When Don Quixote found a world devoid of values through which he could distinguish good and evil, he struggled to find meaning in anything. A single truth had been smashed, and fragmented into splinters of truth interpreted by man. As the final pages of the live exports story were written in 2011, it became clear that our political discourse now lacks a single truth and is unrecognisable from the contest of values it was intended to be.
A motion to phase out live exports, argued articulately and passionately at Labor's national conference by Fremantle MP Melissa Parke, was defeated along factional lines (the Left uniformly supported Parke's motion) 215 votes to 173. The conference instead supported a ''sustainable'' live export trade. Devoid of moral compass, political discourse is now led by market theory supplemented by trivial attempts to appease those who see life beyond the marketplace. In a media statement, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig asserted that ''debates about live animal exports have always been about jobs'' but also claimed that animal welfare was at the heart of his ''once in a generation changes''.
Contradictory statements and pretentious diction aside, it is clear that political expediency was at the heart of his banal compromises.
On the floor of the conference, arguments were made in defence of the industry, and its importance to the Northern Territory. In any issue that implicates people's livelihoods, the Government has the responsibility to provide appropriate transitional arrangements. These can be complicated and often expensive, but this shouldn't be an excuse for inaction. In times gone by, when economic necessity was used to defend morally reprehensible activities - as was the case with the slave trade in America's south, the exportation of opium to China and the use of asbestos in Australian building products - morality eventually prevailed. In Australia today, once the free hand of the market writes and moves on, neither piety nor wit will remove even half a line, to paraphrase Omar Khayyam. Industry is now well adept at the politics of public relations, lobbying, media spin, and uses unchallenged data that exaggerates the ''multiplier effect'' to support its argument that economic ruin will result if the status quo is not preserved. Eden-Monaro MP Mike Kelly spoke in favour of live exports on the conference floor and dismissed animal welfare concerns, saying it was time to move on to ''more important issues like the situation of our fellow human beings in East Africa, in Syria, Libya, Egypt, North Korea and Iran''. Animal welfare and humanitarian issues are not mutually exclusive concerns, and certainly not a zero-sum game. Indeed, our attitudes towards creatures at our mercy often say much about the way we are likely to behave towards fellow humans.
The week following the ALP conference, an online article that quoted the chairman of the Indonesian beef producer and lot feeder association claimed that Australian cattle in Indonesia were being drugged to increase their carcass-to-live weight ratio. The article said a drug originally produced to treat asthma, known as Salbutamol, can poison meat that, if consumed by humans, can induce muscle cramps and a quickening of the heart. If the affected meat is consumed during pregnancy, it can result in potentially fatal birth defects. The drugged cattle can merely become comatose and die due to a quickening heartbeat. Salbutamol can, however, increase profits for all concerned in the industry, potentially creating jobs in both Australia and Indonesia. So why should we care?
It appears that factory farming will be the focus of animal welfare groups in 2012. It is unfortunate that a complete success on the issue of live exports was not achieved first (even if significant progress has been made), as this would have signalled a necessary shift in political discourse. Given the outrage generated by the award-winning Four Corners investigation into the live exports industry, factory farming will be an even harder fight to win as the industry supports a slightly more subtle form of brutality.
The commercial success of free-range products, when clearly separated from factory farm products on supermarket shelves, suggests that most people still prefer slaughter animals graze in the countryside before their inevitable destruction. No one has the courage to legislate against factory farming because a utilitarian economic focus remains the dominant factor in political decision making. When nature disappears and the human contract that states that we should act responsibly towards those creatures at our mercy is smashed irreparably, the market will be completely free of moral interference.
The economy circumscribes splinters of truth from which each individual can now understand unconnected situations that, if considered together, leave us with guiding principles through which we view the world. The live export industry is justified because it provides ''jobs''. Long wall mining was broadly supported because of improvements it brought ''productivity'', in spite of the tens of thousands of ''jobs'' lost - often suddenly and with no thought to transitional arrangements for the affected workforce. Like the new world faced by Don Quixote, our politics is now the sum of many contradictory ''truths''.
In supporting a ''sustainable'' live export trade, Labor's national conference supported the idea that the market has replaced morality with splinters of economic truth.
Unless a paradigm change occurs, political discourse as a contest of values will soon end with a whimper. The current context leaves much room for a principled politics to prosper, but who has the courage to fill the void?
Andrew Hunter is the deputy chairman of the Australian Fabians.