It’s happened again: an invocation to eat meat for the ‘national interest’. Only this time it’s Lee Lin Chin who is the face of the promotion. What a coup for Meat and Livestock Australia! No one else could say ‘vegans’ in such a deliciously despising tone. The tone is so despising that ‘vegans’ have made the news by lodging a record number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau about this year’s Australia Day lamb promotion. Perhaps the MLA hoped nobody would mess with Lee Lin Chin, not even hard-core, militant, extremist vegans, and let’s be frank: the only other kind of vegan is the bearded hipster variety. MLA, you got us in a corner. But you have also named us, and by naming us you empower us. Mwah-ha-ha.
The ad brings in all the usual tropes of MLA’s annual lamb promotion: getting together with your mates, having a barbecue, playing backyard cricket and drinking cold beer. What could be more Australian than that! The message is that if you don’t eat lamb on Australia Day, then Australia doesn’t want you. If you needed any other illustration of how exclusionary Australian nationalism is, look no further than ‘lambassador’ Sam Kekovich’s response to the vegan complainants. It’s in the same vein as male politicians responding to allegations of sexual harassment from female staffers (that is, ‘it’s all a bit of fun’). Lee Lin Chin commands Operation Boomerang from special ops headquarters. The boomerang on the campaign logo is made of two lamb chops. The big guns have been called out to recall all Australians who are overseas to rescue them from the sad fate of having to ‘lamb alone’ on Australia Day. Isn’t it precisely this parochialism that gives Australians a reason to emigrate?
How funny that this special operation takes as its moniker an Aboriginal word for an Aboriginal object that returns. But where are the Aboriginal people in MLA’s ad? Ah, they don’t need to be recalled because they haven’t even left. Indigenous people in colonised countries somehow missed out on the international mobility that their compatriots take for granted. Let alone this fact, perhaps the inclusion of Aboriginal people in an ad timed with Australia Day would raise the unsettling fact that the day in question is often called Invasion Day by Aboriginal groups and others of settler ancestry who choose not to whitewash our country’s bloody history. Australia as a ‘nation’ still has a lot of reconciling to do.
Exactly what form of nationalist pride are we meant to feel when we eat lamb? How exactly does eating lamb fit into the imaginary of ‘Australia’? The illogic of how eating meat could possibly turn you into a good citizen becomes clearer when you look at Australia’s colonial past, a history that can be seen everywhere we look today. There were 29 sheep aboard the First Fleet when it arrived at the so-called Botany Bay (some 15 evidently dying on the journey from the Cape of Good Hope, among the first victims of live export). By 1800, there were 6,124 sheep in the colony. Two hundred and a bit years later, Australia has approximately 80 million sheep and lambs. All those animals need a hell of a lot of land.
Land was the main reason that Europeans killed Aboriginal people: the land was needed for animals to graze on. Taking over this land meant taking over Aboriginal food sources. Death, whether by massacre or by starvation, was the result. Australia’s agricultural industry was founded on unpaid indigenous labour, also known as slavery. Land clearing also meant loss of biodiversity (half of woodland birds are extinct, for example) and exacerbation of the impact of drought and erosion. Kangaroos and wild dogs are known as pests today not because they are overpopulated but because their habitats and food sources have been taken over by farming, which uses about two-thirds of Australia’s land mass. The sheepmeat industry accounts for a third of all farms with agricultural activity. Given these disastrous impacts and shameful history, is it really in the national interest to support a handful of powerful farming companies?
This year’s ad is a slight change of tack for MLA, with a dose more humour than bullying tactics. The slogan ‘you’ll never lamb alone’ is far more palatable than the aggressive ‘unAustralianism’ – a springboard for racist violence – of campaigns past. But let’s not forget the invisible violence at the heart of the promotion and its victims: sheep’s young. Another example of how the fact of animal farming and animal killing is made invisible, even in a campaign that is so explicit about eating animals. The MLA is happy to tell you how many kilograms of lamb meat the average Australian eats (no doubt the vegans are bringing these numbers down) but if you’re looking for actual numbers of lambs killed, you have to go to animal advocacy groups. According to Animals Australia, about 20 million lambs are killed in Australia each year.
The MLA is always going to run into trouble when trying to tap into something as vague, abstract and fraught as the ‘national interest’ and what it means to be Australian. Let’s not let the MLA have the last and only word on what Australia Day is all about. But let’s thank them for naming a group that has the power to upset its agenda: ‘Vegans’.