OPINION: Animal welfare trumps politics

For too long, we have turned a blind eye to the horrific reality of the live export trade.

OPINION: By RITA PANAHI on APR 22, 2018 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.

You don't have to be a tree-hugging vegan to feel passionately about the mistreatment of animals, whether they're cats, dogs, wildlife or livestock.

Animal welfare is an issue that transcends political ideology.

A wise man once said that "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated".

By that measure, we are far from great, despite most Australians being compassionate animal lovers who are appalled by any incident of cruelty, whether deliberate or the result of neglect.

Australians have been vocal in condemning Japan for its whaling and Taiji dolphin hunt, and China for its annual Yulin dog meat festival, but we are also guilty of turning a blind eye to horrendous abuse of our own animals.

There is the unchecked cruelty of "traditional hunting" allowed by the Native Title Act that sees protected and endangered sea turtles and dugongs slaughtered on our shores.

And for too long, we have turned a blind eye to the horrific reality of the live export trade.

Every year, millions of animals are packed on to ships, and thousands of them die from heat, dehydration, starvation or injuries.

Those that make it often face dreadful conditions and inhumane deaths.

When video footage of the animals' suffering is intermittently thrust upon us, we spring into action, signing petitions and writing letters, but soon the news cycle moves on and the plight of millions of sheep and cattle is largely forgotten.

One can only hope that this time, it will be different.

Shocking footage of distressed and dying sheep on a ship bound for the Middle East, aired earlier this month, disgusted the nation, and the calls for action which rang loud and clear across the political divide show little sign of subsiding.

While the major political parties are reluctant to end what is a multibillion-dollar industry, an increasing number of politicians are calling for an end to the barbaric trade.

In the past week, we've seen former Labor trade minister Craig Emerson reduced to tears talking about the issue, deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek and Opposition agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon suggest a ban on live exports to the Middle East in the hottest months of the year and a phasing-out of the industry, and Greens and independent MPs such as Derryn Hinch and Andrew Wilkie demand immediate action.

And Liberal MPs Jason Wood and Sussan Ley are among those who are calling for a permanent end to the "cruel and inhumane" live export trade.

Ley, a farmer and former Turnbull Government minister, is introducing a private member's Bill to ban "the ships of shame", saying: "I want to see this live sheep trade permanently cease.

"We have to focus on what is really happening, and recognise that these exporters have had years, if not decades, to clean up their act," Ley says.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the airing of this latest footage, the government has commissioned three separate reviews.

And the Australian Livestock Exporters' Council, which is chaired by former Labor minister Simon Crean, has belatedly agreed to have an independent inspector-general observe the treatment of livestock on ships headed for foreign markets.

But what will that really achieve in stamping out unacceptable treatment of livestock?

It will certainly do nothing to stop animals being subjected to the cruellest treatment and methods of slaughter once they've reached their final destinations.

What is clear is that we cannot continue with the current situation of pretending that the problem is resolved until yet more sickening footage emerges, and we are confronted with the full horror of what faces our cattle and sheep sent to foreign lands. Difficult decisions must be made.

It's not just in the Middle East that animals suffer terrible treatment. We have seen Australian cattle horribly mistreated in authorised and unauthorised Asian abattoirs.

The footage of what occurs in Indonesian slaughterhouses caused widespread outrage when it aired in 2011, but the same cruelty occurs elsewhere. Two years ago, the RSPCA called for the suspension of live animal exports to Vietnam when footage emerged of Australian cattle being beaten to death with sledgehammers.

You don't have to be a vegetarian to believe that animals deserve to be killed in the quickest and most humane manner possible. The live export trade may be big business, but it is one that shames Australia.

We need to begin the transition from being a producer to being a value-added processor, slaughtering and packaging livestock for export locally.

Of course, some countries we export to don't yet have the means to store processed meat, but the lack of refrigeration is an excuse that is overplayed, particularly in relation to the Middle Eastern market. We already export halal-certified meat to every country that imports our livestock.

Of course, overseas customers may be able to import live animals from elsewhere.

But that shouldn't determine Australian policy.

We are not a small, insignificant player in this market; indeed, we are one of the world's leading suppliers of cattle and sheep.

It is incumbent on us to lead the way in animal welfare.

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