This article was originally published in the West Australian on 19 June 2023.
Every time the live sheep exporters face criticism (which is often), we see the same old response.
“But we’ve changed!”
We’ve changed, they say. They’re not the industry they once were. They’ve pulled their socks up and started to take animal welfare seriously, and the dark days of animal welfare disasters on board live export ships are over. Just give us one more chance, they say, and see how much better we can do.
Sounds great, right?
Pity it’s not true.
The truth is that we’ve been hearing “we’ve changed” for decades.
And the truth is that very little has changed, other than the PR tactics.
We’ve seen carefully stage-managed ‘open house’ tours on a stationary boat in Fremantle Harbour (before it has even commenced the arduous journey … )
We’ve seen one solitary on-board journalist, permitted on a meticulously performed journey, at the coolest time of the year … and to the objective viewer, even that looked awful.
We’ve seen more and more nonsense claims, scaremongering and obfuscation.
And we’ve seen it do absolutely nothing to convince Australians, with new independent polling released this week confirming 7 in 10 West Australians, including in rural and regional areas, still want live sheep export to end.
Once again – that’s 7 in 10 West Australians even in rural and regional areas who want live sheep export to end.
Perhaps they know better than anyone that these problems haven’t been fixed, and – even more importantly – they can’t be fixed.
The live export lobbyists are doing everything they can to pull the wool over the eyes of Australians and convince them that all the animal welfare problems of the past have been fixed.
But they can’t be fixed.
Live sheep export has cumulative and inherent welfare issues across the supply chain. There are so many welfare issues, all compounding each other, and many of them unavoidable on these long journeys.
Heat stress. Poor conditions. Overcrowded stocking densities. Limited access to food and water. Handling by unfamiliar people. Sheep standing in their own faeces and urine. Unfamiliar environments. Varied ventilation. High humidity. Often inhumane slaughter at their destination.
Even if they completely address one or even a few of these issues (which, by the way, hasn’t happened) – the cumulative issues are simply too great.
And it’s not often that we call for a practice to end entirely. The RSPCA has a strong and proud track record of working collaboratively with a range of farming sectors to try and improve animal welfare.
If we could do that with live sheep export, we would.
But we can’t. The problems are too inherent to the trade. It’s unfixable.
And if the trade was fixable, it would have been fixed by now.
We often hear from the live exporters that the current debate is a reaction to the Awassi Express disaster in 2018, where thousands of sheep died from extreme heat stress on a voyage to the Middle East.
Let’s take this (untrue) claim at face value for a minute, and pretend we’re in a world where the Awassi didn’t happen.
How then do they explain all of the other disasters on board live export ships? (so many we struggle to represent them all on a timeline … )
If this is all just a reaction to the Awassi, how do they explain the deep and long-standing concerns about animal welfare in the live sheep export trade, that have echoed for decades?
If live sheep export had any animal welfare merit, why is it strongly opposed by every legitimate animal welfare group in Australia and virtually across the world?
There’s a Senate report from 1985 that concluded that if a decision were to be made on the future of live sheep export based on animal welfare grounds, there was enough evidence to stop the trade.
That was in 1985. There was enough evidence to stop the trade then, and there’s even more now.
“We’ve changed!,” say the exporters. “Mortality rates have dropped!”
Let’s think about what that means for animal welfare.
The claim really is that sheep are experiencing good welfare because we’re not cooking as many of them alive.
In other words, the fact that sheep aren’t dead is meant to be an indicator of good welfare. It doesn’t account for the thousands that suffer terribly, but somehow survive.
Would we seriously accept a claim like that when talking about animals in any other context? About our pets, animals on farm, or animals we work alongside in sport or entertainment?
It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
With such a dark history, it’s no wonder the live export lobbyists are desperate not to talk about the past. So let’s talk about the future.
The future is one where Australia has transitioned away from live sheep export.
It’s not a pipe dream – it’s the actual, practical reality of the policy that the current Federal Government has announced and repeatedly stuck with since the 2022 election, and for several years before that.
It’s the brief that the independent panel has been given – to look at how and when we transition away from live sheep export, not if we do.
“We’ve changed,” say the exporters. But no, they haven’t. Because if they’d changed, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
So the best thing the industry can do is accept this. Get on board with the independent panel’s process and work together to ensure a sound and orderly transition away from live sheep export.
Because there’s no chance of changing the policy. That ship has sailed.
There’s no more chances for an industry that’s been given so many chances we’ve lost count.
So to the exporters, we say this – if you want to convince the Australian community you’ve changed, it’s time to accept that this trade simply can’t continue in modern Australia. It’s time to support producers to transition away from live sheep export.
Show us you’ve changed by actually changing something that matters.
CEO, RSPCA Australia