Live export, meatworks and big business in outback Australia
Every year approximately one million head of cattle leave Australian shores on ships bound for South-East Asia, chiefly Indonesia and Vietnam.1 These cattle are travelling to their deaths. Since the mid nineteenth century Australia has exported cattle, helping to shore up supplies in countries where the demand for meat outstrips local availability. Nevertheless, the export of live cattle for slaughter has been a contentious issue in Australia, where pastoralists, exporters and animal welfare campaigners stake moral and ethical claims over the lives of animals produced on Australian soil.
During recent debates, the farmers who produce these cattle have been strategically framed as struggling families, partially obscuring the interests of multimillion-dollar agricultural companies and exporters. Absent has been sufficient attentiveness to the implication of live export in the demise of regionally operated abattoirs or meatworks in Australia. The closure of many of these facilities has had long-lasting impacts in regional towns and communities where few other industries flourish. A close eye to these parallel histories, the ascendency of large-scale corporate agribusiness and the decline of Australian-based meatworks, tells a story of the new political economy of the beef industry in Australia.
The port of Wyndham in the remote East Kimberley region is one outback town whose cycles of boom and bust have been closely linked to the beef industry since the town’s non-Indigenous founding in the 1880s. What began as a dropping-off point for supplies servicing a then burgeoning pastoral industry and a gold rush near the inland town of Halls Creek, Wyndham reached its peak during the mid twentieth century following the establishment of a huge government-owned meatworks in 1919.
Each season between 1919 and 1985, hundreds of workers travelled north to work on the butchering ‘line’ and in the variety of other businesses that sprang up to service the population. Another workforce at the nearby wharf moved the frozen beef onto ships, employing an ethnically diverse set of workers including local Indigenous people. Over this period Wyndham flourished on a distinct seasonal cycle, working-class labour and ideals of hard work and hard drinking. The stranglehold of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union (AMIEU), better known as the Australian Meatworkers Union (AMU), and the Australian Workers Union (later Waterside Workers Federation) ensured high wages flowed through the town.
The closure of the Wyndham meatworks in 1985 followed years of sustained downturn fuelled by a lack of suitable animals for slaughter and soaring wage costs.2 At this time Australia was growing its reputation as an exporter of live cattle, a means of providing fresh meat in countries where the processing costs were substantially lower. I have travelled to Wyndham a number of times since 2013 to talk to people about what has happened in the town since the closure of the meatworks, and to contemplate what these transformations might mean for its future.
It is the winter of 2017. I am in Wyndham and I take up the harbour master’s offer to accompany him on the pilot boat that will usher in a live cattle export ship waiting in the Cambridge Gulf. This operation, and those that facilitate it, will be the only work that flows into the town from this multimillion-dollar shipment. The muddy and turbid waters, recrafted by giant tides that push and pull sediment, make the upper reaches of the gulf difficult to navigate. Under Australian maritime law, large ships require a pilot such as the harbour master to bring them safely into port.
My Hilux door creaks as I ease myself out of the driver’s seat into the cold dark of the early morning. I pull my flannelette shirt around me and walk over to the fence to check the gate leading onto the wharf. Still locked. Having sat in the nearby port office some days earlier, I know that my every move is being recorded on closed circuit television, for me an eerie feeling given the desolate nature of the port at this time of day. I turn around and look back along the single-lane dirt road that I have just driven down and the lights of the port buildings twinkle back at me. As I drove in, I passed four ‘triples’; semi trailers each with three trailers, parked near the port weighbridge ready for their task ahead. Later in the day, the trucks will relay more than 5000 head of cattle and 200 buffalo from a set of nearby stockyards onto the ship that will transport them to Indonesia. Two of the triples have yellow and blue trailers, the familiar colours of the trucking company Road Trains of Australia that is well-known in northern Australia. A couple of camping chairs are positioned next to one of the trucks. I hazard a guess that there are a few truckies sleeping in their rigs for the night.
Wyndham is quiet, most residents tucked in bed in houses nestled into the crumbling orange hills of the Five Rivers Lookout on the Bastion Range. In the dry season, backpackers and grey nomads cram the lookout for a sunset view out over the Ord, King, Pentecost, Forrest and Durack rivers, stopping to feed the rock wallabies that bounce lithely among the boulders. In the foothills of the mountain range, where the meatworks once stood, is a set of stockyards that serve as livestock’s last stopping off point before their ocean journey.
It is from these stockyards that I catch on the breeze the low murmur of cattle, a vivid reminder of the reason for this early-morning foray into the dark. Today I will be a passenger on the pilot boat the Sir Bastion that will take the harbour master out to the mouth of the Cambridge Gulf where an export ship awaits. The pilot boat is bringing in the Ocean Ute, one of the smaller ships owned by the exporter Wellard, whose fleet also includes the ironically named Ocean Drover, Ocean Swagman and the Ocean Shearer. Although in name their fleet of ships draws heavily on the romanticism of Australian pastoralism, Wellard is the largest cattle exporter operating in Australia and the company is mostly overseas owned.3
The much smaller boat that I am travelling on today, the Sir Bastion, is crewed by two men, a tall slim ginger-haired man in his forties and the captain, a shorter, more heavily built man in his fifties. Kevin and Ed are what are known as ‘wharfies’, men who work casual shifts at the port, bringing in and sending off boats, and the other tasks that keep the port operating. As well as the cattle boats, oil tankers and luxury cruise ships come into dock regularly during the dry season, some requiring navigation assistance.
Utilising a small local casualised workforce of about ten men, the port is susceptible to fluctuations in the prices and availability of goods being exported. In any given year, the number of ships that appear in the harbour master’s handwritten ledger reflects these volatilities. In his office a few days after my trip out on the Sir Bastion, the harbour master shows me the book, his immaculate handwriting recording the name of each ship, the date of its arrival and departure. Since the end of a local mining boom, the number of ships using the Wyndham port has dwindled from around 100 to less than 50 each year, a portion of which are ships for live export. Discussing this downturn the harbour master refers to the ‘shutdown’ of live export in 2011 as the ‘death knell’ and a ‘kick in the guts’ for the regularity of ships for live export.
On the wharf my wait is almost over as Kevin pulls up in his car, unlocks the gate and gestures for me to follow. Once I am on the wharf proper I hear the ‘curthunk, curthunk’ as the tyres on my four-wheel drive pitch over the heavy wooden beams. Kevin tells me to wait on the wharf while he and Ed fetch the boat in a small dinghy that they lower using a mechanical winch. Once the dinghy hits the water, he and Ed descend a ladder and a steep set of metal stairs and putter over to where the Sir Bastion is moored. When they arrive and tie up to the wharf it is my turn, and Kevin tells me to come down. The stairs are painted and a white chalk covers my hands. I grip a little too tightly, a little dizzy at the see-through steps allowing me to see the wharf lights glinting on the water below.
Once aboard Kevin tells me that he has been told to look after me, and he hands me a beanie, which I gladly pull down over my ears. The men laugh and Ed asks if I would like a coffee. He soon returns with heavily sweetened cups of International Roast served in well-worn plastic travel mugs. As they give me a tour, it is clear that the men are proud of their boat, pointing out various features. The harbour master arrives, his European ute pulling onto the wharf. It is not just the time of his arrival that separates Adrian from the other men; he has an English accent and is well dressed, a black leather satchel swung over one shoulder. As we get underway I ask Ed about his son, a highly regarded young Indigenous footballer who has lately been offered a contract with one of Western Australia’s two AFL teams, the West Coast Eagles. Ed beams with pride but tells me that his son has sustained a knee injury and will not play in the upcoming season.
Pushing out in the direction of the Cambridge Gulf, towards what Wyndham locals call the ‘blue water’, Kevin gestures at the rocky cliffs around us and asks if I like what they have ‘done with the place’. The men jest that they designed the landscape itself, in much the same way as the designing of sets for the theatre. And as the sun begins to rise over the water, it does feel like theatre, the stunning orange cliffs animated by the early morning light. Such is their familiarity with it and the regularity of this journey that the men narrate the environment around us, pointing out various features and retelling amusing anecdotes from many years boating in these reaches.
Later, where the cliffs open out to flatter, less spectacular country, the men tell me that their set-making enterprise ran out of money. As it is still dark, I can see the glow of a fire on the horizon. At this time of year, the Kimberley is regularly ablaze, a combination of fires lit by the Department of Parks and Wildlife and locals, ensuring Wyndham lives up to its moniker of ‘Smokey Town’. I tell the men that I cannot believe how beautiful it is and how surprised I am that so few people travel out here. ‘We’d prefer to keep it that way,’ Adrian says, giving me a knowing nod.
Kevin tells me that we are on the lookout for ‘Cambridge icebergs’; trees and debris washed down and out of the rivers by giant tides. Even on calm days the tides ensure that the water here is a turbid, churning chocolate milkshake. Just on daybreak we reach the Ocean Ute which is at anchor awaiting our arrival. Travelling around the port side, we come alongside to where a rope ladder dangles down. Men in blue and white overalls peer down at us. Although the trip has been fairly calm, once we pull alongside the Ocean Ute, the water surges between the boats and we lurch forwards. Suddenly the Sir Bastion feels tiny, like a bath-time toy.
Before I have a chance to steady myself, Adrian has two feet on the ladder and Kevin is manoeuvring the Sir Bastion away. I am amazed at how quickly Adrian scales the ladder and is onto the ship: the transfer is seamless. We slowly make our way back to the port, only losing sight of the Ocean Ute briefly after we round Adolphus Island, about halfway into the journey. By the time we reach the port it is nine-thirty and we help a small crew of men tie up the big ship, manoeuvring ropes to allow it to come alongside. Later in the day when the tide is optimal, the yellow and blue trucks roar into action, relaying cattle and buffalo from the stockyards.
Stimulated by an ABC Four Corners investigation titled ‘A Bloody Business’, in 2011 the Australian Government placed a temporary ban on the live export of cattle from Australia to Indonesian abattoirs.4 At the time, live exports to Indonesia comprised more than 60 per cent of all cattle exported from Australian ports.5 The ABC investigation depicted numerous incidences of cruelty towards cattle in Indonesian abattoirs, some as the result of ineffective stunning practices and other intentional acts of senseless brutality.
At the time of the screening, live export seemed unfamiliar to many Australians, but the industry gained pace during the 1980s, driven largely by growing prosperity and growing demand for beef in Asia.6 A number of high-profile shipments involving the deaths of hundreds of animals aboard ships meant that animal welfare concerns have been reflected in trade negotiations since the 1990s. The continued development of technology and tightening of regulations associated with transportation have driven many of the improvements in animal welfare outcomes in the export industry during this period.7
Australia is the largest exporter of live animals in the world, so the contribution to the economy is significant. Export also fulfils an important role in the geographic distribution of the production of animals. While the southern states produce animals destined for sale and butcher through local facilities, in northern Australia live export provides a mechanism to sell cattle that turn out a lower fat content, the result of having been raised in more marginal environmental conditions. Lasting six weeks, the ‘live export ban’ was highly political with the then Opposition Agriculture spokesperson Barnaby Joyce lambasting the minister, Joe Ludwig, calling him a ‘catastrophe’. Five years after the ban was put in place, Barnaby Joyce issued a press release referring to the harm done to Australian farms and businesses as ‘irresponsible’, ‘knee-jerk’ and resulting in ‘extreme hardship’.8
Despite the claim, the published figures of the industry’s peak body, Meat & Livestock Australia, suggest that the ban had a more moderate impact on the total number of cattle exported annually. These figures were 874,916 in 2010, 694,796 in 2011 (the year of the ban) and 619,418 in 2012, followed by steady increases to more than one million head every year to 2016.9 Although clever marketing campaigns describe the affected farms as family enterprises, it is most often the case that the properties that produce the large volumes of cattle intended for export are owned by corporations that hold pastoral leases worth tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the Kimberley region they include wealthy Australian entrepreneurs Kerry Stokes’ Australian Capital Equity, Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting Group, the Holmes à Court family’s Heytesbury Cattle Co. and a number of investment conglomerates including Archstone/Agrify’s Consolidated Australian Pastoral Holdings, Shanghai CRED, Terra Firma’s Consolidated Pastoral Company and Shanghai Zhongfu’s Kimberley Agricultural Investment (KAI). As has been the case worldwide, the vertical integration of beef supply chains from paddock (breeding and growth) to feedlot (fattening) and butcher has favoured a scale of production best met by large business enterprises.10
The live export industry has a particular history in Wyndham. Since I first visited the town in 2013, I have come to understand the role the port facility plays in residents’ and visitors’ imagination of the place and its future. Going into decline since the 1980s when the meatworks closed, Wyndham’s population has dwindled from a peak of more than 2000 people during the 1980s to about 700 at the most recent census in 2016.11 The so-called grey nomads who awkwardly manoeuvre their caravans here during the dry season have witnessed this decline.
They tell me that it is ‘sad’ to see the town ‘dying’, a conclusion that they draw from seeing boarded-up houses and abandoned businesses down the main street. Grey nomads and other tourists, many of whom have relatives who worked in the town during its boom, view live export and the port as the only kinds of industry ‘keeping it going’. What the grey nomads and tourists do not see is the implication of live export in the demise of what was the town’s main industry. What has emerged from talking to current and former residents of Wyndham, including those previously employed in the meatworks, is the complexity of the relationship between live export and domestic meatworks.
Later in the year I am in Perth visiting one of the men who worked at the Wyndham meatworks during the 1960s and 1970s. ‘CC’ tells me about his history of working in abattoirs around Western Australia, including ten seasons at the Wyndham meatworks. I first met CC at the Wyndham races in 2016 during the 130-year celebration of the founding of the town and he is keen to share his memories. With a twinkle in his eye and the kind of larrikin sensibility common in remote Australia, he recounts the roles of each of the men along the butchering ‘line’, those who facilitated the transition of a live animal to a set of dissected body parts ready for distribution. He recalls the sense of camaraderie among the men. He tells me about their playful but hostile relationship to the ‘townies’—those who lived in the town but worked in the industries ancillary to the meatworks.
In the early days of the meatworks, cattle were stunned by a ‘knocker’, a man wielding a sledgehammer, before the still live but unconscious animal was moved along to a ‘sticker’, who cut the femoral artery and bled the animal to death. Modern stunning processes for cattle involve a mechanically delivered bolt and although such practices are mandatory in Australian abattoirs, they are inconsistently regulated in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries that import Australian animals. Poor application of the stunning process whereby animals are rendered unconscious prior to being killed, was one of the malpractices that led to the 2011 ban.
As the union boss for much of his time in Wyndham, CC describes an entirely unionised workforce and recalls the impact of the breakdown in negotiations regarding pay and performance. He laments the emergence of what he refers to as ‘the greedy meatworker’, including himself in the description, as seeking unsustainable wage increases. For CC, the live export ban gave him the opportunity to reflect on the catalyst for the demise of the meatworks in Wyndham. He tells me, ‘Of course I’m dead against live shipping because it has cost meatworkers their livelihood.’ As well as in Wyndham, three abattoirs in Perth and abattoirs in Broome and Derby have closed, something CC attributes to the impact of live export. When I ask him to elaborate he tells me about one of the remaining abattoirs in Perth:
Twiggy Forrest owns that. Well my opinion, because he sells his iron ore to China, he wants to jump on the bandwagon and supply them meat as well. And of course, Gina Rinehart’s doing it. Kerry Stokes is doing it. All the billionaires are jumping on the bandwagon, you know.
The next day at a café in a shopping centre in suburban Perth I meet two other men who worked at the Wyndham meatworks. Roger and Frank swap comical stories from the 1970s and 1980s, but clearly the nostalgia has an effect and the men become very earnest when telling me it was the best times of their lives. Then without prompting, and in much the same way as CC did on the previous day, the men discuss live export as the end of their trade. ‘That killed it: the live export. Which we all thought was very sad … When it finished it was so sad, like there was suicides [among the meatworkers]. There was blokes committed suicide. I know of two.’ These opinions signal what might seem to be an unlikely alliance, one between Australian meatworkers and animal welfare campaigners. Both oppose live export, albeit for different reasons.
Firmly in the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union’s cross hairs is the former agriculture minister and now former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, who is on record as having accepted regular helicopter flights as ‘gifts’ from the Stanbroke Pastoral Company, one of Australia’s largest agricultural companies. In 2017 Joyce was controversially linked with Gina Rinehart, who made a $40,000 donation to his re-election campaign for the seat of New England, after he had been found ineligible to sit in parliament due to his dual citizenship. A number of high-profile former politicians are also embedded in the live export industry, most notably former Labor agriculture minister Simon Crean, who is the chair of the peak industry body Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council.
In the years since the ban, live export has been further complicated by Indonesian aspirations to become self-sufficient in beef supply, cutting its import quota of Australian cattle. In Australia pressure has come from decade-high local beef prices in the southern markets, with many farmers choosing to sell their cattle locally, making it more difficult for exporters to compete commercially for the volumes of cattle needed to fill ship holds. Evidence of continued breaches of basic animal welfare expectations, and related government interventions into supply chain management will pose additional challenges for the industry.
In November 2017, at a live export conference in Perth, a number of exporters, including LiveCorp director David Galvin, called on the RSPCA to drop its policy to ban live export. In response, the CEO Heather Neil reiterated the RSPCA’s policy that animals should be ‘slaughtered as close to the point of production as possible because that’s in their best interests’. In Australia the demise of regionally operated meatworks has ensured the opposite; that cattle now travel vast distances before they are slaughtered. For Wyndham and towns like it, the closure of such facilities has also been part of their social and economic demise and they struggle to hold on.
Cameo Dalley is an omnivore and ex-Queenslander living in Melbourne. She is the McArthur Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Melbourne.
- Meat & Livestock Australia. 2018. ‘Market Information: Australia livestock exports’, <https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/trends–analysis/livelink/australia—livestock-exports—global-summary—18-may-edition.pdf.>
- R. Matthews and T. Ryan, The History of Australian Cattle Prices since 1970, Meat & Livestock Australia, 2015.
- See <https://www.wellard.com.au/about-2/>.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Four Corners, ‘A Bloody Business’. <http://www.abc.net.au/
4corners/a-bloody-business—2011/2841918>, 8 August 2011.
- C. Petrie, Live Export: A Chronology, Research Paper Series 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, 18 July 2016.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Four Corners.
- Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Four Corners.
- Barnaby Joyce, ‘Five year anniversary of Labor’s live cattle ban’, <http://nationals.org.au/five-year-anniversary-of-labors-live-cattle-ban/>, 7 June 2016.
- Meat & Livestock Australia, ‘Market Information: Australia livestock exports’, 2018, <https://www.mla.com.au/globalassets/mla-corporate/prices–markets/documents/trends–analysis/livelink/australia—livestock-exports—global-summary—18-may-edition.pdf.>
- B. Plunkett, A. Duff, R. Kingwell and D. Feldman, ‘Australian agricultural scale and corporate agroholdings: Environmental and climatic impacts’, International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, vol. 20, no. 2 (2017), pp. 187–90.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics, Wyndham (WA) General Community Profile, Table G03, Place of usual residence on census night by age, 2016, <http://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/communityprofile/SSC51639?opendocument>