RSPCA national president Lynne Bradshaw stepped into the firing line to talk at the live export conference in Townsville yesterday, which saw most people dipping their hats in acknowledgment of her brave efforts.
But as one leading industry figure described the situation - the RSPCA’s apparent olive branch to the live export industry still came with a few sharp thorns attached.
It’s no secret the RSPCA’s cosy association with more extreme animal rights groups in recent times has seen them suffer reputational damage amongst rural Australians.
That association includes standing shoulder to shoulder with Animals Australia in demanding the live export trade be banned after the ABC Four Corners broadcast extreme images of animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs on May 30, 2011.
That program preceded the then Labor government’s infamous snap suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia, which caused broad social, economic, political and diplomatic damages that are still being felt, even today.
Animal rights groups say they’ll never wash from memory the horrific images of animal cruelty which underpinned the Indonesian ban.
But producers and industry members also have indelible memories of the RSPCA standing alongside Animals Australia’s Lyn White, online activist group GetUp, and other federal politicians in shouting at the media for the trade’s closure, at that time.
The day after the ABC program aired, GetUp had all guns blazing in cyberspace in demanding action to end live exports and support for Animals Australia and the RSPCA.
“Our friends at Animals Australia and the RSPCA are running a great campaign on the issue of live exports,” the activist group said as the well-orchestrated campaign went into full swing.
At the height of the emotion in June 2011, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) expressed disappointment that the RSPCA had withheld footage of the mistreatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia for about four months.
VFF said the RSPCA’s decision to withhold the footage suggested “they were more interested in media attention than the prevention of animal cruelty”.
Since then, many individual Federal and State politicians have expressed strong desires to address the RSPCA’s perceived shift from being a mainstream organisation, to the more extreme left side of the animal welfare/rights debate.
So in that context, it was interesting to hear Ms Bradshaw’s presentation at the live export conference, pitched as a “conversation” with ABC rural reporter Pip Courtney before a room packed with intent listeners.
At first, the friendly setting invoked imagery of Julia Gillard sitting down to talk with feminist author Anne Summers at the Sydney Opera House, in her first major public appearance after being dumped as Prime Minister in late June.
Ms Bradshaw’s first few responses gave the appearance this “conversation” would achieve little benefit by way of raw comment and honesty.
And when the RSPCA boss waved her organisation’s policy book and said it was an interesting read, one couldn’t help but think this conversation risked descending into free PR and advertising.
But Pip Courtney moved the conversation along cleverly, with a clear and deliberate line of questioning, which addressed most of the key issues and made for an invigorating segment.
Asked if the RSPCA was a vegan organisation, Ms Bradshaw answered a blunt ‘no’.
She said the mainstream animal welfare group had led the way in Australia for 175 years in preventing animal cruelty and educating the community to make animal welfare improvements.
As the half hour segment rolled on, Ms Bradshaw’s performance wavered between some good responses and others that were verging on bizarre.
One of her central messages was that the live export industry and the RSPCA needed to engage more in future.
But she warned the industry “can’t just pay lip service to animal welfare”.
Ms Bradshaw said the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) was the best thing that had ever happened to live exports from an animal welfare perspective.
She said the RSPCA wasn’t involved in the design of ESCAS after the Indonesian suspension but would now like to work with industry to continue its refinement.
However, Ms Bradshaw said there always seemed to be breaches of ESCAS, like the recent issue with sheep sold into the Jordan market.
“There’s some black sheep in your industry that probably need to be turfed out and it’s up to the rest of the peer group to do that,” she said which invoked some audience head nodding.
“There are some high calibre companies investing very heavily in animal welfare improvements and embracing ESCAS but they’re being dragged down by some of these rogue performers.”
But eyebrows were raised when Ms Bradshaw said 10 per cent of the population had a “cruel gene” in them, and the other 90pc that didn’t were concerned about animal welfare.
Asked about cultural differences between Australia and other countries involved in live exports, she said it would be advisable for industry to evaluate those cultural challenges before opening any new markets.
But she then asked an intriguing question, “How do you change medieval practices when they’re ingrained in peoples’ psyche?”
Former Meat and Livestock Ausralia chairman Don Heatley was the event’s master of ceremonies and praised the spirit of co-operation between the beef cattle/live exports industry and the RSPCA and congratulated Ms Bradshaw for her efforts on the day.
However, it was a sad footnote that due to time constraints, Ms Bradshaw was unable to answer any questions from the floor.
But if there was time, I dare say she may well have been asked whether the RSPCA has only been paying lip service in recent times to part of its charter - which the conference was told is not about stopping farming or the use of animals for food and fibre production.