Australia’s live animal export trade is back in the spotlight with a new alleged case of animal cruelty, this time at the hands of one of Vietnam’s largest buyers of Australian cattle.
Animals Australia supplied disturbing footage to the federal agriculture department late last week of cattle being slaughtered with sledgehammers.
Investigations are underway, according to media reports. Such investigations are not rare, as Alison Penfold from the Australian Livestock Exporters Council told the ABC that the same company, Animex, has been suspended in the past for animal welfare breaches.
Yet Australia’s live animal export trade may have found another casualty – local meat processing jobs, something the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) has been warning of since 2007.
With the main parties running election campaigns on questions of job growth and economic management, might this be the ticket to ending the live export that animal rights advocates have been hoping for?
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Grant Courtney, AMIEU branch secretary, has had 34 years of experience across the meat trade industry and he can see the writing on the wall for Australia’s meat processing sector if current federal government policies continue.
Towns, like Casino in the electorate of Page in northern NSW, would wither and depopulate if their abattoirs shut.
“If we want to save Australian jobs and improve animal health and welfare, we have to face the hard truth that the practice of live animal exports must end.
“It is thoroughly unsustainable,” he insists.
Courtney is at pains to point out that the recent signing of export trade agreements with China is disastrous for meat industry workers.
“It’s a bloody mess. We have the smallest national herd in two decades and the largest amount of live export that we’ve ever had.”
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) agrees on the declining herd numbers. It estimates the national herd will have fallen to 26.2 million head by 30 June 2016, and believes it will decline slightly again in 2017, down to 25.9 million head.
But in January this year, MLA manager of market information Ben Thomas told the ABC Rural Report that numbers should be replenished by 2020, and return to the normal 10-year herd size which is 27 million.
Courtney scoffs at this estimate.
“They must think cows grow on trees. They’ll also tell you that the treatment of animals in the export process is exemplary.”
The MLA website says the Australian industry is recognised as having the world's highest animal welfare standards for livestock export.
Yet animal welfare groups have amassed evidence to the contrary – as recently as this month - revealing the journeys of live animals from paddock to slaughter on foreign soil as unspeakably cruel.
Animals Australia has been investigating live export destinations including the Middle East and South East Asia since 2003.
This most recent footage of cattle being bludgeoned by sledgehammers in abattoirs in Vietnam is part of the organisation’s extensive investigative catalogue of disturbing treatment of animals arriving at foreign slaughterhouses and feedlots.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has ruled out a ban on live export but said the identified Vietnamese feedlot and group of abattoirs have been suspended from receiving Australian cattle.
Cruelty to animals has long been a concern for many Australians and the battle for ending live export is not new in public debate.
As far back as 1985, the Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare investigating the live export of sheep from Australia concluded that if a decision on the future of the trade were made on animal welfare grounds alone, there was enough evidence to stop the trade.
Yet some 30 years on, we are still at sea on the issue and so are the animals.
Of the four major political parties, The Greens are the only ones willing to ban live export.
Greens MP, Senator Lee Rhiannon introduced a private members bill during the last parliament proposing an independent statutory authority to have oversight of the protection of animal welfare in Commonwealth regulated activities. It languished without support from either major party.
Labor briefly banned live export in 2011 following the ABC’s Four Corners report aired footage, again obtained by Animals Australia, exposing the brutal treatment Australian animals received in Indonesian abattoirs.
An inquiry saw Labor implement the Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS) and the ban was lifted.
Animal welfare groups, The Greens and a handful of independent-minded politicians would argue that ESCAS has failed as a system for better regulating animal welfare.
But Australia’s key political parties do agree the live export industry needs independent monitoring.
While Labor would continue with live export, the party suddenly appears in step with The Greens, who want to ban live export outright, with the announcement that it would establish an Inspector-General of Animal Welfare, and develop a new independent office of animal welfare.
This office, like the private member’s bill of Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, would be responsible for advising on the protection of animals in all Commonwealth-regulated activities including live exports, animal welfare standards and guidelines.
The National Farmers Federation backs the Coalition and has labelled Labor’s six-point animal welfare plan as more bureaucracy with no significant animal welfare gains.
The Coalition’s policy on trade involves boosting exports and there is no mention of banning live export trade. Nor do they support establishing an independent office of animal welfare, preferring to manage monitoring through the Department of Agriculture.
The Abbott government reduced the number and defunded many government agencies. These included the Live Animal Export Division – Industry Government Implementation Group (IGIG) in the Department of Agriculture and the Australian Animal Advisory Committee.
Indeed, for the Coalition the live animal export trade is alive, kicking and lucrative.
In his opening address at the 2016 ABARES Outlook conference in March, deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce said global meat consumption is projected to increase significantly over the next 20 years.
“Australia is very well placed to take advantage of this growing demand because much of it will be demand from our regional neighbours and existing trading partners,” he said.
Recently quoted in the Inverell Times, Joyce was resolute.
“I will do everything in my power to build on the seven major, and two minor new live animal export markets that we have opened since September 2013, including opening more markets and strengthening the sustainability of the industry,” he said.
Australian shipping companies such as Livestock Shipping Services (LSS) and the Wellard Group are throwing huge investments in the live export trade with their fleets of purpose-built super-sized ships.
In April 2016, Wellard launched the MV Ocean Shearer, a vessel capable of transporting 20,000 cattle or 75,000 sheep or a combination of both, to major markets around the globe. The new ship has increased Wellard’s fleet capacity by 50 per cent.
In the 2014-2015 financial year, Wellard transported 400,000 cattle and has what it says is a growth strategy gathering pace.
In August 2015 Wellard entered into a formal Joint Venture (JV) with China’s Fulida Group to supply and market what may be one million Australian cattle into China annually.
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Closer to home in northern NSW, the farmland around Casino has good rainfall and excellent pastures and the region is proud of its specimen beef, which has sustained the town financially for decades.
The Casino-based Northern Co-operative Meat Company (NCMC) is the town’s largest employer but things are tight.
The NCMC has just cut its meat workers’ full-time jobs to four days a week, soon to become three.
Manager of the Casino Environment Centre, Jhabel Downie points the finger at the live export trade “taking work away” from the meatworks.
“Workers are scared to talk about it. They are in fear of losing their jobs altogether,” Downie said.
Meatworkers union branch secretary Grant Courtney said NCMC’s attitude is in keeping with the paradigm of “sharing the poverty and everyone taking a hit” in an industry that is unsustainable as it currently operates.
Surprisingly, it is the Greens who are backing the meatworkers. The party believes that if Australia joins the growing global shift toward boxed and chilled meat, it will keep Australian meat workers in jobs and ensure that Australian animals grown for the protein market will be processed on Australian turf, and under Australian animal welfare scrutiny.
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Since 1982 Casino has held Beef Week, a festival each June celebrating all things beef. And why not? The locals are excited that their annual celebration is dedicated to the industry that supports them, so excited their week spans 11 days.
Amongst the crowd attending Meat Week will no doubt be the abattoir workers who have seen their jobs become part-time.
In amongst the crowning of Beef Week Queen and the munching of sausages, an ear to the ground would likely hear murmurings about live export taking jobs.
There are rumours that live export on a small scale is already happening in Casino, a town where meatpacking has been the norm. Some farmers say cattle bought at the local saleyards are being shipped out of Brisbane Port.
There was also talk last year about reviving Yamba Port as a live export site, to pick up the market supply gap to Indonesia when Darwin shuts down in the wet season.
Further listening might hear rumblings about the town’s future unless significant changes are made to the industry.
Meanwhile, there is an election to get through and elections polls suggest it will be status quo for the cattle sector, and that those Casino meatworkers will indeed see their working week shortened to three days.