OPINION: THE decision to expand the trade in live animals to Vietnam stripped the final layer of credibility from declarations that animal welfare is at the heart of the live exports industry.
Advocates for the trade always had a problem making such rhetoric credible. If one was to identify a destination for live exports that would make their rhetoric utterly incredible, Vietnam is the place.
In October, 1500 cattle were shipped to Vietnam. This follows a smaller shipment to the same destination last year. Industry, supported by the Northern Territory government, hopes to export 10,000 cattle annually within the next few years to offset the diminishing trade with Indonesia, a country determined to become self-sufficient.
This is a dangerous strategy.
Even before recent footage exposed behaviour described as "sadistic" by the spokeswoman of an Israeli abattoir that receives Australian cattle, a prominent industry figure recently remarked, "Until we have the next disaster, we still have an industry." To send live Australian animals to Vietnam to slaughter is to invite further disaster.
The livestock industry apparently believes Vietnam is a market of considerable promise for live exports. This view is shared by the relevant governmental departments, both federal and territory, and their ministers.
If the end of live exports is potentially but one disaster away, exporting live animals to Vietnam for slaughter will likely result in a sudden interruption to the trade, and risks permanent closure of the live exports industry.
The Vietnamese government does not have a proud record in respect to animal welfare. The notion has little resonance locally.
Even for a developing country, well publicised incidents of animal cruelty in Vietnam are both regular and disturbingly cruel in nature. Most of the relevant industry sectors are unregulated and where regulation exists, it is seldom enforced.
The celebrated expansion of the trade to Vietnam will almost certainly end in disaster. The only question is whether footage of the event will be captured and transmitted back to Australia.
The official line is that the Australian government does not tolerate cruelty towards animals and will not compromise on animal welfare standards.
Is it realistic to expect the slaughter of cattle exported from Australia will miraculously meet reasonable animal welfare standards in a country where cruelty towards animals is often tolerated, even at an official level?
The Australian government claims we lead the world in animal welfare practices. We don't, but we are well ahead of the standards evident in Vietnam.
Assertions that ongoing involvement in the live export trade provides an opportunity for Australia to influence animal welfare conditions in importing countries are used in an attempt to appease popular concerns. If the desire to improve animal welfare was genuine, government would combine with industry and invest in infrastructure that would guarantee all animals slaughtered in our exporting markets are stunned prior to slaughter, irrespective of their origin.
This would be an expensive task, however. The supply chain assurance regulations introduced in Australia earlier this year do not even provide the guarantee of pre-slaughter stunning for Australian live export animals.
There is certainly no assurance that Australian cattle will be stunned at the point of slaughter in Vietnam (at least not using a stunning machine). However, the industry would surely have insisted on assurances that animal welfare activists were denied access to Vietnamese abattoirs.
After all, the industry understands that with each disaster, it is more likely the government will cede to overwhelming public demand to immediately end the export of live animals. This would have an immediate and severe effect on the livestock industry and those whose livelihoods depend on it.
A transitional period must be negotiated before the next disaster to ensure the livestock industry and the people directly employed in it will continue to thrive. Although the livestock industry is reluctant to publicly admit it, steps have been taken to alter the balance towards domestic slaughter and processing.
The Australian Agricultural Company plans to build a multimillion dollar abattoir and meat packing facility in the Northern Territory. This step does make sound strategic sense. It is in the interests of the industry and its workforce that a gradual transition away from live exports is achieved.
What makes little strategic sense is the decision to export live cattle to markets where reasonable standards of animal welfare are regularly violated.
A further disaster in Vietnam will weaken the industry's hand in negotiating transitional arrangements with the government, and could well start a domino effect that the livestock industry and government will be powerless to stop.
Public opinion occasionally counts for something in a democracy, after all.
Andrew Hunter is chairman of the Australian Fabians. This is an edited version of an opinion piece which appeared in the Canberra Times.