice better than the practitioners is another optimistic assumption anyway.

    We have no authority to demand foreign interests modify their behaviour and adopt a moral code that does not match their own cultural norms. It is laughable to judge this industry in these terms.

    The improvement in animal welfare in destination markets achieved by this industry is absolutely outstanding and worthy of accolades rather than the kind of first world sophistry that suggests we should preclude poorer nations from a key protein source because we don’t like the way they kill their cattle.

    As a wealthy nation, we have a moral obligation to provide our food insecure neighbours with good quality and affordable produce. We have a moral obligation to conduct our agricultural business in a way that is safe and humane. We also have a moral obligation to ensure that the agricultural enterprise is viable for those who engage in it. Here is the conflict.

    As a society we need to consider the humanitarian and social value of strong agricultural trade relations with our neighbours and then we should ensure that the people engaged in such an important enterprise are rewarded for their commitment, ingenuity and integrity. In terms of society’s judgement of this industry it needs to consider the real moral conflict rather than ignorantly assuming it is just about industrial greed.

    Australian agricultural policy has been trying to force agriculture to operate in purely business terms for decades now as it promotes the idea that agriculture is just a business like any other business. Agriculture is not. Agriculture deals with the most fundamental requirement of any society. Agriculture is as much a social imperative as it is a business, if not more.

    As a practical agriculturalist I am often amazed by the arrogance and ignorance of highly educated academics who fail to understand that their position of privilege has evolved with a nation founded on agriculture and the very industries they so willingly castigate from their inner city perspective.

    Good article Stuart.

  2. J Chris Hughes, 14/07/2016

    Great article by Stuart Kemp. The live animal trade to Asia in particular has carried the Australian brand of animal welfare a long way . The improvement in the last 30 or so years has been spectacular. We are world leaders in this area.

  3. Hugh Winwood-Smith, 14/07/2016

    It’s very easy to make it sound like the industry’s efforts to get on top of this problem are strong and the highest priority. It doesn’t change the fact that the system in place is failing to adequately protect animals. You point to the fact that things are always improving. That’s not necessarily in dispute, the point is that isn’t good enough. If we were talking about human welfare, we would do everything we can under law to protect humans and only then would we be content with “it’s getting better”. As is the case with domestic violence. We are constantly trying to do everything we can from a regulatory and legislative perspective to protect people in violent homes, once we’ve done everything in that respect we must accept that the slow evolution of social attitudes is something we can influence but not control.

    That’s not the case here. There is action we could take right now that would strongly safeguard the welfare of exported animals, but the industry is choosing not to. The first and most obvious action would be to ban the trade. The only reason we don’t is because we can make money from it. Money is more important than animal welfare. We could introduce stronger and truly INDEPENDENT oversight. The industry resists this. Why? Cost. Maximising profits are more important than animal welfare. It’s not some naive disconnect between city people and rural people that fuels criticism of the live export industry, it’s difference in moral standards. Those arguing on behalf of the industry are comfortable with the “slow improvement” of animal welfare, as long as it’s an upward trajectory that makes thousands of animals suffering ok. Well for those of us who happen to think animal suffering is abhorrent, that isn’t good enough. To pretend that everything that could be done from a regulatory perspective has been done is an obvious lie. We could do a lot more, it would just mean profits would go down. So the real question is how much is the industry prepared to sacrifice profitability in order to protect the welfare of animals. The answer is not very much, and a lot less than us “outsiders” demand.

    It is a choice, and the industry has chosen to prioritise profits so far ahead of welfare they can’t even be viewed in the same frame. It’s a question of moral standards and the difference between those inside the industry and those outside is that our morality isn’t necessarily clouded by the fact that we make money from the trade. That’s the problem with conflicts of interest, and why self regulation should always be viewed with suspicion.

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