Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, BacklashWhen co-author and publisher Julian Davies sent me Backlash to review, he described it as “our latest and perhaps most ambitious book so far – non-fiction”. Hmm, I thought, that’s quite something from the publisher of some very interesting and, it seems to me, ambitious books. But now, having read Backlash, I understand what he meant. For a start, Backlash comes straight from the heart of its writers, but more than this, it is ambitious in that its goals and messages reach beyond the specific issue of live exports and animal welfare, as important as those are.

It’s unlikely, if you’re Australian, that you didn’t see or hear about the 2011 Four Corners television episode on the live export of animals to Indonesia, A Bloody Business*. While the actual audience on the night was, Jones and Davies say, comparatively small, the impact – in the short-term in particular – was huge. This book tells the wider story – how the program came about and what happened afterwards. In doing so, it explores the ramifications of the trade, weighs economic expediency against ethical considerations, exposes the democratic processes by which decisions are made, and asks us to think about what it all says about us as a people. As the subtitle says, it’s about “conflict of values”. Live export might be the subject of this particular story but, for Jones and Davies, it exemplifies something bigger, something to do with the sort of society we wish to be and how we might get there. For this reason, as for any, Backlash is a valuable read.

What I didn’t know, or didn’t remember, when I started reading the book is that co-author and zoologist Bidda Jones, head of science and policy at RSPCA Australia, along with Lyn White, animal activist and now campaign director for Animals Australia, were the people who took the issue to Four Corners. It was Jones’ research and White’s video footage which convinced Four Corners to do the story. After the broadcast, politician Barnaby Joyce asked Jones and White why they hadn’t taken the story to him and his Opposition colleagues. The reason was simple, they had tried approaching politicians but had failed to garner any interest. So, to the media it was.

There is no fancy writing here. The book uses plain, direct language as befits its aims. There is little use of flashy rhetorical devices to sway opinion. The authors focus instead on fact and logic to present their case. The book is carefully structured. It starts with an introduction which sets out the book’s aims and explains that although both authors contributed to the book it has been written in Bidda’s first person voice. Chapter 2 briefly recounts their experience of watching the Four Corners program. The book then moves back in time and, over several chapters, chronicles how the program came about: the research (which included Lyn White’s filming trip to Indonesia), the lobbying, and the strategic planning. We then return, at Chapter 16, to the screening of the program and a description of its content. The rest of the book discusses the show’s aftermath. They detail the main cases for and against live export of animals, the initial widespread strong reaction which resulted in the government imposing a short-term ban on live export to Indonesia, and the backlash against this decision which resulted in live export being restored. Since then, they argue (though others argue differently), no real progress has been achieved in improving the welfare of animals. It’s a distressing and depressing story about the failure of our duty of care to animals.

The book is not, as they admit in the Introduction, “an unbiased examination of the different sides of the live export debate”, that is, they decisively argue the animal welfare case, just as Bill McKibben in Oil and honey starts from the basis that he is a climate change activist. However, they also argue that they don’t take “an inflexible ideological position”. They recognise that ours is a “pluralistic society” with many different stakeholders. I understand this to mean that they are vegetarians** who would prefer no animals be killed for food, but they recognise that there are many people who do wish to eat meat. Their position, then, is not to stop animal farming altogether, but to ensure that the welfare of the animals involved is given the priority it should in a civilised society.

Achieving better animal welfare, though, is easier said than done. In chapter after chapter, they demonstrate how “money speaks and is heard”, how bureaucratic processes are manipulated, how changes in political personnel subvert plans, how public policy is too often formed under the influence of power-plays and egos rather than logic and reason. And so, despite a huge public outcry and clear public concern, in the end economic arguments outweighed ethical considerations. The few recommendations made to improve animal welfare conditions were either watered down (such as mandatory stunning pre-slaughter made “a recommendation” not “mandatory”), were not given a proper regulatory framework, and/or got lost in the bureaucracy.

By now, you are probably wondering if the book is all about nay-saying, but it’s not. Jones and Davies propose a range of options, starting with improving the welfare of animals involved in live export. This means improving the selection of animals to be exported, improving the transport conditions under which they are exported, and then improving their treatment and slaughter at the other end. Better, though, they argue, would be to stop live export altogether and focus on the meat trade. This is what New Zealand decided to do in 2007 when it ceased live export out of concern for animal welfare and for its reputation as a country which cared about animal welfare. The problem is that ceasing live export requires longterm planning (including the rebuilding of abattoirs in northern Australia) but contemporary Australian politics is epitomised by “short-termism” underpinned by “a built-in avoidance of complex issues”. I don’t think many of us would argue with their statement that:

Altering the land management practices of pastoralists over millions of hectares requires a long-term outlook and courageous decision-making – rare qualities in today’s political climate.

And so, issues like animal welfare concerns, environmental degradation and insecure export markets are ignored in favour of short-term economic gains.

At the beginning of the book, Jones and Davies state that

a central premise of this book is that a well-governed society develops ways to reconcile economics and welfare so that both suffer as little as possible.

They stay true to this throughout demonstrating that it is possible to balance economic considerations with ethical concerns. (Just look at New Zealand for a start!) Australians, Jones and Davies believe, have shown that they (we) do not condone “entrenched cruelty” to animals, but so far people power has not won out. This story has a way to go yet …


* You can watch the program online (in Australia at least) but warning, it it VERY unpleasant viewing.
** Please see Bidda’s comment below clarifying that they are not vegetarians, as I thought I’d read.

Bidda Jones and Julian Davies
Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2016
ISBN: 9780994516503

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)

20 thoughts on “Bidda Jones and Julian Davies, Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports

  1. I think I’d better get a copy of this for The Spouse. His consultancy work is in the field of animal welfare, though not (so far) anything to do with the live export trade.

    • Ah, is it Lisa? Interesting. I’m sure, then, that he’ll find it interesting, because while the details are about live export it is really about how public policy is (or perhaps isn’t) formed. (Though, I suppose even the “isn’t” is really an “is”!!)

  2. thank you for this precis of this book, it’s one I’d never pick up, but it’s a very depressing account of our political system,.
    “The problem is that ceasing live export requires longterm planning (including the rebuilding of abattoirs in northern Australia) but contemporary Australian politics is epitomised by “short-termism” underpinned by “a built-in avoidance of complex issues”. I don’t think many of us would argue with their statement that:
    Altering the land management practices of pastoralists over millions of hectares requires a long-term outlook and courageous decision-making – rare qualities in today’s political climate.
    And so, issues like animal welfare concerns, environmental degradation and insecure export markets are ignored in favour of short-term economic gains”
    Especially in this election time. No wonder I can’t get my grandson’s tothink about how or if they’ll vote

    • Thanks Carol. Good on you for trying with your grandsons. There was an interesting “the Drum” session earlier this week on engaging young people. Did you see it?

  3. Very glad to read your review of this important book. Co-incidentally, i’m attending a Ban Live Export rally in Geelong tomorrow!

    I agree with Carol that phasing out live animal exports requires careful planning, but this planning has been and continues to be done by those concerned with animal cruelty issues. For example in Western Australia the infrastructure remains in place to switch from export live sheep to the Middle East to killing the sheep in Australia.

    • Had you heard of the book, Dorothy? Anyhow, great to hear you are attending the rally. Sounds like you are well across the issue. While the main thrust of the book is the cattle export to Indonesia, she regularly refers to live export to the Middle East and the short shrift given to sheep because individually they are less “valuable”. But you probably know that.

  4. Just one point of clarification – Julian and I are not actually vegetarian (although we do grow and eat a lot of vegetables). Our point is that given most Australians do eat meat, we should all be concerned about the way the animals that provide it are treated and slaughtered, whether it’s here or overseas. If we raise animals for food, we have a responsibility to do it humanely.

    • Thanks Bidda, I thought I’d read somewhere in the book that you were, but I hadn’t noted the page so was hoping my memory was right! Clearly it was my imagination. I certainly understood your point that if we raise animals for food it must be done in a humane way.

  5. The almost universal view over here (WA) was that Labor were at fault for banning live exports to Indonesia, not the pastoralists for failing to monitor where their product was being sold. There are abattoirs (re)starting both down south and in the Kimberley, but I think getting workers is a problem – and the government makes it hard for them to employ refugees.

    • Yes, that’s the sense I have too Bill, that Labor has become the scapegoats. I think they say in the book that a new abattoir has been built up north. I didn’t understand that about workers though what you say makes sense.

  6. It seems that this documentary has had a big impact in Australia (it seems a long time since one had a comparable punch here in the UK). As with so many things short term economic gains seem to be only gains that count for politicians and much of the public.

    • It did Ian – but the my how slow real progress is. It’s depressing how much sway short term economic expediency has, isn’t it? I remember seeing a BBC program back in the late 70s I think about the treatment of farm animals called Down on the factory farm. that was my first introduction really to the issue of animal welfare.

  7. There are so, so, so many documentaries in the United States about animal welfare, which include arguments about health, such as not just becoming vegetarian if you want to make a difference, but a vegan. The vegan movement is on the rise here.

    • Welcome Grab the Lapels. Yes, my daughter was a food blogger, not vegan, but she made many vegan blogger friends , most from North america, through her blog. I’m not convinced that veganism makes for the best diet for humans, but we do eat less of it these days and do try to be more careful about the meat we buy.

      • If you live in the U.S. people will try to convince you that if you don’t go vegan you are killing yourself with your terrible diet — and you’re killing the planet with all the cow farts. It’s scary, to be honest. I think the big concern is that in the United States, we have terrible food options. Even if I buy something simple, like a jar of pasta sauce, upon further inspection I notice that the sugar content in one serving is about the same as eating an Oreo cookie. Sugar is hidden in almost everything, so if you can do a vegan diet, you’d be avoiding a lot of that. We have no clue what we’re talking about when it comes to food in the U.S., but I do know that I’ve never met someone who was okay with animals suffering on their journey to our plates, so I hope more people learn that suffering happens, it shouldn’t happen, and we can demand changes. Some chair restaurants here are highly advertising their switch to free-range farming and no hormones in animals (Wal-Mart used to have all kinds of hormones in their dairy cows but stopped due to massive shopper protests).

        • Yes, that’s happening here too Grab the Lapels ie supermarkets, fast food chains, etc are starting to promote ethical aspects of their products, such as free-range egg, sow-stall free pork, organic produce etc. All of this must be due to consumer demand. So why does this live export business, for example, continue? Has to be because money talks, and that consumers haven’t yet been able to apply power where it hurts – to the pockets of money and/or the jobs of politicians. I suppose progress is being made, but it’s slow.

          AS for sugar, yes that’s an issue here too re processed food. Australia does a good job of following the US in these matters.

  8. It’s a difficult question to answer: why does Australia continue to ship live animals overseas to be slaughtered? Less than 1% of Australian farmers benefit from the live trade, and for most of those, raising animals for the live export trade is only part of what they do. The current Federal government has expanded markets, and Barnaby Joyce considers this a feather in his cap. Yet many animals die on route, and polls show that a consistently high percentage of Australians are opposed to live exports. The Meatworkers Union, who joined with us on our march yesterday, has been campaigning against it for decades. You probably know most of this from reading ‘Backlash’ but it’s a subject close to my heart.

  9. This sounds like a very good and important book and documentary. I find in the US when I talk to people who eat meat they have no idea where the meat comes from and how the animals lived and died. They picture idyllic pastures and happy cows and the reality tends to produce a disconnect and denial– they just can’t believe that is how it really is. Though as Grab the Lapels mentioned, there are more and more large food companies making changes and that must have come from consumer demand because the companies would not do it otherwise. Whether any of these changes will truly make a difference in the way animals are treated remains to be seen. I think as long as there are huge factory farms the impact will be minimal but more public awareness is never a bad thing I just wish in this case change happened faster for the sake of the animals.

    • Yes, for the sake of the animals, you’re right, Stefanie. I was horrified to read and, separately hear , this week, concern for animal welfare described as a left wing agenda. Clearly ANYTHING that questions the status quo is left wing! Personally, I’d see it as an ethical concern. Describing it like that is a horrible attempt to politicise what should just be about decent values.

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