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Monday, 8 March 1999
Page: 2406

Senator BARTLETT (10:00 PM) —I rise to speak about an industry of importance to this nation and an issue that concerns many Australians: the egg industry and its method of production. On 17 February in this chamber, Senator Ferris launched an outrageous attack on the RSPCA in relation to their campaign against battery egg farming and tried to suggest that that organisation was operating solely from a personal interest perspective rather than a concern about the welfare of the hens that were involved.

I am sure this is an issue of great interest to you, Madam President, as a representative of the ACT, because in September 1997 the ACT Legislative Assembly passed legislation that would make it illegal to produce, sell or bring battery eggs into the ACT. This would have made the ACT only the second place in the world where battery cages are banned. The first was Switzerland in 1992. In January of this year, the European Parliament voted to phase out battery cages by 2009—perhaps, in part, inspired by the lead that the ACT had provided.

In my own state of Queensland, barn-laid eggs—as opposed to free range—have only recently become available on supermarket shelves. These eggs, which are produced at Beerburrum just north of Brisbane, are being promoted by the RSPCA who quite openly promote the fact that they get two per cent of the sales income. I have spoken and written about this issue of the need to phase out battery cage eggs in recent times, because the recognition of animal welfare interests as part of primary food production is an important issue. This prompted a response from the egg industry. The head of the Australian Egg Industry Association, Mr Hugh McMaster, responded to an article I put in the Canberra Times on this issue, inviting me to examine modern egg industry production and suggesting that battery cage production is something that these days is much better than what it was in the bad old days.

I should indicate to the Senate that I have inspected the operations of battery egg farms here in Canberra some three or four years ago. It was not as a result of an invitation, it was a matter of going and looking for myself a few years ago at what the conditions were like. I recall at that time, which was before I became a member of this chamber, the efforts of some of the citizens of the Australian Capital Territory, to try to indicate to the broader population the situation that was being faced by battery egg hens not only in Canberra itself but also around Australia.

A number of people had gone into an establishment in Canberra and videotaped the situation that was faced there. They then provided that footage for the television news—as often occurs in these sorts of actions. The response from the egg industry at that time was to say that this was fake footage from Zimbabwe or some other far removed country which had far more barbaric practices than Australia had. Of course, this was not the case but, to prove their point, the same people went back in to film exactly the same footage. To demonstrate that they were not making it up, they chained themselves to the cages and invited police in to see them there chained to the cages.

Being a balanced and responsible person, I did not chain myself to the cages that night; nonetheless, I did go in and have a look at the situation. On that particular occasion the reality and the accuracy of the footage that was provided were indisputable. It is a bit hard to dispute dead and decaying hens pulled out from cages, eggs laying on top of dead hens and hens outside their cages walking around starving in manure pits. When provided on videotape, I suppose those sorts of things can be described as gratuitous, deliberate attempts to provide individual and unrepresentative samples of the situations that birds face. But, having seen it myself, I can quite legitimately say it is not an isolated case. It is a regular occurrence.

If any person were to witness what these birds endure, then they would agree that such a mechanism for trying to produce eggs is clearly inhumane and unacceptable. It is that basic principle that the ACT parliament was trying to address when they passed legislation to phase out this inhumane practice. Many organisations have campaigned against this practice for many years, and the RSPCA is just one of them.

It is unfortunate, to put it mildly—disgraceful, to be rather more direct—that people such as Senator Ferris should suggest that those sorts of campaigns are motivated solely by financial gain, which is what she implied the RSPCA were motivated by in their campaign. She suggested that the whole code of practice in relation to the egg industry was supported by the RSPCA purely because they had participated in an investigation into the operation of the egg industry.

It is those sorts of accusations—where anybody who tries to participate constructively in the development of any sort of code of practice or operation is automatically stapled and welded to the outcome of that investigation—that put people off trying to participate in such measures. There is no doubt at all that the RSPCA did not support and do not support that code of practice. They have had a longstanding policy against battery cage farming.

The RSPCA simply tried to participate in a constructive manner to try to get the best outcome possible from what is an unacceptable practice from their point of view. To suggest that, by their attempt to participate constructively, they were endorsing the eventual outcome as something that met all appropriate animal welfare standards is an outrageous misrepresentation. It goes hand in hand with the even more outrageous suggestion that the only reason the RSPCA campaigns against battery egg production is that they get a very small royalty from barn-laid eggs.

The outcome of the ACT parliament's attempt to phase out battery eggs was the need for that to be approved by all other state governments and the federal government because of the Commonwealth mutual recognition act which all states and territory and federal parliaments are signed on to. That requires the agreement of all governments for any exemption to be provided. The ACT legislation triggered a public benefit test which assesses whether the community benefit associated with the so-called restriction on competition outweighs the so-called costs.

The test was undertaken by the Productivity Commission, which is a body better known for examining tariff impacts and measures such as that rather than assessing the animal welfare components of various industries. Despite that fact, the Productivity Commission's report, which runs to about 200 pages and is a comprehensive document on battery egg production and practices, found that a move away from the use of battery cage systems would lead to an improvement in hen welfare, particularly in the longer term.

Most objective observers, particularly those who have been into battery egg farms and observed them in practice, would hardly need the Productivity Commission to tell them that that is the case. It is a significant finding that an economic body has managed to determine that fact. The report also found that the economic cost to the ACT community was fairly minimal and the amount that each resident would have to pay extra for non-battery produced eggs would be less than 50c per carton at this stage and that that would quickly become much less than that as it moved into more widespread production.

The Democrats concern about this is that, despite the fact that the ACT parliament have passed this legislation, the Victorian and South Australian governments have indicated they are not willing to support the ability for the ACT parliament to determine their own affairs and they are more interested in listening to the broader concerns of the industry than recognising state and territory rights. (Time expired)