Modern times: stretching the elasticity of conscience

An unremarkable man wearing a foolish grin gazed moronically back from the television, parroting rehearsed arguments that have been used for centuries to defend morally reprehensible positions. The same arguments were used in defence of the slave trade in America and the same arguments were employed to defend the continued use of asbestos in Australia: change will have an adverse effect on the local economy. Morality is no match for the truth of the market. 

Recently, thousands of sheep had been shipped across the world to Bahrain, only to end their journey in Pakistan. The sheep, over 21,000, were clubbed and stabbed to death or buried alive. Two years ago, footage taken of an abattoir in Cairo showing acts of wanton cruelty did not appear in the mainstream media because it was deemed too repulsive for a television audience. Last year, comparable images taken by animal welfare activists in Indonesia made it to our television screens. The most recent scenes in Pakistan were perhaps the most gruesome. Will we soon become immune to such brutality? What effect does it have on the minds of the viewers when such senseless violence is tolerated by those elected to represent us?

History is replete with examples of barbaric acts committed on animals that have preceded human trauma. The organised massacre of dogs undertaken by Russian soldiers days prior to the start of the reign of terror against the Czechoslovakian people in 1968 is one such example. Are our senses being dulled to such cruelty so that we become impervious to violence against fellow humans that will surely follow? Economic growth is a combat that knows no end. Will we soon be emotionally ready to go to war and accept its inevitable horrors in order to protect our economic interests?   

More likely, we are merely witnesses to an age when politics has become an exercise in managing the economy and seeking compromise on everything else. On the issue of Live Exports, however, it is inevitable that change will eventually come. Both government and industry understand that monitoring the welfare of animals outside of our national territory is nigh impossible. As the vast majority of Australians demand urgent action on animal welfare issues, the Live Exports industry is little more than an edifice of clay. 

The regulations introduced this year failed to provide a framework for an ethical and sustainable livestock industry. The new regulations do not mandate stunning at the point of slaughter for live animals exported from Australia. Over a century after Tolstoy asserted that there will be battlefields as long as there are slaughterhouses, we refuse to even do what is necessary to civilise slaughterhouses, let alone to eradicate them. 

Shamefully, the livestock industry has been the first to anticipate and prepare for change. The Australian Agricultural Company’s (AACo) plans to build an $85 million abattoir and meat packing facility in Livingstone Valley, about 50 kilometres south of Darwin. It is expected that most of the meat processed in the abattoir will head to overseas markets, predominantly to Asia. This step makes sound strategic sense. Gradual transition is the preferred option for industry and its workforce, not sudden change. 

WA Farmer’s President Dale Parks recently remarked: “Until we have the next disaster, we still have an industry.” No responsible industry, or government, would wait until the next disaster – an event that in the case of Live Exports is as predictable as night following day. 

A recent report undertaken by respected agricultural and economic consultancy firm ACIL Tasman asserted that domestic processing of livestock will enhance regional economic activity and increase employment. Avoiding sudden rupture to the livestock industry would however require gradual transition from Live Exports to a focus exporting processed meat. 

ACIL Tasman’s report may not have satisfactorily addressed all elements necessary to assure a smooth transition for this complex issue, nor did it have to. The report was sufficiently robust to demonstrate that alternatives to Live Exports, such as a privately operated domestic processing facility, would be economically viable.  It is likely that the livestock industry would be open to discussions on transitional arrangements. 

Companies in other industry sectors have learnt the hard way. What would Gunns, now in voluntary administration, and the CFMEU give now to go back to 2003 and accept Latham’s $800 million Sustainable Development for Tasmania Fund? The political cost to government of protecting Live Exports industry may soon be too great to bear. If industry was offered a reasonable timeframe and generous governmental assistance in terms of infrastructure and retraining, an agreeable plan to phase out Live Exports would be achievable. 

Meanwhile, we sit uneasily watching television in our living rooms, waiting for the next disaster and wondering if the parliament’s tolerance will stretch the elasticity of our common conscience.  

 

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