Debate about live animal exports has largely been missing in the 2022 federal election campaign, despite many Australians wanting the practice to end, Serrin Rutledge-Prior and Tara Ward write.
In 2011, a Four Corners exposé of the treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs shocked the nation and resulted in the Julia Gillard-led government imposing a temporary ban on the live export of cattle to Indonesia. Later exposés revealed the sweltering, overcrowded conditions to which sheep exported to Middle Eastern destinations in the summer months are subject.
These conditions, the serious welfare concerns about the animals’ treatment once they arrive at their destination, plus World Health Organization scientists’ warning of the potential for the live export trade to play a role in zoonotic disease outbreaks, present ongoing issues in animal welfare policy in Australia.
Despite this, the issue of live animal exports has barely been on the agenda in this federal election campaign, even though certain restrictions on the export of sheep to the Middle East in the hot northern hemisphere summer have quietly been relaxed.
For example, just last month the bans on the export of sheep to Qatar in May and to or through the Red Sea during the first weeks of June were lifted. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment noted that consultation with the public and ‘updated climatology information’ played a role in the decision.
On the conservative side of politics, it is perhaps not surprising that the Coalition has not drawn attention to the recent relaxation of export rules so close to the election, given that graphic images of live exports hold the potential to turn off undecided voters.
Despite not releasing an official policy statement, there is little doubt over the Nationals’ stance on the matter.
What is more surprising is the Australian Labor Party’s refusal to commit to a stance on the issue of live exports until just over two weeks from election day.
Not so long ago, former Labor leader Bill Shorten said that live sheep exports were ‘too cruel to continue’, and the party has also supported a number of legislative efforts to phase out the live sheep trade in the past decade.
This election, Labor initially only revealed its position privately to an animal protection organisation, the Australian Alliance for Animals, which then published a policy scorecard on a number of animal-related issues.
It wasn’t until the Australian Alliance for Animals’ scorecard showed Labor as providing ‘partial support’ for phasing out the export of live sheep that the party attempted to outline its position to major media outlets.
However, what resulted was policy confusion. The party was initially unwilling to outline a timeline for phasing out the trade. Then conflicting quotes from key party figures on the issue seemed to cast doubt on whether the party was committed to a ban at all.
Labor’s decision to make an announcement on live export this late in the election campaign, and then to confuse the electorate with mixed messages about its policy, is disappointing. In order to make informed choices about this issue (an issue about which people on both sides of the argument feel strongly), voters need to be provided with clear, accessible, and timely information about where the parties stand.
This is especially important given the record numbers of Australians pre-polling and postal voting in recent years, who might have voted differently if they had access to this information earlier.
Considering the ethical, animal welfare, environmental, economic, and health concerns surrounding live animal exports, it is disheartening that discussion about the practice has been largely absent in the lead-up to the 2022 election.
Ahead of the controversial live sheep exports scheduled to resume in May and June, there must be a renewed sense of urgency to end this cruel practice. Ending it has the support of the Australian community, and it shouldn’t have to take more distressing footage of animals in abhorrent conditions for policymakers to act.
This piece is published as part of Policy Forum’s new feature section – In Focus: Australia’s policy future – which brings you policy analysis and ideas that go beyond the sound bites.