Live Export

Opinion: Are ‘emotion-free’ arguments best approach in live export debate?

Tony Gleeson*, 17/04/2018

THE Australian Farm Institute’s Katie McRobert advocates, to the exclusion of emotion, a fact-based response to the live sheep export situation in Beef Central’s earlier article, “Dragging animal welfare through a kangaroo court”.

There are however two considerations that throw doubt as to whether this is the best approach. The first revolves around the animal welfare and economic facts as they relate to the live sheep export trade.

An objective consideration of the animal welfare facts would lead fairly conclusively to a phasing out of the trade.

  • In 1985 the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare concluded that if a decision were to be made on the future of the trade purely on animal welfare grounds, there is enough evidence to stop the trade.
  • Regulatory breaches continued to occur post 1985 notwithstanding at least nine further government and parliamentary reviews.
  • Existing compliance regimes fail to report on mortalities in a timely manner.
  • In 2013 the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources Mr Joyce scrapped the previous government’s proposal to establish an Independent Inspector General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports; and the Animal Welfare Section in the Department of Agriculture was abolished.
  • The current death rate of sheep (0.8%) during shipping represents about 15,000 sheep which if annualised equates to a death rate of about 8 percent taking the average shipping duration to be 35 days. Notably the Australian Livestock Export Corporation Ltd (LiveCorp) presents 2% as an acceptable level of sheep mortalities equating to an annualised death rate of about 20 percent. Neither of these death rates would be tolerated on-farm or in other forms of transportation.
  • The public response to repeated incidences of high sheep mortalities during shipping is highly negative and both major political parties are critical of the current treatment of live sheep during shipping.

Advocates for live sheep exports point to the need to consider the economic value of the trade.

The facts here are also problematic for the economic value of the live sheep trade, whilst important to some individuals and some regions, is modest in aggregate terms. According to ABARES statistics and taking account of the value of alternative marketing options it represents only about 0.3 percent of the farm gate value of agricultural production or 0.03 percent of national GDP.

This is just one interpretation of the facts. There would be many others.

Changing beliefs and values

The second and more important consideration is the extent to which our institutions, our organisations, policies, practices, laws and regulations, should reflect what we believe to be right and important, that is our changing beliefs and values.

The basis for and the expression of these beliefs and values, that is our culture, take many forms including through our emotional responses to particular events. The strength of the emotional attachment by Australians to the bush, and by inference to farmers, animals and the rural environment is second only to their attachment to sport. Farm organisations and their analysts who disrespect this asset jeopardise the social licence we need to enable us to sensibly manage the complex business of farming.

Arguably the tin ear of farm organisations, whether it is on animal welfare, environmental stewardship or labour conditions, is perhaps the   greatest obstacle to the farm sector strengthening its social licence to farm.

Ironically in lambasting people concerned about animal welfare on emotive grounds, Ms McRobert does not shy away from emotive hyperbole in stating:

 ‘By deliberately provoking an extremist, knee-jerk response to an emotive issue, some activists risk creating a narrow-minded group of ‘sheeple’ who react mindlessly without thought for the consequences’.

 A more nuanced response might have recognised that our beliefs and values and our social licence to farm are based on a range of considerations including the responses of the public irrespective of how those responses might be expressed.

My plea then, is for farm organisations – both private and public – to respect and build on the high empathy for the sector across most Australians. In this context it is significant that in announcing another review into the live sheep trade the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud , specifically referred to the need to examine the culture governing the live sheep trade.

This is a significant contribution that should not be lost in the stampede to maintain the status quo albeit with minor amendments.

  • There’s been a significant reader comment response to the original story, “Dragging animal welfare through a kangaroo court”.  Click here to access.


* About the author:

Tony Gleeson is a land manager/beef producer from Northern NSW. In the 1970s he worked in NSW Agriculture, CSIRO, and the NSW Oversees Trade Authority. He has owned and managed grazing properties since 1976. In the 1980s he was Chief of Staff for the Australian Minister for Primary Industries. In 1990 he established a contract research business completing over 120 agricultural and natural resource projects, including the land assessment paper for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Report.  He played a key role in designing and establishing the Australian Land Management Group’s Certified Land Management System. He was an inaugural Director of RIRDC, Board Member of the Queensland Abattoir Corporation, Member of the Advisory Board to the Centre for Rural and Regional Innovation, University of Queensland, Adjunct Associate Professor, Faculty of Agriculture and Law, University of New England and coordinator of the MLA Northern Beef Research Program.



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  1. Dick Morgan, 18/04/2018

    Surely the answer to the awful problem of overcrowding of livestock on export ships is to limit the number of animals to be carried.

    I have no idea what this might be in practice but surely each animal should have enough space to lie down instead of having to stand up for the entire voyage. If this means one square metre of space for a sheep – so be it.

    Recent TV images saw sheep crushed together without any room to move at all. One wondered how they could even get to water and food. Let alone enough space for assistance from the Vet.

    Now I know nothing about the economic reality of shipping live animals from an Australian port to an overseas destination. Either the exporter or the importer has to charter a livestock carrier. The vessel has to be suitable for the carriage of livestock and, presumably, licensed to do so by the Australian government.

    It has a measured area of usable deck space. It is either air conditioned or ventilated by fans. It has all the required water and feed storage facilities. It is either chartered by the exporter or the importer for the carriage of a restricted number of sheep depending on the allowable deck space.

    Easy! The freight cost per animal is calculated and becomes part of the delivered cost to the buyer at the destination port. Assuming there will always be a small mortality rate in this class of business (less than 1 pc)
    I would hope that live export trade can be continued without any harm or stress to the animals. In fact they should hopefully put on weight!

  2. Ian Wells, 17/04/2018

    I agree completely with Malcolm.
    Sadly, current practices are indefensible. I argued to the contrary with the late Hugh Wirth* in past years, but time has proven Hugh to have been right.

    *Former RSPCA President – Editor

  3. Malcolm Caulfield, 17/04/2018

    What an excellent analysis

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