Live Export: Cruelty of Convenience?
Thursday, August 9 2012
One year later, Bianca Kerr looks back at our response to shocking footage of live export animals.
In June last year the nation rallied, sickened by the treatment of Australian cattle inside Indonesian slaughterhouses; distraught the federal government had claimed ignorance while our animals were tortured and killed. Protestors cried out and screamed on the footsteps of Parliament House in Victoria. Many sobbed and held each other, distraught and overwhelmed
A year has passed since the ABC program Four Corners broadcast shocking images of brutality inflicted on Australian cattle exported to abattoirs in Indonesia in an exposé that galvanised the nation. Today, the live export trade has lost the attention of many Australians, leaving animal activists wondering whether animal welfare remains on the political and public agenda, or whether for many, animal cruelty is a definition used when convenient.
Animals Australia, RSPCA Australia, Animal Liberation Victoria, and many other animal welfare groups have existed for decades. All have consistently circulated shocking images of cruel farming practices, puppy factories, animal testing practices and mistreatment of animals in the entertainment industry.
While there is no denying the footage shown by Four Corners was deeply unsettling, national broadcasters have depicted animal suffering in various television programs in the past. But while this information has been readily available and distributed to the public, Australians haven’t called for change. In contrast, the huge public support for a suspension to the live export trade signified a shift in the public’s tolerance towards poor standards of animal welfare. It marked a shift not only in awareness, but the choice to be aware. The public’s demand for action was radically different to other animal welfare issues, to the point that the government’s haphazard response of suspending the trade defied many of their own foreign policies.
Ron Prasad, an animal activist who volunteers for Animals Australia, speculates the shocking footage was not the single motivator behind the public’s support. “We’ve seen this time and time again in any aspect of life. When something goes wrong somewhere, not many people will want to take responsibility for it… In this case, people were pointing the finger at the federal government.”
The suggestion that other factors were involved in public support for the issue may not be too far from the mark. Strategic Action for Animals, a handbook used by leading animal activist organisations, notes one of the key aspects of running a strategic campaign is to frame the issue in a way that speaks to the people it is trying to attract. The campaign has to ‘sell’ its values to the majority by presenting them in a way those outside the movement can relate to.The handbook explains: “the way to win over the public is to continually highlight the gap between powerholders’ policies and practices, and the social values they claim to represent.”
The discussion surrounding the live trade export issue was never centred on animal liberation or the support of a consumption philosophy such as vegetarianism or veganism. While animal liberation is the objective of many animal groups, the focus was not directed at the meat consumption practices of the majority of the public and their implication in the trade.
The active politicisation of the live export trade, as directed in Strategic Action for Animals, was a central component to the campaign’s effectiveness. The dwindling public support for the Labor government created the perfect environment for the public to accuse our ‘powerholders’ of negligence.
Anastasia Smietanka, Victorian Co-ordinator of the Barristers Animal Welfare Panel, believes the campaign also drew on feelings of nationalism. “It helped that the footage was filmed in Indonesia. Members of the public find it quite easy to condemn people in another country, especially people in a poorer country, one that has different religious and cultural beliefs,” she said.
Smietanka disagrees that animal welfare organisations are employing strategic marketing techniques to gain public support for animal issues. “Live export has been a big issue politically in Australia before, it’s just the public have never gotten behind it in this way,” she said. “I think the times have changed. It’s not the issues, it’s the public who have become a lot more sensitive to animal issues.”
Self-described ‘infotainment’ program The Project also features animal issues including stories about vegan parenting, jumps racing and puppy farms. Interestingly, the program caters to a Network Ten audience and aims for mass appeal.
“Since the live export issue exploded in May 2011, the media coverage of animal issues has been a lot more sympathetic. There have been a lot more things on The 7.30 Report on the ABC, in The Herald Sun, in The Age, across a spectrum of newspapers and a spectrum of media outlets,” Smietanka explained. “They’ve shown animal welfare issues quite widely and I think that reflects that the public is interested in it.”
While there is no doubt Australians were truly outraged at the footage of cattle being savagely treated, it frustrates animal activists that the public cannot make connections between animal cruelty in Indonesia and their consumption habits at home.
Smietanka warns Australians will soon have to face some daunting realities.
“Probably one of the biggest issues that the Australian public is going to face in terms of animal welfare in the next decade is the fact that all these animal abuses are happening right on our soil and we’re responsible because we buy and eat those products.”