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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Live exports, offshore detention: the lie that diminishes us all

Who are we? We tell ourselves we are compassionate. We've rules for determining how long anyone can be in prison, rules prohibiting cruelty to animals. We even begin parliamentary sittings with the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses ... deliver us from evil".

Yet we send people and animals to torture and death overseas with scarcely a second thought.

On Thursday the ABC's 7.30 showed shocking footage of Australian cattle being bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers. Animals Australia says the lucky ones die immediately. The unlucky remain conscious, in pain and terror, bellowing as they are hit again and again.

It's one of the ways cattle are killed in Vietnam, and we've known about it for years.

Just last year, after earlier secretly recorded vision emerged, our live exporters said their talks with the Vietnamese had given them "a sense that changes would be made".

In 2011, truly shocking footage of Australian animals being tortured forced Labor to ban the export of live cattle to Indonesia. So big had been the public outcry that Centrelink staffed the department's phones.

"I truly do wonder how you sleep at night," said one letter to the minister. "I grew up on sheep and cattle stations and was killing my own meat the age of 14, but I have no stomach for the collection of various tortures I have witnessed inflicted upon the species bred by us, to sustain us."

A few months later "tough new regulations" were put in place and the ban lifted. A year later it happened again, this time in Pakistan, then a year later in Egypt, then Israel. Each time it was never going to happen again, and each time we only knew about it because of a leak to an outlet like Four Corners.

There's talk of making it an offence to film the treatment of Australian animals overseas, just as it is now an offence for health workers to report what they've witnessed happening to human beings on Manus Island and Nauru.

The link is that if these things are happening offshore (even to those for whom we have responsibility) we can kid ourselves we are true to our values at home, all the more so if the details are kept from us.

It's why the United States tortures its captives offshore, in secret locations.

Except that it doesn't work. Cognitive dissonance is a technical term for the mental stress we experience when we know that we are doing something wrong.

Showing around Australia right now is Chasing Asylum, a movie made using hidden cameras in our offshore detention centres. For me the most chilling part is the interview with the former prison officer who says the people he locked up in Australia weren't that badly off. They knew when they would be released.

Neither of our main political parties wants to stop shipping people and animals overseas. But the Greens and others do. We are able to make choices in the fortnight ahead, or we are able to turn our backs and tell ourselves it isn't happening here.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald