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Mainstream crusade – how the animal rights movement boomed

Ban Live Exports: Melbourne Rally, Saturday, 6 October 2012. Gonzalo Villaneuva

More than a year has passed since Animals Australia and the RSPCA, in conjunction with ABC’s Four Corners revealed that Australian cattle were being routinely slaughtered in Indonesian abattoirs while fully conscious.

Despite stricter regulations since then, we have seen recent reports of Australian sheep being “clubbed, stabbed, and buried alive” in Pakistan. In “Another Bloody Business”, Four Corners graphically revealed the slaughter and once again exposed the political fault lines.

These reports have reignited the ethical and economic questions around the trade of transporting live animals to be slaughtered in a foreign marketplace. There are renewed calls for a ban to be placed on the industry, with increasing pressure from Labor backbenchers, the Greens, and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie.

The animal rights movement has once again mobilised. Thousands of people recently attended national demonstrations, organised by Animals Australia. This time, their events received favourable media coverage in major newspapers and on television.

But this was not always the case.

The industry’s opposition to live exports

In the 1970s, the export trade was beset by industrial grievances. Due to changing demand for wool, employment in the meat industry fluctuated and abattoirs began to close. In 1974, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU) initiated a campaign that targeted the companies associated with the live export trade, seeking to lobby governments to place restrictions and ratios on the industry, to protect meat workers’ jobs.

The campaigns increased in the late 1970s with blockades and pickets. But support was weak due to the influence of the farming constituency in those communities. For the first decade of the campaign, the AMIEU had obtained little community support for its cause, and no positive media coverage.

Around the same time, the animal rights movement belatedly entered the debate. In 1979, the issue of the trade was brought to the attention of the RSPCA Victoria by a passionate council member, who personally investigated the issue. Not long after, the RSPCA Victoria developed an official policy opposing the trade. Similarly, the nascent Animal Liberation groups and later the Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies (ANZFAS), now known as Animals Australia, strongly objected to the trade based on moral issues.

Strange bedfellows

Nonetheless, criticisms of the trade in the Australian Parliament in the 1970s solely focused around the potential negative impact live exports had on meat workers, an issue predominately raised by Labour MPs. In other words, the debate was based around economic preoccupations, and at the time no consideration was given to the welfare of animals. This all began to slowly change due a few historic events.

In 1979, concerned wharfies brought to the attention of the RSPCA Victoria the poor health of a consignment of horses, which were to be sent to Japan for slaughter for human consumption. In a meeting with the RSPCA, the union declared that they would refuse to the load any horses unless an RSPCA vet gave a health clearance. Despite pressures from stakeholders and government, the union were unwavering in their position.

The apex of this debacle emerged soon after. In Port Botany, NSW, on 6 April 1980, waterside workers and RSPCA vets stalled the Searoader, which was carrying 42 horses. The shipping line company eventually conceded that the horses were in poor health. They were unloaded and taken to a rehabilitation facility in Yagoona, operated by the RSPCA NSW.

The first event where animal activists participated at a major rally against the trade was in Portland, Victoria. On 12 May 1980, disgruntled by declining job opportunities, meat workers picketed and blockaded the carrier ship the Al Qurain. Joining the trade unionists were two women, their three children and a sixteen year old, who formed part of Animal Liberation groups – today, one of the children, Noah, is president of Animal Liberation Victoria (ALV).

Christine Townend and Patty Mark had formed Animal Liberation groups in their respective cities in the late 1970s. They joined the protest carrying placards which read: “Pain for Animals, Profit for People”.

Initially suspicious, the workers welcomed them. In what may seem like a strange relationship, the unionists and animal liberationists were united, for differing reasons, in a common struggle: to ban live animal exports. That day hundreds of police escorted several trucks of sheep to the docks. After 12 hours, mounted police and officers on foot dispersed the blockade.

A sheep ship en route to Saudi Arabia. chrisindarwin/Flickr

Parliament weighs in

These episodes did not go unnoticed. For the first time in the history of the trade, concerns for the welfare of animals were being raised in the Australian Parliament. The day after the Portland confrontation, Liberal MP Peter Falconer asked the Coalition government: “Can the Minister assure the House that all the necessary Commonwealth measures are being taken to ensure the welfare of the sheep?”

Previous events had not generated any concerns for animal welfare from politicians. The prevailing attitudes towards the trade are captured by an editorial in a 1980s edition of The Age, the day after Portland. It dismissed the grievances of the meat workers, but also stated that claims of cruelty should be separated from the debate, so as to not “cloud the economic arguments about the trade”.

Concern for animal welfare came to feature in Australian Parliamentary debates in consecutive years. Pushing the agenda were the Australian Democrats under the leadership of Don Chipp. As a result of their efforts, Parliament established the first Select Senate Committee on Animal Welfare. By 1985 the Committee produced their first report on the live export of sheep from Australia - a milestone, and just the beginning.

Making it mainstream

The efforts of animal welfare organisations and animal rights groups have been instrumental in fundamentally shifting perceptions about how we should or should not treat animals. In the 1970s, they were on the fringes in campaigning against a trade that exported animals. By 1980, the movement was beginning to assert itself with some achievements. In 2012, the movement is mainstream, and has become a powerful voice for how we assess and judge live animal exports and other matters.

The AMIEU are no longer the main contenders; yet their grievances are still on the agenda. In the future, animal rights may be the next great social justice movement. Some may say it already is.

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