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Sheep are sweet but they are not human: human rights are more important

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Monday, 4 October 2004

Goodness knows I’ve done my share of sinning, scamming, shunning and shamming. I’m a snob too because as a writer I have faith in the historical pedigree of my aberrance. But any kind of reckoning of my life of deviance can only ever be based on value judgements, in this case, “yours versus mine”. Indeed, my wickedness is merely an aspirational vanity in comparison with the ethical negligence of our current Federal election campaign.

According to both major parties, voters care most about interest rates, health and education. Our nation is also apparently chewing its heart out over Tasmania’s old growth forests and the lack of “humanitarian” treatment of animals. The word “aboriginal”, let alone the appalling conditions our Indigenous peoples continue to live in, have been almost entirely missing from campaign pledges to date.

Have we lost our minds? Trees are beautiful, but they’re not exactly crying tears of blood as they watch their shrubby offspring mowed down by merciless wood-chippers. Sheep are sweet but they’re about as important in the scheme of 21st century ethical responsibilities as the need for maintaining a decent highway infrastructure, in other words, somewhat lower on the food chain than Indigenous health, education, welfare and community security.


In fact, were they able to tell us themselves, our nation’s magnificent ovine population would remind us that compassionate handling of their export transportation needs can never be an “humanitarian” concern because as animals, they are fundamentally “inhuman.” Yes, the current conditions of the live export industry are brutal, but the animal rights lobby has become so emotively enabled by the flock of unwelcome middle-aged hoggets left afloat in the Arabic Sea 18 months ago - overheated pawns in the midst of a global diplomatic crisis I might add - that Australian media has embraced the rhetoric of this particular interest group unquestioningly, colonising the word “humanitarian” and even more ludicrously, “inhuman” to define animal rights. In comparison, when did we last hear the word “inhuman” uttered in response to Indigenous Australian’s infant health mortality rates?

To me, this cynical commandeering of humanitarian principles on behalf of the plant and animal world tells us a lot about just how unethical we have become in today’s world.  According to a recent article in The Age (September 25, 2004), there is a horrible chance that the only Aboriginal member of Federal Parliament, Australian Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway, may not be re-elected to his seat. Being usurped  by economically emboldened old Labor is one version of the ugly inevitabilities of Australian political life, but to be shafted by environmentalists, who prioritise Indigenous needs somewhere way down on the check list of “feel good urban recycling fashion statements” really is offensive to me.

Professor John Chesterman, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Melbourne University, believes that; “On top of the abolition this year of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the loss of Ridgeway from Federal Parliament would leave Indigenous Australians with fewer national spokespeople than they have had for more than a decade… Political parties, no doubt, have their own reasons for failing to nurture Indigenous candidates (one doesn't hear about parties adopting quotas for Aboriginal people to be preselected in "winnable" seats)…. So Australia's 226 members of the next Federal Parliament may include no Indigenous representatives at all…Indigenous Australians, as descendants of people who were colonised without acquiescence, retain a moral right not shared by any other group to be intimately involved in Australia's key political institutions”.

If this is the reality of the decade long attempt to persuade our nation’s leaders to say “Sorry” to our Indigenous first nation, I believe we’re in big trouble ethically.

Depending on one’s own moral geiger counter, the Spell of the Tiger : The Man Eaters of Sundarbans by SY Montgomery could be one of the international environmental movement’s most glaring lurches from the sublime to the ridiculous. Developing world governments are often persuaded to do almost anything for money in exchange for multi-conditional economic aid packages. India’s Sundarbans mangrove swamps are the largest in the world. Here the community’s heavily protected tiger population has become the hunter, routinely carrying away up to 300 fishermen, honey gatherers and woodcutters annually as part of their regular feast of human flesh. Creatures of veneration for local villagers, many now believe these fierce animals are actively restricting humankind from destroying their habitat.

But western conservationists may well ask: Is it actually worth Indian villagers being eaten so as to save this brutal species? What rationalisation can conservation and animal rights advocates proffer in response to the loss of lives in this especially deadly act of conservation?


Again, the impetus for these analogies spring from my own intricately rationalised ethical value systems. Decent conditions for live animal export are certainly an industrial imperative, just as a half page advertisement in The Australian (September 29, 2004), signed by upwards of 30 prominent Australians, opposing live sheep exports, is a statement of the kind of sanctioned virtue that creates public heroes out of a group of concerned economically enabled citizens. But none of what happens to sheep, my personal favorites in the animal world, or man-eating tigers for that matter, is remotely “inhuman” no matter who says so.

Indeed, as the current election campaign enters its final days, the historical transition of animal rights and environmental concerns into bi-partisan cross party causes célèbre is a magnificent achievement for dedicated campaigners throughout the nation. But have these decades of consistent lobbying been at the expense of focusing on more urgent humanist concerns? If our clean green environment is riddled with the philosophical carcasses of such dramatic intellectical negligence, is our national forest now indelibly stained by the “inhuman” priorities of its preservation?

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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