Cattle waiting to be loaded for export in an enclosure at a yard in Noonamah, about 50 kilometres south of Darwin. Photo: Tim Wimborne
THE INCIDENTS of appalling treatment of animals in Australia's live export trade are not confined to those exposed by the ABC's Four Corners' program.
Dozens of ships have left Australia in recent years with animals that would suffer unacceptably high rates of traumatic death, either on board, or shortly after arrival at their destinations.
And you don't have to rely on the Animals Australia lobby group for the evidence. It's all there in official government records.
Take, for example, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, which records 42 cases of consignments of animals with unacceptable death rates for the six years to October 2011.
In some cases hundreds of animals died - 703 sheep in a consignment from Portland to Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain in June 2011; 1407 sheep going from Fremantle to Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE in August 2010; 903 sheep going from Portland to Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE in June 2010; 295 cattle going from Fremantle to Egypt in February 2010; and 756 sheep going from Fremantle to Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE.
Or go to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, where you can find reports going back for years. For example, on January 27, 1999, 829 cattle suffocated to death on the MV Temburong. The ship was taking a consignment of 1100 cattle on the relatively short trip from Darwin to Irian Jaya, when both its primary and secondary power supplies failed, leaving no way to operate the ventilation systems for the livestock.
Suffocating in the tropical heat in a stall on a ship north of Australia would not have been a pleasant way to go.
With this track record, we have to ask: when are we going to stop this abhorrent trade? And how long does it take to recognise it is impossible to regulate it properly?
Last week Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig argued on Four Corners that regulations he introduced in October last year and that he claimed on September 1 this year applied to 99 per cent of Australia's livestock export trade, would prevent the ill-treatment of exported animals. The statistics suggest that in the past year the death rate on board ships has dropped.
But the statistics do not record what happens to the animals when they arrive at their destination.
That is left to Animals Australia and Four Corners. Last Monday they showed video of sheep, rejected by Bahrain and sent on to Pakistan, being stabbed, clubbed and slung in ditches to be buried alive. Clearly the Pakistani authorities paid no heed to Australian government regulations.
Asked by Kerry O'Brien on Four Corners if this could not happen again - say, with the a consignment of breeder cattle that is now on its way to Pakistan - the minister responded that breeder cattle were expensive animals and were likely to end up within local herds and be well looked after.
This answer sounds convincing, but we have a recent example of breeder stock being treated terribly. On September 6 the Agriculture Department was informed that Australian cattle sent to a farm in Qatar were not provided with adequate food, water or shelter. Vet technician Deb Clarke told the ABC she saw animals that hadn't been fed. ''No one had checked the airconditioning in the calf unit - and it was over 50 degrees heat - and there were dead and dying animals everywhere, and I was just absolutely heartbroken.
''Animals were too weak to even stand, they were lying in hot sand. They were frying, literally cooking, and at temperatures of 50-plus degrees they were frying from the inside out. It was shocking.''
Of course the response is that this is an ''exceptional'' case. But how many dozens of exceptional cases do we require?
Last year the government bowed to the campaign waged by the Coalition to preserve this industry. So, what is it worth in economic and political terms?
At the height of the cattle export crisis in June last year the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences concluded that the economy-wide impact of suspending the live trade to Indonesia was likely to be negligible, but the regional impact in northern Australia would be more significant.
According to the ABS, live cattle exports were worth $203 million in the first six months of this year and $464 million for the whole of the previous year. The live sheep trade was worth $169 million in the first six months of this year and $325 million in the previous year.
Phasing in the replacement of this trade with domestic processing would reduce the loss of income from abolition of the live trade. There is no question that there would be a cost in doing this. But it is a price that must be paid.
The industry and the authorities have had more than enough opportunity to demonstrate that the live animal trade can be conducted in a humane way. They have failed.
Rather than be spooked by the Coalition's campaign, the government should grasp the opportunity. There is only one seat Labor might lose as a result - the Northern Territory - and even that is debatable. A study by economic consultancy ACIL Tasman, commissioned by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, claims that profits for some northern cattle producers could double if large-scale processing plants were established in northern Australia.
There are many marginal seats to be held, or won, by taking a principled stand. People who are concerned with animals' rights are not just trendy lefties. In every electorate there are voters who see animal welfare as a priority issue.
It's time the government set out a clear timetable for the phasing out of this industry. Not only is it the right thing to do, there are votes to be won.
■ Paul Malone has joined the recently formed lobby group, Corangamite Against Live Animal Exports.