Towards a Plant-Based Future: An Interview With Mark Pearson and Emma Hurst

Emma Hurst and Mark Pearson, members of Australia's Animal Justice Party, sat down with Sentient Media to discuss their vision for a plant-based future.

Reported Policy Reflections

Mark Pearson, a member of Australia’s Animal Justice Party (AJP), made history in 2015 when he was elected to Parliament in the state of New South Wales. It was the first time a representative had ever been elected to Australian Parliament on an animal justice platform. In the years since, AJP has racked up some impressive wins, electing two more party members to state governments, Andy Meddick in 2018 and Emma Hurst in 2019. 

Sentient Media’s Markos Hasiotis interviewed Pearson and Hurst earlier this year. They discussed AJP’s approach to sustainability, plant-based foods, and policy-making, as well as their party’s successes and future ambitions. The party members also offered useful insights to other animal activists who may wish to join Parliament. 

Markos Hasiotis: First of all, congratulations to both of you for being two of the first Australians ever elected to Parliament on an animal justice platform. 

Mark Pearson: Thank you! 

Emma Hurst: Thank you! 

MH: What inspired you to run for office? Mark, we’ll start with you. 

MP: There were three main factors that influenced me to get involved in politics. Firstly, when I saw that Marianne Thieme from the Dutch Party Of The Animals got elected in Holland, it started to make people in the Australian animal movement think, “what about a political party for animals?”. At first, I was very skeptical, thinking it’s our job as activists to convince politicians and governments to bring changes for animals, but then when we saw what was happening in Holland, I started to question if it was time for a new type of voice for animals—a political voice. 

The second factor was the killing of kangaroos in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. That upset people so much because it was done in the light of day: they rounded up all these kangaroos, tranquilized them, and then shot them in front of everyone, including Indigenous people who’d had a healing ceremony hear the kangaroos. In the distance, you could see the kangaroo emblem on Parliament House. So that enraged people, and in a way traumatized those who watched the killing taking place, and caused anger at the government that had authorized that. I think that really got people thinking it was time for someone to stand up in that parliament for the kangaroo whose very image is used on our national emblem.   

The third incident was the exposé of the live export of Australian cows to Indonesia, and we saw thousands of people protesting in the streets of Sydney and Melbourne and beyond. I remember standing there looking at all these people from broad demographics—lawyers standing beside animal rights activists with piercings and tattoos, next to police, all standing up to live export, and I thought: “I think the time has come. If all these people are willing to come together about cows, maybe they’re willing to vote.” Shortly after that, we had a meeting at the Animal Liberation office in Sydney, with a few other animal organizations, and over the next year, we established the party. 

MH: That’s amazing. And how about you, Emma, what drove you to run for office? 

EH: I trace my passion for animal protection all the way back to when I was a young child. I remember cradling a hen in my arms and the hen was purring. I remember thinking, “This hen shows joy the same way my cat shows joy. So if I can’t eat my cat, I couldn’t eat this hen.” When I was asked to run for the Animal Justice Party I asked myself, “where am I best placed to help animals?” I could see great work being done by groups getting people to change their diets and their behaviors, and I saw advocacy groups working with companies to develop animal-friendly policies. But in the political space, we were failing animals. NSW backflipped on a greyhound ban and Federal Parliament was pushing to expand the live animal export trade. I knew politics would be an uphill battle—but it was something I needed to do—and we needed people representing animals in this space.

MH: Now it’d be fair to say that a large number of Australians eat meat, are fine with animal farming, enjoy the races, and publicly blast animal protesters. That’s not exactly a promising environment for an Animal Justice Party. And yet you were both elected. Why do you think your message resonated with voters?

MP: I think people resonated with the party because we were a breath of fresh air. We were a party standing up for the vulnerable. Ninety percent of people have a connection with animals, whether it’s a homeless person feeding birds in the park, a person with a pet dog, or somebody who rescues wildlife. So I think because of that, and because of all the nastiness, backstabbing, and hostility in politics, I think people were growing tired and untrusting of the political process. And then along came a new party which isn’t competitive and just wants people to consider animals in the political process, they considered us a comforting new option and a breath of fresh air. 

EH: Tens of thousands of residents voted in the Animal Justice Party because they saw what we saw—that it is time for change. Australians love animals and hate animal cruelty, and every day more people are becoming aware of the cruelty we inflict on animals in industries like entertainment and agribusiness. While a loud minority would like people to believe otherwise, animal protection is now a mainstream issue and Australia has quickly become the third fastest-growing vegan market in the world.

MH: The Animal Justice Party’s time in the NSW Parliament has certainly been an impressive and successful one. What’s been your personal highlight or proudest achievement?

EH: Some of our biggest wins in NSW Parliament include ending the use of cetaceans in entertainment, mandatory lifetime animal bans for abusers, eight-fold increases in penalties for animal abuse, getting animals recognized as victims of domestic violence and added onto ADVOs, and passing an amendment to stop strata by-laws banning animals from living in their homes.

What we have achieved motivates me to work even harder on the things we have planned including banning puppy farming, stopping animal experimentation, and reforming our failing animal cruelty laws.

MH: And you, Mark? 

MP: The report on animal cruelty laws in NSW. I chaired the inquiry and managed to get most of the members to support pretty much all of the most important reforms required in animal cruelty legislation in NSW. What people are saying now around Australia and around the world is that this report from this inquiry is a benchmark for all animal protection legislation in the world. So that’s probably my greatest achievement in parliament. Now, the next stage is to get the NSW Government to actualize and action that report. But as a parliamentary report, that report has standing and it will be there to be referred to by my colleagues in the future after I leave Parliament and all Parliaments in Australia and all governments across the world.  

MH: Could you tell us more about the Animal Justice Party’s vision for a sustainable Australia, Emma?

EH: Right now millions of animals are facing the terror of the slaughterhouse and our climate crisis is edging closer to the point of becoming irreversible. Our governments need to recognize the truth—animal agribusiness is not only unsustainable, it is destroying the planet. But it’s not too late for a solution.

One of the biggest steps toward a more sustainable Australia that our government can take is to invest in plant-based alternatives and to assist farmers to transition away from animal industries. The animal agribusiness industry uses huge amounts of water, contributes to vast land clearing, and generates harmful emissions. There is an opportunity in this time of crisis to stop, assess the impact we are having on the planet, and embrace positive change.

Recently, I put forward a Notice of Motion in Parliament calling on the Australian Government to recognize the negative impact of industrial animal agribusiness on climate change and support the Plant Based Treaty. We need to develop a strategy to transition towards more sustainable plant-based food systems. Our planet is in crisis, and this crisis will only get worse unless governments recognize that animal agribusiness is one of the greatest causes of climate change. We cannot wait any longer. The time for action is now.

MH: It certainly is. How would you say Australia is currently doing in terms of animal welfare and sustainability? 

EH: Australia’s animal protection laws are woefully out of touch with community expectations—and recently we have also seen how out of step they are with the rest of the world with the Voiceless Animal Cruelty Index rating us as one of the worst performers globally. We continue to pump up the size of cows with hormones, we live export animals across many kilometers of the ocean despite overwhelming evidence of cruelty on ships and at their destinations, we still have the majority of eggs from battery caged farming systems, many of pigs are factory farmed in crates and sow stalls, and we still rip testicles off baby piglets without anesthetic.

While Australian states and territories all have animal cruelty legislation, exemptions exist for the animal agribusiness industry, which allows all of this to occur legally. This is why the Animal Justice Party is so important—we need a strong voice for animals in Parliament.

The cruelty exemptions given to the animal agribusiness industry are directly related to Australia’s failure to improve sustainability and address our climate crisis. Animal agribusiness is killing animals, killing our planet, and destroying the environment, yet our governments continue to prop up the industry with subsidies. We need an urgent transition to sustainable plant-based farming to protect our future. 

MH: Would you say that things are better now than they were in previous years, Mark? 

MP: I think we’re actually at the turning point. Just like we are with climate change, with Scott Morrison and the federal government. I think animal protection and climate change realization are at around the same point at the moment, and I’m now very positive because I don’t think we can go backward. We can only go forwards. The community support is so strong, that any government that goes against this new wave of awareness and what society wants, would be doomed.  

But it’s disgusting. It’s appalling that we’re at this point, where the Queen has to ask the Prime Minister of Australia to come to Glasgow to talk about climate change. The world is looking at Australia thinking, “what the hell are you doing with your wildlife and farm animals?  You can’t even get up to the very basic minimum standard of developed nations.” We’re still at a crisis point and you can’t get a better example than the koalas. We’re still trying to compel the NSW Government to act on our report that found koalas could be extinct by 2050, but they’ve got to the point where they can’t ignore it anymore. 

MH: What advice would you give to like-minded people who may want to follow in your footsteps?

MP:  Be inclusive. I think the mistake that can be made by animal activists is that they don’t understand that most people at the moment still believe it is okay to eat animals’ flesh, drink their milk, and wear their skin. But they don’t agree with cruelty. This is what you have to understand: so they may stand and protest against the live export of cows and sheep, but they may go home and eat lamb or a steak. So once you get your head around that contradiction and understand that a person is still a compassionate person, you need to include them, to get support for animal protection issues. For example, the three Animal Justice Party Members of Parliament that have been elected in Australia, and those who have been elected around the world on an animal protection platform, were all voted in by many people who stand against animal cruelty, including people who consume animal products.  

EH: Campaigning is often considered the best route into politics, so I would recommend starting off by looking for organizations and political parties who align with your values, reaching out to them to see how you can help them enact political change, and building from there. Going to events like protests, rallies and workshops are also important so you can network, learn how people successfully create change and identify areas where you can bring value and make a difference. Before entering politics I did several courses on social change and also a trip around the US meeting with changemakers from human rights and environmental organizations. I felt it was important to learn from other movements and understand what has worked and what has not worked for them. Adopting similar campaign and messaging strategies has helped elevate our own campaigns movements in the animal protection space.  

Outside of campaign experience and networking, the most important thing for a political career is to have a passion to make a difference.

MH: Thanks so much to you both. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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