Live exports controlled by ‘small band of multinational companies’, say Bidda Jones and Julian Davies

Bidda Jones, RSPCA Australia’s chief scientist and her partner, novelist Julian Davis: “The export industry is in the hands of a small band of multinational companies”. Photo: Christopher Pearce Cattle bound for live export on Tipperary station, Northern Territory. Photo: Glenn Campbell
Nanjing Night Net

In March 2011 Animals Australia investigator Lyn White visited 11 abattoirs in Indonesia to assess the live export trade. Image shows distressed, roped Australian steer vocalising prior to slaughter on MLA installed equipment. Photo: Animals Australia.

Aesop’s​ foibles, or how government reacts to animal cruelty.

Fable 1: Mike Baird dispatches the greyhound racing industry with alacrity in the belief owners killed nearly 70,000 dogs.

Fable 2: Barnaby Joyce believes more asylum seekers arrived by boat after Australia suspended the Indonesian live cattle export trade.

Bidda​ Jones, RSPCA Australia’s chief scientist, blew the whistle on Indonesian abattoir workers cruelly hacking to death Australian cattle.

It was early March 2011 when Jones walked into the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters with a DVD.

The footage, by Animals Australia investigators, showed Australian cattle being dispatched with extreme prejudice at 11 Indonesian abattoirs. Jones had watched some 50 killings, replaying each one four times, sometimes in slow motion. One steer was shown hacked to oblivion after it stumbled. Death took more than three minutes to arrive.

“The steer is thrashing his head, blood spraying from the gaping wound, as the slaughtermen move away, their job apparently complete,” Jones writes in her co-authored book, Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports.

“The rope is untied from around the steer’s neck, and the slaughterman puts his foot on the steer’s head and makes more cuts at the steers throat. He vocalises in response, his eyes rolling, mouth moving and tongue hanging out.”

Two months later, when the footage was shown as part of an award-winning Four Corners program, “A Bloody Business”, the federal government briefly suspended the trade. Five years on, live cattle export is back bigger than ever in Indonesia, and Vietnam. China is the latest market to be targeted.

Jones and her partner, novelist Julian Davies, have written Backlash partly as a counter to powerful interests they believe have successfully stymied the taste for reform of the live export trade that followed the national furore in 2011.

“There was a lot of optimism that change would really happen,” she says. “But things got slightly ahead of themselves. The hope that change will happen remains, but the people benefiting from the industry have got hold of the agenda and there has been a backlash. The book is aimed at showing what happened, the extraordinary political back story, and dispel the myths that have grown since about animal welfare.”

Only about 12 per cent of the giant Australian meat industry is involved in live export. There is little information on how much of that business is foreign-owned but it is a hugely costly undertaking, involving ships and overseas regulations.

Jones and Davies are an unlikely pair to take on such powerful interests.

They live with their two teenage daughters on a property outside Braidwood in the NSW southern tablelands. She was born in Liverpool, UK, he in Melbourne. They met as children in England, got together in the 1990s and built their house on the block of land Davies had carved out of the bush for himself as a twentysomething.

Spruiking their book, they agreed to meet at Cafe Morso​ in Pyrmont. She chose the corn and gruyere souffle tart with capsicum relish, poached egg and avocado, he selected the beetroot cured salmon.  A working lunch, both went with water.

A zoologist, Jones worked for the British RSPCA before coming to Australia.

Several decades ago, when most people connected the RSPCA with cats and dogs, farm animal welfare remained a minority concern. When Peter Singer’s book on the ethical treatment of animals was published in 1975, battery hens and sow pens were not yet public issues. Even so, the fate of live cattle is far from a new concern, the Howard government suspending sending live cattle to Egypt in 2006 following television footage showing mistreatment of the animals. And pity the poor sheep: they’ve been suffering poor conditions and high mortality on their way to the Middle East ever since the live sheep trade cranked up in the 1980s.

Today, animal welfare is mainstream; but proponents are routinely dismissed as members of the “meat is murder” brigade.

Jones chose to address such cliches thus: “Most Australians eat meat and will continue to. We’re not fighting against that. What we’re about is trying to ensure that those animals are treated as well as possible in that process.

“In my work I meet a lot of people who are vegan or vegetarian and there’s quite a lot of attention to ethical food concerns today, but I’m not vegetarian. It’s partly because as a zoologist I’ve always thought that the idea that it is intrinsically wrong for an animal to eat another animal is unrealistic, if not slightly bizarre.”

Jones says she was amazed at the craven greed of the meat industry in chasing the Indonesian live export trade with little thought for the consequences for the animals or Australia’s trade reputation

“There continue to be huge investments in live export ships unaccompanied by an improvement in standards so desperately needed,” she says.

“In Indonesia cattle are smaller, and highly domesticated, and easily led by a rope to slaughter. By contrast our Brahman steers are large, frightening, frightened animals raised on huge properties, free ranging and seeing people little more than once a year. Then, they are mustered, herded onto a boat and sent off to Indonesia to be slaughtered by people totally unused to handling such animals. We Australians created that situation.”

Davies says it is easy to understand the fear that reform engenders in meat producers.

Living in the bush, he says, is to be constantly reminded of the stark realities of farm life: “There are booms and busts. It’s tenuous and therefore quite hard to be punctilious about animal welfare when there is a constant fear of going broke. But this is exactly why we need to further a sustainable, high-quality, high-reputation, meat-only trade.”

Perhaps the Australian meat trade has always been in the hands of the few. The days of LordVestey and Sidney Kidman may have passed but the sense of entitlement and the ethos the cattle kings fostered still rules.

“The export industry is in the hands of a small band of multinational companies,” Davies says.

“If you actually looked at where the money in live export is going it would be really interesting: They – the governments of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – talk about the need to increase farm gate prices but who are the main beneficiaries of live export? The people at the top of the pile are very wealthy people, people who don’t want their wealth eroded by having to pay more to ensure the welfare of the animals they make money from.”

Davies says it would be far better if the government – primarily held back by the National Party flank – pushed for the slaughter to be done in Australia and thereby ensure welfare standards while increasing employment in our own country.

“[Nationals leader] Barnaby Joyce is talking about opening up the live trade to China. Chilled meat exports to China have rocketed as its middle class develops a taste for beef. But the Chinese want quality and don’t like bad publicity. A scandal in the live trade, like the sledge hammering slaughter of cattle in Vietnam, could destroy the large, lucrative chilled meat trade to China.

“So what are we doing? We’re risking shipping jobs off to China, when we have a successful, clean, ethical meat industry here. The powers that be want to undermine that by sending cattle off to China. Incredible.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.