The animals just can’t take a trick. First it was the cattle, again being sent to Indonesia this week after the federal government ended the suspension of the trade that it imposed at the beginning of June. Now it’s the sheep, stranded off Port Adelaide after the ship they are in developed mechanical failure en route to Qatar.

And this morning, as expected, the House of Representatives unceremoniously rejected a private member’s bill, introduced by the Greens’ Adam Bandt, to end the live animal export trade. Government and opposition both opposed the bill, even though it is not seriously disputed that public opinion is strongly against the trade.

Of course, the public doesn’t always get what it says it wants, and often for good reasons. Many reforming measures — such as ending the White Australia Policy, abolishing capital punishment and cutting tariff protection — were probably contrary to public opinion at the time. And many policy issues have hidden complexities that opinion polls are unlikely to capture.

Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy that on a simple right-or-wrong issue like this, which has been around for many years and extensively debated, our politicians should be so insensitive to what their constituents want.

It’s a classic public choice trap (logging in old-growth forests is another): the industry’s interest in the issue is heavily concentrated in a few people, who therefore have the incentive to spend a lot of time and money on lobbying.

The contrary interest of the mass of the public is widely diffused. And of course those who are most adversely affected — the animals themselves — don’t get counted at all.

Some would argue that our concern about the live export trade is unduly selective. Tyler Cowen last week at Marginal Revolution criticised activists for attacking the treatment of Australian livestock in Turkey, saying “I guess they don’t care about the Turkish animals”.

But while it’s undeniable that there has been a thread of “blame the foreigners” (and especially “blame the Muslims”) in both the Indonesia and Turkey stories, it’s unfair to expect campaigners in Australia to focus indiscriminately on cruelty all over the world. Reasonably enough, our prime concern is with what the Australian government allows and what Australian actions could stop.

In general, it’s just not true that public concern is limited to Australia’s own animals — think of the campaigns against Japanese whaling, or to rescue bears in China, or to stop elephant slaughter in Africa. But when Australians are sending animals on long, nightmarish sea voyages to be tortured overseas, with the active encouragement of our government, that’s something for which we have a special responsibility.

It’s also sometimes said that concern for animals displaces concern for humans: that we are wasting our compassion on the beasts instead of working to end, for example, Australia’s ghastly treatment of asylum seekers.

But the truth is the opposite. Historically, although there are exceptions (yes, we know Hitler was a vegetarian), the two go together: empathy breeds empathy while cruelty breeds cruelty, and we can tell a lot about a society’s values by the way it treats its most vulnerable creatures. (As many readers pointed out when my friend Guy Rundle trotted out this argument a couple of months ago.)

The public’s opposition to the live animal trade is one of several signs that Australians have a bit more of a sense of basic humanity than our governments give us credit for.

Peter Fray

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