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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee

GOODFELLOW, Dr Jed, Senior Policy Officer, RSPCA Australia

JONES, Dr Bidda, Acting Chief Executive Officer, RSPCA Australia


CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to give evidence to the committee today. Information about parliamentary privilege has been provided to you and is available on the website. The committee has received the RSPCA's written submission as submission No. 49. Do you wish to make any corrections or changes to your submission before we begin?

Dr Jones : No, thank you.

CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Dr Jones : Yes, thank you. The RSPCA is Australia's largest animal welfare organisation, and our origins date back to 1871. Throughout our history, we've worked closely with state and territory governments, industry and the community to improve animal welfare standards. We occupy a position of trust for doing so, and our longevity as an organisation is testament to the support we've received from Australians over many generations.

The RSPCA does not support any kind of illegal activity in pursuit of animal welfare objectives. Thus, we do not object to the principle or intent behind this bill. Questions have been raised as to whether the drafting of the bill is superfluous and whether it unduly restricts media communication, freedoms of assembly or political communication, or the presumption of innocence. On these matters, we defer to the considered advice in the submissions of the Law Council, the Council for Civil Liberties and Australia's Right to Know coalition. As an animal welfare organisation, we are more concerned with the broader social context in which increasing levels of animal activism are occurring and how governments and industry could respond in a more long-term and meaningful way. It's a fact that community attitudes towards animal welfare in farming are changing, and so too are expectations about what is appropriate and what is not.

On this point, I'd like to table two reports for the committee's consideration. The first, Victorians' attitudes to farming, was commissioned by the Victorian government in 2011, and the second, a national study, Australia's shifting mindset on farm animal welfare, was commissioned by the federal department of agriculture just last year. These reports provide valuable insights into the underlying social and cultural dynamics at play with the issues under consideration in the inquiry. While seven years apart, both tell a very similar story: that the attitudes and expectations of ordinary Australians are evolving and that, if industry practices do not keep pace to meet these expectations, it will result in eroding levels of trust in animal agriculture and increasing challenges to its social licence.

The activism we've seen recently, to which this bill is directed, is really only the tip of the iceberg. As noted in the national study, 95 per cent of Australians are concerned about farm animal welfare and 91 per cent want to see reform to address it. One common interpretation of social tensions over farming is that they stem from a lack of understanding of agriculture in urban communities. While it's tempting for some to frame this debate as one between city and country, this is not borne out by the evidence. The survey data in the 2011 Victorian study showed no differences in the levels of critical activism between urban and rural populations on average, and the national study from last year reported no significant differences in views between respondents from capital cities, regional towns or rural areas. The key message here is that rural and urban Australians alike want good animal welfare, and the vast majority are calling for more action from government to help achieve it. They want assurances that animal welfare standards are adequate and that standards are being met.

Unfortunately, Australia's standards for livestock welfare are lagging behind much of the developed world. We have no national strategy towards continuous improvement, and a lack of transparency in compliance monitoring exists in state and territory governments. If the government truly wishes to protect the future of livestock agriculture then this is where we need to start. We need the Australian government to invest in a national framework for reviewing and setting animal welfare standards based on independent scientific evidence; we need support for industries to transition away from production systems and practices that are inherently bad for animals; and we need a national system for reporting on compliance against animal welfare standards. Without this, activists can and will fill the void. They will tell the story of Australian agriculture, and it won't be pretty. Indeed, this was another finding of the national study: when the community hears the views of activists and their concerns are not addressed by government, they begin to agree with the activists and support their activities. So we urge the committee to consider these broader social and cultural factors and to recommend that the Australian government invest more in animal welfare initiatives to address the root cause of this problem and provide the community with the assurances it is seeking around animal welfare in Australian agriculture.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Jones.

Senator KIM CARR: You've drawn our attention to a number of these reports. Please correct me if I've misunderstood you, but the essential thesis you're arguing—of your submission, essentially—is that the social licence for these industries depends on trust, and you're suggesting that that trust has broken down. Is that correct?

Dr Jones : Yes, in part.

Senator KIM CARR: Perhaps you could explain to me why it is you believe that trust has broken down. Can you pinpoint specific incidents that might have caused a breakdown in that trust?

Dr Jones : The issue in general is, as highlighted in these reports, that the Australian public is concerned and shows a high level of concern around farm animal welfare. It seems that their level of concern is greatest in those areas where little progress seems to have been made in terms of addressing what has been clearly identified either in Australia or around the world as poor practice. In order to create an environment where there is trust in farming practices, we need better transparency; we need better standards; we need increasing standards, rather than staying in the same place; and we need an effective compliance monitoring regime in Australia. At the moment, we don't have those things.

Dr Goodfellow : I would also add to that that we need a compliance monitoring regime where state and territory governments are actually reporting on compliance activities and publishing periodic reports about compliance activities. Again, that's one of the areas where we see low levels of trust and high community concern. When there are significant incidents of animal cruelty displayed on television, there isn't follow-up or the follow-up that has taken place isn't actually published or communicated to the Australian public to provide them with the assurances that action has been taken and standards are being met.

Senator KIM CARR: In what ways do you think Australia is lagging in international standards?

Dr Jones : In terms of our standards and guidelines processes, for example, we have an active process at the moment that is reviewing the welfare standards for poultry—that is, meat chickens and layer hens. We are one of the only countries in the developed world that have active animal welfare standards and processes where we still allow battery cages. We know that the majority of Australians don't support battery cages. The RSPCA has been showing government and industry the science around layer hen welfare for more than two decades and yet we see very, very little progress in terms of that issue. We saw draft standards presented to the community that had no option for the phase out of battery cages. When you compare where we sit to other countries and compare that to where the public sits on their opposition to battery cages, we're not making the progress that we would expect to make.

Dr Goodfellow : Another example is that we're one of the few developed nations that does not have any kind of national animal welfare advisory committee or national animal welfare strategy. If you look at many of the countries throughout Europe, as well as New Zealand and Canada, all of these nations have national animal welfare advisory committees and they have strategies to promote continuous improvement within their nations. We don't have any of that in Australia.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm going to come to that in a minute. You mentioned the poultry industry. In the meat industry, how do our standards compare?

Dr Jones : In Australia, we have a two-tier system when it comes to standards for the slaughter of animals. We have a system where we have federal government control over export abattoirs—so those are abattoirs that are licensed to slaughter animals for when the meat is exported. In those abattoirs, we have a government-appointed vet on every premise. We have an auditing process that has a higher level than we do for domestic abattoirs. Domestic abattoirs in Australia come under the auspices of state and territory governments, and the primary auditing process that occurs in those facilities is about meat hygiene, not about animal welfare. In a number of states and territories we don't have clear animal welfare standards that are being assessed at those abattoirs. That's a concern that we have with the system as a whole.

We also have a review of the standards and guidelines for slaughter in those facilities. That review has been ongoing for I think four years now, with no progress. We don't anticipate at this stage that the standards as they will be presented in draft form for public consultation will actually include any improvements to animal welfare. Again, we're just not seeing the improvement that's needed to satisfy the animal welfare standards and the expectations that the Australian public has.

Senator KIM CARR: One of the reports that you've used, the Futureye report from the Department of Agriculture, makes the point that we have a mismatch of the constitutional powers in this country between that of the Commonwealth and the state jurisdictions. You've mentioned that the Commonwealth's export powers are used through the meat and livestock inspection services. Is that the real problem here, that the Commonwealth doesn't actually have sufficient powers to regulate meat processing?

Dr Goodfellow : That's certainly one of the limitations of our system of government. Under the Constitution, of course, there's no mention of animal welfare, so animal welfare is the responsibility of the state and territory governments. That said, the Commonwealth does take responsibility for animal welfare with respect to international trade, live animal export trade and meat exports, so they do have powers, by extension, to regulate that conduct at export abattoirs and in live animal exports.

Also, there is a significant role for the federal government to play in coordinating and leading the development of national standards in conjunction with the states and territories. We've seen, since 2013, the Australian government withdraw from that leadership position, and that is where we've observed stagnation in the development of our national standards and in the improvements that we would like to see in those national standards.

Senator KIM CARR: It has been said, of course, that the Commonwealth inspection services even run the grower levies and the like—they have to actually pay for these veterinary services. Is part of the problem—it's not just a constitutional one—that there have been cutbacks to the level of service provided in the meat industry and so the Commonwealth is not able to maintain its supervisory role?

Dr Jones : I wouldn't make a claim that the existing powers that the Commonwealth has in terms of export abattoirs had been cut back to the point where legislation wasn't being enforced. Those cutbacks may have restricted the level of reporting and transparency that could occur in that area, but certainly our concern is that the Commonwealth has stepped back from a leadership role in coordinating improvements, encouraging national consistency, supporting the standards development process and ensuring that science is actually the first step in developing standards and not just an afterthought. I think the demise of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy—see; I've got my lanyard from the two previous government strategies. This wasn't a party based strategy; this was something that ran across both coalition and Labor governments, but it is no longer supported as a strategy at the Commonwealth level.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm trying to get to the question of whether or not it's purely a constitutional matter and whether AQIS has been able to do its job properly. I'm also trying to get to the question of whether or not it's a financial question and whether or not the re-establishment of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy would assist in re-establishing Commonwealth guidance with regard to animal welfare matters and, as a consequence, help re-establish that public trust that you say is the critical issue in terms of the loss of social licence.

Dr Goodfellow : Absolutely. Certainly across the board we can make a general observation that there is a chronic lack of investment in animal welfare compliance monitoring services and also, as we've mentioned, investment by the Australian government in animal welfare policy standards development and coordination exercises with the state and territory governments. It is our view that, if we had a more robust and comprehensive regime for evidence based standards development that incrementally improves animal welfare over time, and it were communicated to the Australian public that assistance was provided to industry where it was deemed that certain practices or production systems cannot meet basic animal welfare standards and they were assisted in transitioning to alternative systems, and that there was further investment, transparency and publication around the compliance monitoring activities, it would go a long way to building community trust in animal welfare and livestock agriculture.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much.

Senator McKIM: In your submission you invited, in my view quite helpfully, the committee to ask ourselves some questions. Then you said that the RSPCA is well placed to advise should we require further information. I wonder whether I could throw one of the questions back at you and ask: what is the state of animal welfare and livestock agriculture in Australia at the moment?

Dr Jones : The most accurate answer would be to say that we don't know. We don't know because we don't have any kind of national benchmarking system. We don't have any kind of reporting on animal welfare measures. We don't even have a proper national livestock identification scheme that is rolled out across all species around Australia. So we don't even know enough about what animals we have, let alone how they're being treated. That's a significant problem. We also don't have, in the meat processing sector, as I mentioned earlier, transparency, we don't have national monitoring and we don't have national auditing and compliance enforcement. What we do know is that there are many practices that occur in Australian agriculture that need improvement. There are some practices that, in our view as an animal welfare organisation, should be phased out of use. We find that progress in those areas is incredibly slow and is not usually based on the available animal welfare science.

Senator McKIM: Would you agree with the statement that some of the exposes that we have witnessed over the last few years around live exports, for example, and around live baiting in the greyhound industry, have actually led to animal welfare improvements?

Dr Jones : There is no more successful means of progressing animal welfare issues than media exposure of them.

Senator McKIM: Thank you. I have a corollary to that question. We've heard evidence from a number of media organisations and the Law Society today that, if this bill passed, it would have a chilling effect on public debate around animal welfare issues. Would you agree with that statement?

Dr Goodfellow : On those particular questions, we would simply have to defer to the considered opinion of the Law Council and the media organisations.

Senator McKIM: That's fine. Thank you. In answer to my first question, I think Dr Jones said, in general terms, 'We don't know what the state of animal welfare is,' and you explained the deficiencies that led you to that statement. I ask you to respond to this, and it does go to another question you asked. Would you accept that's one of the reasons why there has been an increase in the level of animal welfare activism in Australia?

Dr Jones : I think there are a number of causes. People are growing in their interest about where their food comes from, for multiple reasons. One of those is animal welfare. Unfortunately, a lot of what they see they are very uncomfortable about. I think we need to go a long way towards increasing the transparency around practices. Farmers need to be able to explain why they farm the way they do. They need to be able to justify the things they do and they need to be able to demonstrate when they are doing things well. There is no doubt that there are farmers who farm well in terms of animal welfare and there are farmers who don't. As in any industry, there are people who do things well and people who don't. The public is telling us quite clearly that they need to know more. They need more information. They need good, independent, accurate information about the treatment of animals in Australian agriculture.

Senator McKIM: In that context, we have had evidence given to us that that would be less likely if this law is passed. I accept that you are not in a position to offer legal advice, but does the RSPCA have a position on whether the Senate should accept or reject this legislation?

Dr Jones : We would be concerned about anything that made it less likely that we gain improvements in animal welfare in Australia.

Senator McKIM: Including by the mechanism of revelations of poor treatment of animals?

Dr Jones : Yes.

Senator McMAHON: I understand your point about AAWS and the need for a national framework, and where we need to go to address the underlying issues for why this is happening. I think it is a separate issue from what we are discussing today, but I am happy to take it on board and run with it because I don't disagree with you. Do you think animals—maybe not in all cases but in some cases—are farmed and slaughtered humanely in Australia?

Dr Jones : Yes. You may or may not be aware that the RSPCA runs its own approved farming scheme. We develop and set standards for animal welfare across a range of species, and we run an assessment program where our assessors go on farm and assess against those standards. You can go into most major supermarkets in Australia and find products that have the RSPCA logo on them that come under that scheme. Clearly, as an organisation, we do accept that farming can take place and good welfare is possible. Our standards are about improving the lives of as many farm animals as we can under the scheme. Our standards are above the legal minimum. We would like to see the legal minimum improved so that not only those animals that are lucky enough to come under our scheme have an improved life and but also that is applied to all animals in Australian agriculture.

Senator McMAHON: Do you believe that these activists going onto properties terrorising people—and, in many cases, animals—can cause significant welfare, biosecurity and disease issues?

Dr Goodfellow : Certainly there is the risk, and we absolutely acknowledge that. I am not aware of reported cases of biosecurity outbreaks as a result of activists but of course we acknowledge that the risk exists.

Senator McMAHON: Do you accept this bill as a means, at least temporarily, to guard against mass invasions and destruction of farms, animals and people?

Dr Goodfellow : As we said in our submission and opening statement, we don't object to the intention behind the bill. However, there are surrounding social issues that we would like the committee to take into account. Those issues of whether or not this is going to act as a deterrent to activists and be effective in that regard and whether it's going to infringe on other rights and freedoms are all issues that the RSPCA, as an animal welfare organisation, isn't very well placed to comment on, and we do need to defer to the advice of others that have presented on those issues.

Senator McMAHON: Thank you.

Senator CHANDLER: Just quickly, in the RSPCA's opinion, what is the most effective way that you see of providing the public with accurate information regarding animal welfare?

Dr Jones : In terms of providing information, I think there's a trust issue at present, as I've talked about. We would like to see a situation where we have independent advice, independent science, that informs animal welfare standards. Going back to the Animal Welfare Strategy, that was a mechanism where people from different stakeholders in the animal welfare area were able to come together and help reach agreement about the sort of information that should be presented to the public to show where we sit in terms of animal welfare in agriculture. The RSPCA itself presents a wide range of information, and our efforts are really focused on looking at what animal welfare science tells us and trying to communicate that information to the public in a way that doesn't require them to have scientific training or access to science journals to be able to access that information. We're concerned about what needs to be done in terms of improving transparency, and I guess this is fundamental to our submission and our point of view.

At the moment I think there are some efforts within the farming community to tell the story about Australian agriculture. We think it is vital that that story is told in an accurate way, and what needs to be done in that piece is not just to talk about positive things but to address the fact that there is need for improvement, because, if the public thinks that it's just being told the nice things, that will not build trust; that will just erode trust. We need to actually have those mechanisms in place to develop trust through independent and accurate standard-setting processes and through that compliance and monitoring enforcement that I've spoken about. All of those things will build to the point where, if the information around the treatment of animals and agriculture is produced by government, by industry and by welfare groups, I think there will be a higher level of trust around that information. There's no one solution to that.

Senator CHANDLER: Do you think the same level of trust would be applied to protesters or the information that protesters divulge?

Dr Jones : I think what we should all take note of, from the Futureye report that came out last year, is that when the public are not given information, when they feel as though they are being kept in the dark about practices, that's when they start listening to what activists are telling them. That's when they start thinking, 'Well, if I'm not being told anything else then this is telling me what I need to know.' It wouldn't be accurate of me not to say that many of the things that you will see in footage that has been taken in abattoirs or on farms, by whatever means it's been taken, are confronting. Sometimes those things can be explained. If you see a video of sheep being mulesed, there's a whole range of information, justifications and issues around the practice of mulesing. If you have no information about it then you have no understanding about why it's taking place.

Senator CHANDLER: No, but, at the same time, protesters don't often present that whole background to an event that they might have filmed either.

Dr Jones : No. So that's why you need to have that accurate information that explains, in a balanced way, why it is that practices take place and what is being done to try and address them, if they have animal welfare consequences, and how industries are moving to try and move away from practices that do cause animal welfare problems to ones that don't.

Dr Goodfellow : Just to add to what Bidda is saying, this is where we really see a role again for the federal government to be a provider of that knowledge and information. And if we had a dedicated office of animal welfare, for instance, that was focused on reporting, on working with the state and territory governments, to provide that sort of information, to manage national standards development, that would go a long way to being that honest broker of information where the community can have trust that the information is accurate and factual.

Senator CHANDLER: In terms of the reliability of information that is being provided to the public, do you think that protesters provide more reliable information than farmers or do you think farmers provide more reliable information than protesters or do you think, because of the issues you've outlined, there is an element of distrust towards both?

Dr Goodfellow : I think that would be an accurate assessment. We get two different sides of the story, depending on where the information is coming from, absolutely, and they emphasise different aspects of different things. Some have context, some don't have context. That, again, is why we need to have some kind of focused national body to be able to provide that sort of accurate information, in the context of what we're doing.

Senator CHANDLER: Rather than trespassers providing this information to the public.

Dr Goodfellow : Yes. That would be a far better scenario. It was interesting, Senator McKim's statement about the media exposes creating windows for reform and policy advocacy. The most desirable position for all stakeholders is that we see a formalised process of incremental improvement over time. So we can see that where standards aren't up to community expectations, and they're not reflective of animal welfare science, we see a process of how we're going to transition to a system of production or a practice that is in alignment with community expectations and scientific evidence.

Without that kind of formalised process, we have to rely on activism, on media exposes to bring about the public interest and the public concern that motivates the law reform and the policy change. It's certainly not a desirable approach to law reform, we would agree with that, but, in the absence of having any kind of national framework, it's all that seems to be working at the moment.

Senator VAN: Thank you to the RSPCA for coming along today and giving your evidence. I'm a big fan. I love the work that you do. Where possible, I buy your branded products or the ones that are endorsed by you. I believe they are improving animal welfare. My question is quite simply: have animal welfare standards improved or worsened over the last decade?

Dr Jones : It's a very broad question. In terms of—

Senator VAN: Your statement's quite broad and not really limited to the bill, so you'll forgive me that.

Dr Jones : Yes. In general terms, across the livestock sector, I would say that they have improved slightly. One would always hope that standards would improve. Our concern is that the rate of improvement is too slow. The rate of improvement is also lagging behind public expectations and the science.

Senator VAN: Am I doing the right thing by buying the products endorsed by you or not?

Dr Jones : Yes, absolutely.

Senator VAN: Thank you.

CHAIR: Are there any other questions?

Senator KIM CARR: That's called a Dorothy!

Dr Goodfellow : That last bit, yes.

CHAIR: Thank you Dr Jones and Dr Goodfellow. We appreciate the effort you've put into your submissions today and you're excused.

Proceedings suspended from 15:29 to 15:40