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MV Bahijah live export fiasco has echoes of 2011 live cattle export ban

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 13 February 2024

Australia is still counting the cost of the Gillard-era suspension of the live cattle trade in 2011. The suspension was in response to an ABC Four Corners programme showing Australian cattle being slaughtered inhumanely overseas. Viewers were shown footage of cruel treatment of some animals, the implication being that most animals shipped overseas met a similar fate. Australia had exported more than 500,000 live cattle (worth about $400 million) to Indonesia the year before, so that the effects of the suspension were bound to be ruinous for many Northern producers.

The Federal Court in 2020 ruled that the blanket suspension was "invalid", "capricious and unreasonable", and amounted to "misfeasance in public office" so that the Australian Government was liable for damages. The cattle industry expected compensation of around $1 billion but to date the Commonwealth has offered only $215 million, so that the matter is likely to drag out further in court.

A further issue is that domestic processing and related livestock prices (the alternative to live export) are affected by volatile numbers, high labour costs, regulatory burdens, and soaring energy charges. Returns from sheep had plunged during 2023 and have always been affected by high meat processing costs and periodic oversupply.


Australian meat processing costs are about a third higher than in the US, and (for beef) between 1.45 and 1.75 times the cost in South America. Australia's regulatory cost burden is estimated to be 2.75 times that of Brazil, 2.4 times that of the United States and 1.89 times more than Argentina. Live export avoids many of these costs and helps put more money in farmers' pockets.

Fast forward to 2024 and the same issues are again coming into play. Effectively the animal activist lobby, supported by elements of the media, the unions, and the left wing of Australian politics, saw the crisis with the MV Bahijah as an excuse to put the boot into live export again. [The Albanese government is already committed to ending live export of sheep by sea.] These groups were simply "bursting" for an extreme animal welfare problem to be exposed to provide an excuse to finally end all live export.

The paradigm being pushed is the same now as in 2011 (ie for live exports to be banned, with animals instead to be slaughtered at Australian abattoirs). The premise is that this will be beneficial for both livestock welfare, employment, and for the economy due to greater "added value" being generated in Australia (supposedly a "win-win" outcome). The reality to date has not followed this script.

With cattle, this model has already been busted. AACo in 2017 (against overwhelming industry opinion) built a new $100 million abattoir in Darwin. This became the only such large-scale facility north of a line between Townsville and Perth. The plant suffered large operating losses, so that AACo suspended operations just 15 months after the plant was built, and it remains in mothballs today.

The cold reality is that there is no economic alternative to the live export trade for Northern cattle. The high costs of Australian processing plus difficulty in supplying stock during the wet season seem unsurmountable issues. Also, most live cattle go to Asia on relatively short journeys (three-and-a-half-days from Darwin to Jakarta) and they can be fed and watered en route. This seems preferable to the 1000 kilometres or more road journey (without feed or water) often required for domestic slaughter. Over 75 per cent of Northern properties are reported to be partially or completely reliant on live cattle export so that, if live cattle export is banned, much of the Northern pastoral belt would (at huge cost to local economies) revert to vacant land or maybe become national park.

With live sheep the situation is more complex.


Sheep are generally run south of the Monsoon belt and have closer access to domestic abattoirs. Live export (pertinent mainly to WA) increases in importance as a safety valve when the domestic market is over-supplied, as it has been over the past 12 months. Sheep are known to be less resilient travellers than cattle (even during local road transportation), though mortality rates during export have been significantly reduced through reduced stocking densities, improved ventilation, and other measures on ships.

The MV Bahijah loaded about 2000 cattle and 14000 sheep in Fremantle, and departed for Jordan on 5 January 2024. As a condition of departure, the exporter was required to lodge contingency arrangements should the vessel not be able to reach its proposed destination. The exporter also loaded additional fodder and veterinary supplies above those required by Australian Standards, and a registered veterinarian was on board the vessel.

The federal Agriculture Department ordered the MV Bahijah to return to Australia on 12 January, amid concerns about escalating attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, despite the owners wanting to divert elsewhere. The ship arrived back off the coast of Western Australia on 22 January (during a severe heatwave) but did not berth at Fremantle Port until 1 February. The animals remained on board while the exporter's application to send them to the Middle East via the Cape was evaluated.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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