Our Cows and Whales

How to Cite

Salter, C. (2018). Our Cows and Whales. M/C Journal, 21(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1410
Vol. 21 No. 3 (2018): protest
Published 2018-08-15


In 2011, Four Corners — the flagship current affairs program of the Australian national broadcaster, ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) — aired an investigative report on the conditions in Indonesian slaughterhouses. Central to the report was a focus on how Australian cows were being killed for human consumption. Moral outrage ensued. The Federal Government responded with a temporary ban on the live export of cattle to Indonesia. In 2010 the Australian Government initiated legal action in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opposing Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean, following a sustained period of public opposition. This article pays close attention to expressions of public opposition to the killing of what have come to be referred to as our cows and our whales, and the response of the Federal Government.

Australia’s recent history with the live export of farmed animals and its transformation into an anti-whaling nation provides us with a foundation to analyse these contemporary disputes. In contrast to a focus on “Australian cow making” (Fozdar and Spittles 76) during the live export controversy, this article investigates the processes through which the bodies of cows and whales became sites for the mapping of Australian identity and nationhood – in other words, a relational construction of Australianness that we can identify as a form of animal nationalism (Dalziell and Wadiwel). What is at stake are claims about desired national self-image. In what we might consider as part of a history of cows and whales is in many ways a ‘history of people with animals in it” (Davis 551). In other words, these disputes are not really about cows and whales.

The Live Export Industry

Australia is the largest exporter of live farmed animals, primarily sheep and cows, to the Middle East and Southeast Asia respectively (Phillips and Santurtun 309). The live export industry is promoted and supported by the Federal Government, with an explicit emphasis on the conditions experienced by these farmed animals. According to the Government, “Australia leads the world in animal welfare practices … [and] does not tolerate cruelty towards animals and will not compromise on animal welfare standards” (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources). These are strong and specific claims about Australia’s moral compass. What is being asserted is the level of care and concern about how Australia’s farmed animals are raised, transported and killed.

There is an implicit relationality here. To be a ‘world leader’ or to claim world’s best practice, there must be some form of moral or ethical measure to judge these practices against. We can locate these more clearly and directly in the follow-up sentence on the above claim: “Our ongoing involvement in the livestock export trade provides an opportunity to influence animal welfare conditions in importing countries” (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources). The enthusiasm expressed in this statement manifests in explicitly seeking to position Australia as an exporter of moral progress (see Caulfield 76). These are cultural claims about us.

In its current form the Australian live export industry dates back to the early 1960s, with concerns about the material conditions of farmed animals in destination countries raised from the outset (Caulfield 72; Villanueva Pain 100). In the early 1980s animal activists formed the Australian Federation of Animal Societies to put forward a national unified voice. Protests and political lobbying lead to the formation of a Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare, reflecting what Gonzalo Villanueva has referred to as a social and political landscape that “appeared increasingly favourable to discussing animal welfare” (Transnational 89-91).

The Select Committee’s first report focussed on live export and explicitly mentioned the treatment of Australian farmed animals in the abattoirs of destination countries. The conditions in these facilities were described as being of a lower “standard of animal welfare” to those in Australia (Senate Select Committee on Animal Welfare xiii). These findings directly mirror the expressions of concern in the wake of the 2011 controversy.

“A Bloody Business”

On 30 May 2011, Four Corners aired a report entitled ‘A Bloody Business’ on the conditions in Indonesian slaughterhouses. The investigation followed-up on footage provided by Animals Australia and Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA Australia).  Members from these groups had travelled to Indonesia in order to document conditions in slaughterhouses and prepare briefing notes which were later shared with the ABC. Their aim was to increase public awareness of the conditions Australian farmed cattle faced in Indonesia, provide a broader indictment of the live export industry, and call for an end the practice. The nationwide broadcast which included graphic footage of our cows being killed, enabled broader Australia to participate from the comfort of their own homes (see Della Porta and Diani 177-8).

The program generated significant media coverage and public moral outrage (Dalziell and Wadiwel 72). Dr Bidda Jones, Chief Scientist of RSPCA Australia, referred to “28,000 radio stories, 13,000 TV mentions and 3,000 press stories” making it one of the top five national issues in the media for five weeks. An online petition created by the activist organisation GetUp! collected more than 260,000 signatures over a period of three days and $300,000 was raised for campaign advertising (Jones 102). Together, these media reports and protest actions influenced the Federal Government to suspend live exports to Indonesia. A front-page story in The Age described the Federal Government as having “caved in to public and internal party pressure” (Willingham and Allard).  In her first public statement about the controversy, Prime Minister Julia Gillard outlined the Government’s intent: “We will be working closely with Indonesia, and with the industry, to make sure we can bring about major change to the way cattle are handled in these slaughter houses” (Willingham and Allard).

The Prime Minister’s statement directly echoed the claims made on the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources website introduced above. Implicit is these statements is a perceived ability to bring about “major change” and an assumption that we kill better. Both directly align with claims of leading the world in animal welfare practices and the findings of the 1985 Select Committee report. Further, the controversy itself was positioned as providing an “opportunity to influence animal welfare conditions in importing countries” (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources).

Four Corners provided a nationwide platform to influence decision-makers (see Della Porta and Diani 168-9). White, Director of Strategy for Animals Australia, expressed this concisely:

We should be killing the animals here under Australian conditions, under our control, and then they should only be shipped as meat products, not live animals. (Ferguson, Doyle, and Worthington)

Jones provided more context, describing the suffering experienced by “Australian cattle” in Indonesia as “too much,” especially when “a clear, demonstrated and successful alternative to the live export of animals” was already available (“Broader”; Jones 188). Implicit in these calls for farmed cows to be killed in Australia was an inference to technical and moral progress, evoking Australia’s “national self-image” as “a modern, principled culture” (Dalziell and Wadiwel 84). The clean, efficient and modern processes undertaken in Australia were relationally positioned against the bloody practices conducted in the Indonesian facilities. In other words, we kill cows in a nicer, more humane and better way.

Australia and Whaling

Australia has a long and dynamic history with whaling (Salter). A “fervently” pro-whaling nation, the “rapidly growing” local industry went through a modernisation process in the 1950s (Day 19; Kato 484). Operations became "clean and smooth,” and death became "instant, swift and painless”. As with the live export controversy, an inference of a nicer, more humane and better way of killing was central the Australian whaling industry (Kato 484-85). Enthusiastic support for an Australian whaling industry was superseded within three decades by what Charlotte Epstein describes as “a dramatic historical turnabout” (Power 150). In June 1977, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) came to Canberra, and protests were organised across Australia to coincide with the meeting.

The IWJ meeting was seen as a political opportunity. An IWC meeting being held in the last English-as-first-language nation with a commercial whaling operation provided an ideal target for the growing anti-whaling movement (Epstein, Power 149). In parallel, the opportunity to make whaling an electoral issue was seen as a priority for locally based activists and organisations (Pash 31). The collective actions of those campaigning against the backdrop of the IWC meeting comprised an array of performances (Tarrow 29). Alongside lobbying delegates, protests were held outside the venue, including the first use of a full-sized replica inflatable sperm whale by anti-whaling activists. See Image 1. The symbol of the whale became a signifier synonymous for the environment movement for decades to follow (see Epstein, Power 110-11). The number of environmental organisations attending exceeded those of any prior IWC meeting, setting in place a practice that would continue for decades to follow (M’Gonigle 150; Pash 27-8).

Image 1: Protest at Australia’s last whaling station August 28, 1977

Image 1: Protest at Australia’s last whaling station August 28, 1977. Photo credit: Jonny Lewis Collection.

Following the IWC meeting in Canberra, activists packed up their equipment and prepared for the long drive to Albany in Western Australia. Disruption was added to their repertoire (Tarrow 99). The target was the last commercial whaling operation in Australia. Two months later, on August 28, demonstrations were held at the gates of the Cheynes Beach Whaling Company. Two inflatable Zodiac boats were launched, with the aim of positioning themselves between the whales being hunted and the company’s harpoon vessels. Greenpeace was painted on the side — the first protest action in Australia under the organisation’s banner (Pash 93-94).

In 1978, Prime Minister Fraser formally announced an Inquiry into the future of whaling in Australia, seeking to position Australia as being on the right side of history, “taking a decisive step forward in the human consciousness” (Epstein, World 313). Underpinning announcement was a (re)purposing of whales bodies as a site for the mapping of relational constructions of Australian identity and nationhood:

Many thousands of Australians — and men, women and children throughout the world — have long felt deep concern about the activities of whalers… I abhor any such activity — particularly when it is directed against a species as special and intelligent as the whale.(Qtd. in Frost vii)

The actions of those protesting against whaling and the language used by Fraser in announcing the Inquiry signalled Australia’s becoming as the first nation in which “ethical arguments about the intrinsic value of the whale” displaced “scientific considerations of levels of endangerment” (Epstein, Power 150). The idea of taking action for whales had become about more than just saving their lives, it was an ethical imperative for us.

Standing Up for (Our) Whales

The Inquiry into “whales and whaling” provided specific recommendations, which were adopted in full by Prime Minister Fraser:

The Inquiry’s central conclusion is that Australian whaling should end, and that, internationally, Australia should pursue a policy of opposition whaling. (Frost 206)

The inquiry found that the majority of Australians viewed whaling as “morally wrong” and as a nation we should stand up for whales internationally (Frost 183). There is a direct reference here to the moral values of a civilised community, what Arne Kalland describes as a claim to “social maturity” (130). By identifying itself as a nation on the right side of the issue, Australia was pursuing a position of moral leadership on the world stage. The Whale Protection Act (1980) replaced the Whaling Act (1960). Australia’s policy of opposition to whaling was “pursued both domestically and internationally though the IWC and other organizations” (Day 19).

Public opposition to whaling increased with the commencement of Japan’s scientific research whaling program in the Southern Ocean, and the dramatic actions of Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The Daily Telegraph which ran a series of articles under the banner of “our whales” in June 2005 (see, for example, Hossack; Rehn). The conservative Federal Government embraced the idea, with the Department of the Environment and Heritage website including a “Save Our Whales” page. Six months out from the 2007 federal election, opposition leader Kevin Rudd stated “It's time that Australia got serious when it comes to the slaughter of our whales” (Walters). As a “naturally more compassionate, more properly developed” people, we [Australians] had a duty to protect them (Dalziell and Wadiwel 84).

Alongside oft-repeated claims of Australia’s status as a “world leader” and the priority placed on the protection of whales nationally and internationally, saveourwhales.gov.au wristbands were available for order from the government website — at no charge. By wearing one of these wristbands, all Australians could “show [their] support for the protection of whales and dolphins” (Department of the Environment and Heritage). In other words, the wearer could join together with other Australians in making a clear moral and ethical statement about both how much whales mean to us and that we all should stand up for them. The wristbands provided a means to individually and collectively express this is what we do in unobtrusive everyday way.

Dramatic actions in the Southern Ocean during the 2008/09 whaling season received a broader audience with the airing of the first season of the reality TV series Whale Wars, which became Animal Planets most viewed program (Robé 94). As with A Bloody Business, Whale Wars provided an opportunity for a manifestly larger number of people to eyewitness the plight of whales (see Epstein, Power 142). Alongside the dramatised representation of the risky and personally sacrificial actions taken by the crew, the attitudes expressed reflected those of Prime Minister Fraser in 1977: protecting special and intelligent whales was the right and civilised thing to do.

These sentiments were framed by the footage of activists in the series. For example, in episode four of season two, Lockhart McClean, Captain of the MV Gojira referred to Japanese whalers and their vessels as “evil” and “barbaric”, and their practices outdated. The drama of the series revolved around Sea Shepherd patrolling the Southern Ocean, their attempts to intervene against the Japanese fleet and protect our whales.  The clear undercurrent here is a claim of moral progress, situated alongside an enthusiasm to export it. Such sentiments were clearly echoed by Bob Brown, a respected former member of federal parliament and spokesperson for Sea Shepherd: “It’s just a gruesome, bloody, medieval, scene which has no place in this modern world” (Japanese Whaling).

On 31 May 2010 the Federal Government initiated proceedings against Japan in the ICJ. Four years later, the Court found in their favour (Nagtzaam, Young and Sullivan).

Conclusion, Claims of Moral Leadership

How the 2011 live export controversy and opposition to Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean have unfolded provide us with an opportunity to explore a number of common themes. As Dalziell and Wadiwell noted with regard to the 2011 live export controversy, our “national self-image” was central (84). Both disputes encompass claims about us about how we want to be perceived. Whereas our cows and whales appear as key players, both disputes are effectively a ‘history of people with animals in it” (Davis 551). In other words, these disputes were not really about the lives of our farmed cows or whales.

The Federal Government sought to reposition the 2011 live export controversy as providing (another) opportunity "to influence animal welfare conditions in importing countries,” drawing from our own claimed worlds-best practices (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources). The “solution” put forward by White and Jones solution was for Australian farmed cows to be killed here. Underpinning both was an implicit claim that we kill cows in a nicer, more humane and better way: "Australians are naturally more compassionate, more properly developed; more human” (Dalziell and Wadiwel 84).

Similarly, the Federal Government’s pursuit of a position of world-leadership in opposing whaling was rooted in claims of our moral progress as a nation. Having formally recognised the specialness of whales in the 1970s, it was our duty to pursue their protection internationally. We could individually and collectively express national identity on our wrists, through wearing a government-provided saveourwhales.gov.au wristband. Collectively, we would not stand by and let the "gruesome, bloody, medieval” practice of Japanese whaling continue in our waters (“Japanese”). Legal action undertaken in the ICJ was the penultimate pronouncement.

In short, expressions of concerns for our cows whales positioned their bodies as sites for the mapping of relational constructions of our identity and nationhood.

Author’s Note

For valuable comments on earlier drafts, I thank Talei Vulatha, Ben Hightower, Scott East and two anonymous referees.


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