The grim consequences for animals living under Australia’s deficient animal protection laws have been extensively documented over the past decade in horrific detail. Factory-farmed crocodiles are brutally slaughtered for fashion’s sake in the Northern Territory. Millions of animals are crammed into shipping containers and forced to stand for weeks at sea. Racehorses past their gambling industry use-by date are beaten before their deaths at slaughterhouses. Pigs are confined for their entire lives to tiny stalls, unable to so much as turn around.
A new animal welfare nonprofit launched last week, the Australian Alliance for Animals, is promising to fix the country’s “broken” and “outdated” animal welfare regulatory systems.
“No government can reasonably claim it takes animal welfare seriously under current policy and governance settings,” a statement from the Alliance reads. “The current system is simply not working. Animal welfare is being neglected and Australia’s international reputation is suffering as a result.”
The Alliance will be led by two former senior staffers from RSPCA Australia, Dr. Jed Goodfellow and Dr. Bidda Jones, who left their roles at the RSPCA last year to found the new alliance along with Dr. Meg Good, an animal rights lawyer and senior staffer at another Australian animal protection organization, Voiceless.
As some of Australia’s most prominent animal welfare experts, the trio is focusing their initial efforts on campaigning for an independent federal animal welfare commission, after years of government inaction at both the federal and state level on improving the minimum legal standards for animals, especially those hidden from the view of the public as they languish in the feedlots, fields, and sheds that make up the country’s animal agriculture industry.
Animal agriculture is big business in Australia, with animal sources of food and fibers accounting for about half ($30 billion) of the gross value of Australian agriculture as a whole. About 70 percent of this value comes from slaughtered animals. The other 30 percent comes from milk, wool, and eggs. According to the Australian Animal Clock, 1.2 billion have already been killed for food in Australia, just three months into the year.
Despite this, the government has failed to ensure the modernization of Australia’s animal welfare laws. A draft of minimum welfare standards for horses was completed 13 years ago, then left to gather dust. Seven years have been spent on drafting new animal welfare standards for the poultry industry, and are yet to be finalized in the midst of industry pressure over the phase-out of battery hens by 2036. Drafted standards for abattoirs from a decade ago have since been ignored, and government planning for minimum welfare standards for pigs has faltered after a review was completed four years ago.
According to Goodfellow, Australia’s animal welfare laws aren’t reflective of community desires and expectations. “Even when you have a sympathetic population like we generally do in Australia, where Australians are generally pretty concerned about animal welfare as we see in the research and the polling,” he told Sentient Media, “if the system of governance that’s in place is conflicted, then the views of the community can’t find expression through laws and policies.”
That conflict in governance has been seen repeatedly in the wake of animal cruelty scandals exposed in numerous animal industries. In the vast majority of cases, the Australian Government moved swiftly to introduce laws to prevent further evidence of cruelty from ever being published but refused to address the legislation enabling that cruelty. When the New South Wales government proposed a ban on greyhound racing after evidence came to light of widespread live baiting and mass dog culling, the gambling lobby was supported by Australian media in a concentrated campaign to pressure politicians to overturn it. When activists collected extensive footage of animals suffering in factory farms and slaughterhouses across the country, the federal government labeled them “domestic terrorists” and “un-Australian,” and brought in new trespass and “biosecurity” laws in an attempt to scare off activists while doing nothing to ensure animals would not suffer in the same way again.
Australia’s current animal welfare regulation frameworks are akin to delegating environmental protection regulation to departments of mines and resources, Goodfellow says, with the same ministers that hold responsibility for the productivity of the agricultural sector also overseeing animal welfare standards.
“In simple terms, we’re putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” he explains. “There’s inherent conflicts of interest in the design of our approach to setting animal welfare standards and policy. If we don’t address that design fault, we’re always going to be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to getting animal welfare improvements in Australia, and I think that the very design of the system is why Australia is starting to lag behind the developed world in terms of animal welfare standards.”
The international community is starting to take notice of Australia’s horrific record on animal protection laws: the European Union recently considered restricting imports of Australian meat and wool products due to Australia’s refusal to ban or mandate pain relief for painful procedures like tail docking, castration and dehorning. Similarly, animal rights groups raised concerns over the UK Government signing last year’s free trade deal with Australia, as it would allow the import of animal products farmed using practices illegal in the UK—Australia still allows the use of sow stalls, which were banned in the UK in 1999, and permits battery cages and mulesing, both now prohibited in the UK.
Goodfellow told the Sydney Morning Herald last week that the jurisdiction his alliance would like to see replicated in Australia was New Zealand’s, but as he explained to Sentient Media, this was a reference to New Zealand’s process for creating animal welfare standards, rather than a desire to copy every law on the country’s books. “In New Zealand, they’re phasing out live exports, they’ve phased out battery cages, they’re phasing out sow stalls for pigs, and a whole range of issues that the Australian Government hasn’t addressed at all,” he says. “And we think a key component of that is that they’ve got really prescriptive legal requirements in terms of how those standards must be set… and if they don’t meet those requirements then, there’s the opportunity for animal groups to seek judicial review.” Australia, by contrast, does not have“any prescribed legal process for setting our standards, so it’s not accountable and there’s very little transparency or integrity in the process.”
Goodfellow is hopeful that the Australian Alliance for Animals will be able to find common ground with Australia’s agricultural sector as they work towards more protective animal welfare laws, and jointly push the government to start changing laws to improve the lives of animals.
“We would be in favor of government funding for investment in improving animal welfare standards on the ground,” he says. “We’re here to try and find solutions for everybody.”
Matilda is a freelance writer focused on animals, the environment, freedom of information, and the influence of corporations on government.