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Tuesday, 8 March 2005
Page: 96

Senator BARTLETT (7:12 PM) —I am actually about 10th on the list, Mr Acting Deputy President, but if no-one else is here I will jump up. I would not want others to miss out on their chance to speak.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sandy Macdonald)—You’ve saved the day, Senator Bartlett.

Senator BARTLETT —And I am sure Senator Conroy wants to hear me speak some more anyway.

Senator Conroy —There is a serious misrepresentation taking place in this chamber. I think you should make him withdraw that defamatory remark, Mr Acting Deputy President.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order, Senator Conroy.

Senator BARTLETT —I would like to speak on an issue that is probably of interest to you, Mr Acting Deputy President Macdonald. It concerns the wool industry and particularly the debate and controversy at the moment about mulesing and the live export trade. Senators would be well aware, I expect, of my longstanding interest in animal welfare and animal rights issues. I have certainly spoken a lot about the live export trade for sheep, cattle and other livestock. But I have stayed out of publicly contributing to the mulesing debate for some time, even though I have a personal view, which would not surprise people, of being concerned with that practice. I felt that it was something I would leave up to public debate and the court of public opinion, if you like, in terms of the differing views expressed by animal welfare advocates versus some from the industry—and of course there are some in the industry who have moved away from mulesing already.

What has finally driven me to speak out in support of those people in a much more public sense, even though I have supported them privately, has been the very aggressive action taken by Australian Wool Innovation and, in recent times, the Australian government against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is a US based animal rights organisation—particularly their decision to also undertake court action against Australian animal rights activists from Animal Liberation NSW. I should declare, although it is reasonably widely known, that I am a former office-bearer of Animal Liberation Queensland, which is a completely separate organisation. Nonetheless, I have an awareness of the people involved in Animal Liberation NSW, so I do not hide from that fact. I think it is totally unacceptable that people are being targeted deliberately by court action—by a body that gets a significant amount of government funds—just because they are expressing their views, views they have expressed for a long time, about the unacceptability of the practice of mulesing.

It is utterly counterproductive for parts of the wool industry—and I acknowledge that it is not all of the wool industry—to be spending money specifically targeting Australian activists who are simply expressing and have consistently expressed concern about this practice. The wool industry has publicly stated that it has agreed to phase out mulesing by the year 2010, which is in five years time. It is undertaking research into alternatives. The practice is sufficiently problematic that the industry itself has said it is going to stop it within five years, yet it is using the courts to try to silence people who are campaigning for it to stop now or are encouraging others to be aware of their concerns and not buy the product until it stops. I might add that that applies to the live export trade as well. I can understand why some wool growers are concerned about that—people’s livelihoods are involved. Naturally, some people react negatively to that.

Australian Wool Innovation were funded by government contributions of over $14 million in the last financial year, according to their annual report. They received over $42 million from the wool levy, which comes directly from wool growers themselves, as I understand it. That would be about 99 per cent of their income—a very small amount comes from royalties and sales of goods and services. So we have a body that receives over $14 million in government funding—I am not saying they are using that $14 million; I do not know where they are drawing money from or if they are getting donations for this purpose—using money specifically to conduct court action to try to silence people who are expressing concern. It is a very dangerous practice, and it is a misuse of the Trade Practices Act to try to sue people as has been done here. I have noted some statements by Mr McLachlan from Australian Wool Innovation which I have interpreted as him saying that he is doing this because he knows it will cost those organisations money and he wants them to chew up their money having to defend these things. I may have misinterpreted what I saw him reported to have said, but that is what it looked like to me—that much of his agenda was to try to silence and intimidate people and make them chew up their resources on legal action rather than on campaigning.

Last week, we had the extraordinary statement by Minister Truss suggesting that PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—which is a very large organisation in the United States—gives aid and comfort to terrorists. I know that people get worked up about this debate, as they do with many other issues. People can say strong things occasionally. But for a government minister to specifically come out and accuse animal rights activists, particularly this organisation and by association Australians who are campaigning on this issue, of being tied to people who are giving aid and comfort to terrorists is totally unacceptable. A spokesperson for Minister Truss, according to one report that I have seen, has said: ‘The minister is comfortable with his position. We are not saying that there are deliberate links with terrorist related activities, but they are allegedly providing financial support, according to evidence before a US Senate committee, to one group, the Animal Liberation Front, that has been accused of so-called domestic terrorist threats.’

To use one allegation about one organisation before a Senate committee in the United States that has not been tested and then just throw in the blanket description of ‘aiding, abetting and comforting terrorists’ is taking the debate into the realm of the surreal. It really is getting utterly ridiculous when we get those sorts of over-the-top smear allegations—that they are in some way linked to terrorists—by a minister of the Australian government against an organisation like PETA and others that have been tied to them via the court action by the wool industry. It is the sort of smear by association that we have seen in other areas of this government but that I have not seen from Minister Truss in the past. He certainly makes strong statements sometimes about areas that he has views on, as we all do, but to make that sort of over-the-top smear is a new low for that particular minister. It is completely unacceptable.

I express my support for the people involved in animal liberation in New South Wales, some of whom I have known for quite a long period of time. They are people with very strong views and passions of their own. I do not necessarily agree with every view of theirs, but I certainly strongly support their right to express their views and put information on the public record about a practice which is controversial. It is sufficiently problematic that the wool industry itself has said that it will phase it out and some wool growers have already abandoned it and found alternatives. When it gets to the stage of government funded organisations misusing, in my view, the Trade Practices Act and of government ministers using unfounded smear by association with over-the-top labels like ‘terrorist’ against people that raise these concerns, it really is going too far. It is in those circumstances that I feel obliged to speak out in defence of people expressing these concerns.

There is no doubt a lot of suffering involved in mulesing, which for those that do not know involves cutting the skin away from the rear end of sheep to try to prevent flystrike. As has been rightly said, a sheep that is subject to blowfly strike is going to suffer a lot more than one that has been mulesed. The key is whether there are alternatives. I support the industry in funding research to find alternatives, I support those growers who have already shifted to other approaches and I support the overall decision to phase out mulesing. But I do not support using the courts, particularly if you are a taxpayer funded organisation, and I do not support Australians in particular but animal rights organisations in general being smeared in such a lazy and crude way by absurd allegations of links with terrorists when they are simply expressing concern about an action which quite clearly involves suffering for a large number of animals.