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Independent Office of Animal Welfare Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 9 Feb 2018

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (17:12): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Today I will revisit the Greens Voice for Animals (Independent Office of Animal Welfare) Bill 2015. We first introduced this in 2015. We've taken the call for an independent office of animal welfare to a number of elections. The Greens are very passionate about the issues of animal welfare and animal rights.

In Australia the need for this office has really become more pressing. You really need to go back to 2013 to look at some of the developments then. There was a real wind-back on animal welfare issues. This was a huge setback because at the time there were a number of bodies in place at a federal level that allowed for consideration to be given to the protection of animals. There were advisory bodies that did actually exist, but under the Abbott government all that was removed. It was a messy structure, but there were means for stakeholders to come forward at the federal level to have some input. But these structures went, and since 2013 there's been no way for stakeholders to engage with industry for there to be some cross-fertilisation of ideas for people to raise their concerns. That's very serious.

From 2013, because of that shocking step backwards, many animal organisations such as Animals Australia, Voiceless and others have raised a voice very strongly calling on political parties to come forward with an independent office of animal welfare. I emphasise the word 'independent' because that's really what's critical here. We understand that, in terms of how governments work, they can set up such bodies.

So what we were left with was that the Labor Party did move on an office of animal welfare but not an independent one. I'll come to this in more detail, but I just wanted to give some framework to how this has played out in cent years. Sadly, what they did was say: 'The office of animal welfare? Yes, it's needed, but it will go in under the Department of Agriculture.' That is totally inappropriate. This is where there's a huge conflict of interest, with the department of agriculture having failed in so many areas for so long to adequately ensure that animals aren't exploited, don't suffer and are not abused in how they're used in various production processes.

That's been a very big issue in how we've approached the urgent need for this office to be established. We need to ask ourselves: how many animals must suffer cruel and torturous conditions in how they live and die? How can it be that those charged with protecting animals from abuse are too often the ones who benefit most from it? I urge that senators, in considering this bill before them, give some thought to those important questions, because this independent office of animal welfare is, in the scheme of things, very mild. It's not about to change agriculture. It's not about to change how everything works when it comes to the use of animals in this country. But it allows the different people who are concerned about this to engage with government and industry.

I'm fortunate to have this portfolio, and one thing that comes forward so often when I engage with this work is the range of people from such diverse parts of our society—politically, socially, where they work—who are deeply concerned about animal welfare, but they're frustrated by how animals are handled in this society. They feel they have nowhere to turn. A federal independent office of animal welfare is urgently needed to help people engage successfully, get this national conversation going and get some strategies in place so we can ensure that the suffering of animals does not continue.

The essence of this bill is the establishment of a Commonwealth statutory authority that would have responsibility for advising about the protection of animal welfare in Commonwealth-regulated activities. How would it go about that? It would establish an office of animal welfare that would be an independent statutory authority. It would have a CEO, and that person's functions would include the reviewing and monitoring of live export standards and the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, known as ESCAS.

ESCAS alone shows why this office is needed. It was set up apparently to ensure that the suffering that we have seen so graphically many times on our TV screens when animals are exported overseas would not continue. But ESCAS has been a failure. We're told it works, but so often we see the proof in a very graphic way that that's not the case. This office would also report on animal welfare issues that impact the Commonwealth, report on the work of animal welfare committees and review animal welfare laws and policy that impact on the Commonwealth. That's what I wanted to emphasise. We'll probably hear some speeches in this debate that get all outraged about what Greens and animal groups have said about live exports and trying to end cruel cosmetics.

Senator O'Sullivan: You're going to hear that next—just be patient!

Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge that the interjections have already started from the Nationals. We have a bill that we could all unite around because it's about bringing forward adequate processes. Surely nobody wants animals to suffer in various production processes. That's all it does—use various means through this statutory body.

The CEO will report to the minister. They can put forward recommendations to the minister, and those recommendations and their reports need to be tabled in parliament. The minister will be required to respond to those recommendations. It's not just a fancy little body that sits there and sounds good; it actually has follow-through. We, as parliamentarians, can scrutinise it, and the public can be fully aware of what's going on.

As I said, the bill is an opportunity for Labor and the coalition to really show that they are committed to working in a collaborative way to establish an independent office of animal welfare that has the power to bring forward strategies and talk with those involved with animals in all sectors and different industries so we can lift our standards in this country. This is something that is happening in many other countries; they're starting to recognise that in the 21st century we need to show that we do care about animals, that we do understand that they have rights and that we have a responsibility to promote their welfare. With an independent office we can achieve that.

As I said in my opening remarks, Labor have come forward with a policy of an office of animal welfare, but for various reasons it sounds like they're trying to walk down the middle of the road again, trying to give a voice to those in animal groups who are agitating around this issue. They've come forward with the office, but because they're keeping it under the department of agriculture it is effectively sending a signal to certain sectors of the industry, particularly the big agribusinesses, that nothing really has changed. We know that if you walk down the middle of the road you're going to get run over. Labor really should be showing some leadership on this, working with those people who are advocating for an independent office of animal welfare. They're saying they want one, but why put it in the department of agriculture? It's not the way to proceed.

Senator O'Neill: Because it's a balanced approach!

Senator McKenzie interjecting

Senator RHIANNON: I am again happy to acknowledge the interjections coming from both sides of the chamber. In 2012, I understand, the federal parliamentary Labor Party caucus endorsed the Live Animal Export Working Group of caucus to develop a model for the office of animal welfare. I understand it reported to the Labor agriculture minister in 2013. So they've been working on this for six years, and again I commend them for that. It seemed to be going somewhere, but then things started to slip. What happened was that when the Greens questioned the Labor minister of agriculture about the office, they said:

I recognise that there is work to be done in this area but the primary responsibility for animal welfare issues does remain with the state and territories.

I've got to say that when I heard those words coming from Labor it was a real worry because they're weasel words. That's pollie speak for not wanting to get caught out. But these days people are cluey and they can see what's going on there. Labor were wanting not to say, 'We're not going to deliver on an independent office of animal welfare,' and so they tried to get out of it by passing the buck. I'm not letting the coalition off the hook; we're about to hear from Senator O'Sullivan and he'll give a big blast to this whole idea, going by previous track records. That's deeply appalling, but again it's a reminder that Labor should have some backbone on this and show some leadership. You can't just talk about an office of animal welfare, thinking that'll get you through the next election and you'll have some talking points around it; you have to be serious about it and make it independent.

The bill that we have before us does allow a constitutionally valid federal response to animal cruelty issues that tragically continue to occur at alarming rates in Australia. What it does—this is where the coalition should actually wake up to themselves—is reinstate the coalition government's dissolved Australian Animal Welfare Strategy and its advisory group and begin the long but easily doable task of protecting animals in this country. I think it's worth reminding ourselves why this office is needed. This is where we do actually need to think of the animals involved—the suffering of animals like poultry hens, dairy cows and beef cows. The list goes on and on, sadly, and it doesn't have to be like that.

Senator O'Sullivan: And Leadbeater's possums!

Senator RHIANNON: I'm always happy to take your interjections, Senator O'Sullivan, because you expose where you're coming from. Let's just remind ourselves of the depth of the failure of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System, the ESCAS. I imagine most, if not all, of us have seen the harrowing images of cattle cowering, slowly dying under the blows of sledgehammers, throats sawn agape, eyes gouged and tendons slashed; and of sheep kicked, trussed together, thrown on the top of car roofs or thrown in the back of boots when it's baking hot—suffering an appalling death. That's how it's been for too long.

These are the things that we should be dealing with and working out how we can end them, not coming up with an ESCAS scheme that is really nothing more than a PR exercise so when the exporters are caught out again, the government can get up there and say: 'We've got rules. We'll have to investigate why they were broken. They've broken Australian rules.' We know now that that's absolutely ridiculous. How can you control animal welfare from behind a desk in Canberra? It's not possible. Different countries have different rules. Just on the issue of live exports, I can never understand why Labor go along with live exports. We know why Liberals and Nationals do, because they're locked on to the rich pastoralists.

Senator McKenzie: They're sovereign nations.

Senator O'Sullivan: That is ridiculous.

Senator McKenzie: Are you serious?

Senator RHIANNON: I'm happy to take your interjections. But let's remember that none of those pastoralists involved in the live export trade rely solely on live exports. And this is where these Nationals are such a sellout to regional Australia. Where these Nationals are such a sellout to regional Australia is that if we built the abattoirs, if we got the infrastructure in place so there were all-weather roads leading to those abattoirs, then we could create tens of thousands of jobs in regional Australia.

Again, they voted today. We had a motion in parliament today about live exports. Again, Liberal, Labor and Nationals all voted against it, with the Greens and Derryn Hinch standing up for what should be a win-win in transitioning away from live exports to developing chilled box meat in Australia. In doing that, we would create these thousands of jobs.

You all get up there and beat up on the Greens about jobs. When we recognise that an industry is in transition, we have a jobs plan, and this is certainly one where we have worked with the meat employees union and worked with animal welfare groups, recognising that this is where something can be achieved for animals, for regional Australia and for jobs, bringing back dignity to people who, in many places for generations, haven't had work because of policies that come from the Liberals, Labor and the Nationals.

When we saw that vision, Australians were rightly outraged. I think it's worth revisiting what happened in May 2011, when we saw the first very graphic vision of the live export trade. The Gillard government were in office and they did listen to public opinion. They suspended the trade. They did the right thing. But rather than hold on to the decision that they had made, they just weakened. They gave it away. They didn't look to the future in transitioning out of the live export trade to the boxed chilled meat trade in Australia. We clearly would be able to develop it in a way that the suffering of the animals would be drastically reduced, jobs would be promoted and we could boost the economy of Australia, so a win-win-win. It is a fantastic plan, a plan that still should be adopted, and one day, I'm sure, it will be. But because Labor went weak there, we ended up with a shocking decision for the animals, for regional Australia and for the economy.

The Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union has identified that 40,000 jobs were lost due to the live export trade over a number of decades. And independent research also shows that livestock processed in Australia are worth more to the economy, in the case of sheep 20 per cent more.

Senator O'Sullivan: Who's going to eat it?

Senator RHIANNON: Yeah, okay, that's a great interjection. It shows how ignorant Senator O'Sullivan is about this. He thinks he's being smart by saying, 'Who's going to eat it?' You're the one telling us about how the world wants to eat Australia's meat. The box chilled meat export trade is expanding around the world, and Australia is missing out on it because of the failure of successive governments to get behind it.

Government senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Fawcett ): Order on my right!

Senator RHIANNON: What a silly question: who's going to eat it? It's about the export trade. Surely, you must have examined it?

Again, it's just that you're locked on to a few pastoralists and also that you're obsessed by the whole issue. It is clear that trying to reform and regulate the live export industry has failed.

Again, this gives further weight to the Greens' call for an independent office of animal welfare. I acknowledge that we're not going to solve this issue overnight, but we need to look at a strategy for what works best for this country. This country includes the people, it includes consideration of their jobs and it includes consideration of animal welfare. The office would be integral to the welfare of animals across Australia.

The committee—which is part of what we would be setting up in this bill, along with the CEO—would consist of scientists, consumer groups, non-governmental animal welfare groups, the department, commercial producers and purchasers of animals and animal products. These stakeholders, collectively, would have a seat at the table together. That would allow for reasonable debate. At times it would be challenging, but you could have a balanced debate surrounding animal welfare and animal rights. That really is the direction that we need to be taking, for so many reasons. We still have before us—this fell over at the end of last year—trying to deal with cruel cosmetics. It looked like the Liberal-National government was running a bit of a scam on that one. We need to get back to that, so that we can stop cosmetics and ingredients coming into this country that have been tested on animals. Then there's the issue of the management of our poultry, both for egg-laying poultry and poultry that is eaten.

In too many areas there is extreme cruelty continuing, and something needs to be done about this. Right now, the situation is leaving Australia very vulnerable. We've seen reports of dairy cows having their calves removed moments after birth, as surplus to requirements; hens in artificially-lit sheds and overcrowded cages where they are constantly standing on sloping, wired floors, never able to rest their legs; and mother pigs confined to pens too small. There are so many reasons why an office of animal welfare is urgently needed, an office that is independent, that works with all stakeholders and that can ensure our economy develops in a proper way. (Time expired)


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