In an opinion piece on 17 January 2014, Mick Keogh of the Australian Farm Institute launched an attack on the animal welfare group Animals Australia.
He focused on what he suggested was an unhealthy relationship between the ABC and Animals Australia, whereby the ABC broadcast footage of cruelty to Australian animals exported overseas, allegedly without asking critical questions.
He referred to “soft” questions asked during one programme in October 2013 which covered breaches of the supply chain assurance system for sheep in Jordan, with “more challenging” questions being asked the following day by Joe O’Brien on ABC News 24.
But what he didn’t say was that Lyn White, in answering those questions provided completely adequate answers. For example, when asked whether the live export sheep trade to Jordan could be substituted by exports of Australian chilled sheepmeat, she responded by pointing out that the majority of sheep shipped there were in fact killed by the importer in their processing plant and shipped around the Middle East as chilled meat. In other words, there was no overriding requirement in Jordan that animals be killed freshly for buyers at so-called “wet markets”.
One point which Mr Keogh emphasised is that, according to him, animal rights activists, including Animals Australia, have asserted that the Australian livestock industry should be responsible for animals which have been sold for live export. He said he had asked the ABC why this position was never questioned and was dissatisfied with the response. Mr Keogh was very critical of the idea, reflected in the current supply chain assurance system, that Australian legislation should impose obligations on live exporters concerning the way Australian animals are treated in importing countries.
I completely agree with Mr Keogh on that point. It is quite silly to think that acceptable animal welfare standards can be imposed by Australian laws on countries which have no culture of caring for animals, little effective legislation and even less will to stop cruelty. Farmers are in the business of making money and so should have no concern about what happens to their animals once they no longer own them. But those in the live export business do not share this view. Alison Penfold of the Australian Livestock Exporters Council has now said on several occasions (including as reported by the ABC on 15 October 2013) that exporters require a “social licence” to operate. And that was in response to the same incident giving rise to Mr Keogh’s criticisms of the ABC, Lyn White and Animals Australia. Alison Penfold is not stupid. She knows full well that if she says exporters are not responsible for that overseas animal cruelty, they will lose the sympathy of the public.
And here we are at the nub of the matter. If it doesn’t work, let’s get rid of the supply chain assurance system. As of now, it’s a farce, but having said that, if it can be made to work properly, then it should stay. And indeed it may be that in particular situations, such as cattle exports to Indonesia, it can be made to work. But let farmers be clear. If they wash their hands of what happens to their animals once they go through the farm gate, don’t be surprised if the public reaction to revelations of cruelty is even more extreme than before. Live export is something a lot of people find abhorrent. Well before the revelations of cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs in 2011, over a quarter of a million people had signed a petition to the Australian Senate that live export be stopped.
Mr Keogh supports his case for getting rid of that extended responsibility for animals by saying that the “whole of life” responsibility for animals does not apply to livestock or animals traded between individuals in Australia. That really misses the point. In every Australian jurisdiction there are sophisticated animal welfare laws which impose considerable responsibilities on owners and those in charge of animals. This is because the Australian public abhors animal cruelty. It doesn’t matter whether the animals have been “traded” or not; it is still illegal to treat them badly. The message Mr Keogh is missing is the Australian public does not like cruelty to Australian animals, no matter where they are.
Of course at the moment Mr Keogh and others who are uncritical supporters of the live export trade will get whatever they want, so long as the National Party tail is wagging the Liberal Party dog in government. Things being what they are, that will not last. And when that happens, farmers may well find that pushing this line will cost them dearly.
Finally, I note that Mr Keogh, while criticising the ABC for its lack of balance in reporting these issues, makes assertions which have no basis in fact. Not only does he say that Animals Australia is “paying for persons overseas to obtain footage of incidents”, in his final sentence he says they “persist in publishing blatantly incorrect information that goes largely unchallenged”. Not only is there no evidence supporting these allegations, but the Department of Agriculture in investigating Animals Australia’s evidence has repeatedly accepted its accuracy. If Mr Keogh’s claims have any foundation, he should surely give the evidence to the ABC. I am sure they would report it.
What is needed is not this sort of inflammatory, defamatory, country versus city rhetoric. That is not a solution, it simply adds to the problem. It is high time for a proper well-informed balanced debate, and Mr Keogh, as Executive Director of the Australian Farm Institute should be making that contribution, not engaging in these schoolyard tactics.
Dr Malcolm Caulfield is Principal Lawyer and founder of the Animal Welfare Community Legal Centre