OPINION: Seeing red over cattle exports

OPINION: On AUG 21, 2011 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.
PARLIAMENTARIANS these days are said to be driven by populist appeal and focus group concerns. But the major parties appear slow to realise the potential political mileage to be gained from taking a stand against animal cruelty.

Key marginal seats can be won by major party candidates differentiating themselves on the issue brought to the fore by the Four Corners program on live cattle exports.

Anyone who saw the footage could not help but be moved by the sight of the black steer shaking as it witnessed the slaughter of its brothers in an Indonesian abattoir. There was no doubt the animal understood what was happening and knew that it would be next.

Last week Animals Australia followed up with more footage, this time of mistreatment of animals in Turkey. At the same time 67,000 sheep were stranded aboard the Al Messilah in Port Adelaide, further embarrassing the live animal trade industry.

The cruelty shown in the Four Corners episode provoked an unprecedented reaction across the nation with members of Parliament inundated with emails, phone calls and letters. Initially the Government responded to the public's demands and banned the cattle exports. But a fightback from the industry saw a National/Liberal party campaign force the lifting of the ban. Northern Australian coalition members took up the industry's cause and Liberal leader Tony Abbott demanded that the Government do ''everything reasonable'' to get the industry going again. Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig responded by allowing exports under a system of conditional permits.

Liberal Senator Chris Back sought to discredit Animals Australia and Four Corners by alleging that an Indonesian meat worker had been paid to abuse cattle for the benefit of the cameras. Animals Australia campaign director Lyn White and Four Corners journalist Sarah Ferguson immediately denied the charges and others called on Back to put up or shut up. As a result Back tabled a two line statement from Ox Cutter Ali Aman that he had received 50,000 rupiah (about $6) from foreigners ''when they take pictures /video of cattle slaughtering''.

What is most notable about this statement is what it does not say. Ali Aman does not say anything about being asked to kick or abuse the animals. Nor does it suggest that he was asked to do, or did, anything other than what was normal at the abattoir. And it says nothing about Back's sensational allegations of women being raped in retribution for Ali Aman's role in harming the industry's reputation.

Put simply, as things stand, Back's statement has no credibility. He should issue an abject apology to Lyn White.

This aside, the wider issue will not go away. With no radio shockjocks whipping up support, thousands of people are demanding an end to the trade.

The key political point is that concern about cruelty is not confined to the membership of any particular party. This is an issue that can be a vote shifter.

To make it so, animal activists will need to maintain a campaign until at least the next election when they can put pressure on candidates. All candidates will need to be surveyed to determine where they stand on legislation to phase out the industry. This would be followed by an information campaign and how-to-vote cards, focusing on candidates in marginal seats. There are a host of metropolitan seats, such as Hasluck, Boothby, Dunkley and Brisbane on the coalition side, and Greenway, La Trobe and Lindsay on the Labor side, that would be highly susceptible to such a campaign.

The Labor Party conference later this year will also be a key point in the campaign. Delegates will seek a conscience vote for a number of motions at the conference, including gay marriage. Labor would stand its best chance at the election if candidates were allowed to differentiate themselves on both gay marriage and live exports. For that the conference needs to approve a conscience vote on these questions.

As I written before, attitudes on some issues differ sharply by electorate. Most voters in Melbourne (Adam Bandt, Greens), Sydney (Tanya Plibersek, Labor), Wentworth (Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal), and Brisbane (Teresa Gambaro, Liberal) are sympathetic to gay rights, while there is overall hostility to homosexuality in Capricornia (Kirsten Livermore, Labor), Mallee (John Forrest, National), or Barton (Robert McClelland, Labor).

The best way to win such seats is to choose candidates reflecting local views.

Historically, Labor has had members vote as a block. This led to the Labor Pledge where members vowed to vote as the majority of the Federal Labor Party decided. Today, under Labor's rules National Conference decisions are binding on members. Where the conference does not have a stated position, the majority decision of caucus is binding on Labor members of parliament.

Labor has had contradictory compromise policy positions in the past - as in its attitude to the 1931 Premiers' Plan or the 1986 uranium mining policy - but the live animal trade need not cause such a headache.

The main game at the time of the election, will, as always, be the state of the economy, unemployment and taxation. Labor must present a united front here. Disunity would be a disaster.

But elsewhere diversity can be a strength. In the case of animal cruelty (and gay marriage) there is much to be said for members having a conscience vote. Some may take a strong moral position, while others may for purely pragmatic purposes take a stand that gives them a winning edge.

Paul Malone, The Canberra Times

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