Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee

LATTER, Dr Melanie, Head of Policy and Advocacy, Australian Veterinary Association

CHAIR: I welcome Dr Melanie Latter of the Australian Veterinary Association. Thank you for taking the time to come and give evidence today. Information about parliamentary privilege has been provided to you and is available on the website. The committee has received the AVA's submission and marked it as No. 77. Do you wish to make any corrections to your submission?

Dr Latter : No.

CHAIR: Okay. It's not a trick—don't worry! We're not telling you that there is anything wrong with it. If you wish to, you may make a brief opening statement.

Dr Latter : In terms of our submission, thank you for inviting it fairly late in the piece. As you say, you've read it. We basically want to present that we support legislation that will prevent trespass or illegal activities on agricultural land, mainly due to our concerns around the high risks to animal biosecurity and welfare that are involved with unauthorised entry. We, being veterinarians, are obviously particularly concerned about disease entry by way of what we call fomites, which is when infectious diseases are carried on the clothing or footwear of people coming into animal farming facilities. There is also potential for the direct transmission of diseases, such as influenza to pigs, for instance. There is also the risk of anyone who is accessing these facilities being affected by diseases that can be transmitted from animal to humans, and that's what we mean by zoonotic disease. We do see it as a serious concern.

Obviously, trespass is illegal. There is legislation to deal with trespass currently. We don't have any objections to the legislation that's part of the bill. We support whatever amendments are required to make sure that these sorts of activities don't occur. But, having said that, we also feel that there needs to be a broader approach, not just clamping down on these sorts of activities but actually looking at the underlying reason for these activities. We feel, in some ways, that this sort of legislation is a bit like treating a symptom but not treating the cause of a problem. We feel that there has been a lack of confidence, and there is this particular section of the community who feel that they need to take things into their own hands. We feel that building that consumer and community confidence again is key to addressing the problem.

We support industry quality assurance programs that seek to audit against high welfare standards and then demonstrate compliance, because we feel that this is a really great way for industry to communicate with the public around good practices and what they're doing to improve welfare. Where practices are poor and where cruelty or neglect is occurring—and we do see exposes and the release of videos of those sorts of incidents—we feel that that can't be tolerated either and that there must be better monitoring and enforcement of current legal protections for those animals. All of those things together will help to regain community trust and address the underlying cause.

Finally, we make the point about a need for national leadership. The Australian Veterinary Association was involved in the AAWS, Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. We were very supportive of that and would like to see something similar, a national animal welfare framework, which would help to rebuild, to drive improvements in animal welfare and extension programs to inform the community.

CHAIR: Dr Latter, can you outline the risks involved to animals and their welfare that come from unauthorised or uncontrolled contact with activist trespassers?

Dr Latter : Sure. People who don't work on farm facilities wouldn't understand that, normally, if you work on a farm, there are certain procedures that you follow to ensure that when you come into the farm you're not running the risk of introducing a disease to those animals. I'll give an example. If you work in a poultry facility, you can't have contact with pet birds or other domestic birds, you can't be anywhere where you might be walking in bird faeces and you can't have contact with pigs. If you do, you wait 24 hours, you shower from head to toe, you go in in completely clean gear and boots and you go through foot baths, which make sure your boots are clean. All of those steps are taken when you enter the facility to ensure you're not inadvertently carrying in an infectious disease, such as influenza, which may affect the birds. Even between various sections of the farm, there may be procedures like that put in place, which we just generally call biosecurity, to make sure you're not transmitting anything from one shed to another. We have a whole range of diseases that can be carried on fomites—inanimate objects such as clothing and shoes.

Johne's disease is a horrible debilitating disease of cattle. Foot rot is really highly prevalent on some farms and affects sheep, a painful, horrible disease. I wouldn't want somebody who had those sorts of problems then walking on to my property. In the worst-case scenario, for instance, if I'm overseas in Nepal and I have contact with livestock, when I come back to Australia I can't have contact with livestock for seven days, to ensure I don't transmit foot-and-mouth disease. You've heard of foot-and-mouth disease because it is one of our biggest risks with any sort of international travel or import of animal products. It would be a catastrophic event if somebody, for instance, unknowingly—I'm sure with farm trespass and activism, it wouldn't be intentional—came in with an infectious disease like that somewhere on their shoes or on their clothing. Whether it's an endemic disease or an exotic disease, once that's taken hold, the risk then is the spread, if people are travelling from farm to farm, and also the ability to contain that becomes so far reduced. A good example that's well known was the UK 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. Whilst they very quickly stopped animal movements to prevent the spread, the spread continued and it was very much a product of the disease being carried on people, equipment, tyres, vehicles from farm to farm, so it's a really serious problem. Although I don't know of particular cases yet where that's happened through activism in Australia, it's a huge risk. At the moment we're particularly worried about African swine fever, and you would have to say biosecurity has never been more important on farms than it is now.

Senator KIM CARR: I want to clarify something; I think it's pretty straightforward but I want to make sure that we get your evidence. The Australian Veterinary Association supports the position that the RSPCA has argued—that is, that there's a broader question here, not just the issue of activism but a question of the social licence that's needed to maintain public support for the various animal industries, food based industries, in Australia. Is that the case?

Dr Latter : We work with livestock producers—and it's not just on farms—and we work with scientists and researchers and people where animals are kept. Animals are kept in all sorts of different scenarios. Particularly with agriculture, our veterinarians are on farms working to improve welfare in everything that they do. We know that there's an enormous number of very good operators who have animals, who have livestock and who strive for very high welfare standards because it improves their profitability and productivity. So it is part and parcel of good farming. We know that there are good operators but there is also a tail end of poor operators and people who do the wrong thing.

The concern is that the sort of video material that came out last week of a very poorly run sheep slaughter plant near Melbourne results in a complete loss of community confidence. At the moment, we feel that, with the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy and a lack of the sort of cohesive, inclusive framework that brought representatives from all sections of society together to address these issues, there is a void there. We feel that that's fostering a lack of confidence, because there is a lack of information. One of the reasons that we've talked in our submission about industry QA programs is that we feel that they are a really good way for the people who are striving for very high standards of welfare to demonstrate and brand their product, and to differentiate their product and reassure the public.

The other mechanism that we probably didn't include in our submission is co-regulation, where government recognises really robust QA programs and monitors the people who aren't compliant with QA. An example that we're aware of is in Queensland. In the Queensland legislation, it's possible to develop a monitoring program under the Animal Care and Protection Act in Queensland. That monitoring program enables the government to go out proactively and look at livestock industries. Poultry is the one that they have currently set up. That sort of monitoring by the regulator is one way to provide the public with the assurances that they require. Part of the way in which that's implemented is that the government recognises the industry QA and a welfare QA program. It's a risk based approach, but then they are more likely to go and audit those who are not part of the industry QA program. AVA believes that that work in the states is fairly under-resourced and could be much better resourced and much better publicised. The resourcing of that sort of work will go a long way towards building public trust.

Senator KIM CARR: So the problem you've got is that, if an industry's not properly regulated, the actions of the bottom feeders invariably undermine the work of the people who actually do the right thing. Is that your contention?

Dr Latter : Yes; absolutely.

Senator KIM CARR: And it actually forces standards down because people can't compete against dodgy operators. I'm particularly interested in the meat processing industry or maybe poultry processing, but the same problem occurs around those who want to substitute horses for beef or kangaroos for beef. This has all happened before. There have been situations where health regulation has fallen away. There was the famous royal commission into the meat industry. Do you see a situation where those sorts of circumstances could ever be repeated in this country?

Dr Latter : Without transparency, without auditing, monitoring and reporting on those sorts of facilities, they are under the radar. That sheep facility in Victoria that was recently exposed is a case in point. The substitution of meat is more a public health issue and a public trust issue. But how the animals are being killed, and whether we can have any assurance that it is being done humanely, is an issue where we don't have that sort of oversight.

Senator KIM CARR: But we have had that, haven't we? We've had horses and donkeys put into export contracts claiming to be beef. We've had kangaroo put in. The question of animal welfare is one aspect of this. There is also criminal activity that occurs in these facilities. That is the historic experience. I know that may not be directly within your remit, but the question of public exposure and public transparency is significant in that broader context as well. The regulations have not always worked in this country. Is that the case?

Dr Latter : They're not always enforced. I go back to a question about abattoirs I heard you ask in a previous session. There are abattoir standards being reviewed and developed as part of the standards and guidelines process. That's all very well, but we also have to know that when they are nationally agreed they will be adopted consistently by the states as compulsory standards. At the moment, with no Commonwealth leadership, we have a situation where states are variably adopting them. So we had cattle and sheep guidelines which New South Wales decided to implement in just a voluntary sense whereas other states are implementing them as a compulsory standard. We need national consistency to come back. But if the standards are going to go into legislation—and they do; they go into the regulations in Queensland, for instance—we have to know that they are going to be enforced. There is no use having the best legislation in the world that the government's—

Senator KIM CARR: That's right—that's empty.

Dr Latter : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: So you are saying that the re-establishment of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy would improve public confidence and allow for higher levels of transparency, that it would actually improve the regulatory environment? Is that your contention?

Dr Latter : Yes. We were involved in the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. There used to be an overarching committee, the Australian Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, which gave quite a lot of direction to how those standards and guidelines were developed and then implemented in the states. At the moment, that doesn't exist. The AGMIN group has an animal welfare advisory committee of chief veterinary officers. They are not driving new initiatives. They are completing the standards and guidelines that were in the pipeline, but there don't seem to be any new initiatives being—

Senator KIM CARR: So how do we catch up with international best practice if that's the situation?

Dr Latter : I think we need to return to having national leadership from the Commonwealth government. We have to ensure that standards development is science based. We have given similar evidence to the Productivity Commission. If you look at the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in New Zealand—obviously New Zealand doesn't have the problems we have with states, territories and the Commonwealth—that committee is made up of veterinarians, animal welfare scientists and people from industry. It is a group of independent people. They do reviews of animal welfare science and they base their recommendations to the government on science.

Senator KIM CARR: Short of that, is there not a role for the whistleblower, a role for media exposure, to demonstrate the failure of the regulatory regime?

Dr Latter : I'm not in any way a lawyer—I'm a veterinarian—but, from this legislation, it seems to me that the whistleblower is still protected. The AVA policy around reporting is that we feel veterinarians should report if they see something.

Senator KIM CARR: Okay. I know that's the claim.

Dr Latter : Yes.

Senator KIM CARR: That's what I'd ask you to look at. I know you're not lawyers, but I'd ask you to have a look at the evidence presented to this committee that challenges the adequacy of that protection for whistleblowers, the protections for journalists, the protections with regard to public interest immunity and the protections with regard to the capacity of media organisations to report adequately given the critical role that I think you're saying is provided and given the failure of the current regulatory regime to protect public trust.

Dr Latter : In fact, as you know, most of our animal welfare legislation is state based, and so is our regulation of it, through state departments of ag and RSPCA bodies in the states. Certainly most of their activity relies on complaints. It relies on people reporting concerns about cruelty or lack of duty of care—neglect. So you wouldn't want to see a situation where people are unable to report.

Senator KIM CARR: Or inhibited from reporting.

Dr Latter : Yes. I can't talk to whether or not this legislation would restrict that, and I would defer to people who can advise on that. All I would say is that, while we're saying that we support legislation that prevents trespass because of all the biosecurity and welfare risks associated with that, we wouldn't like to see that enacted in isolation from these other things to then improve—

Senator KIM CARR: Sure. I accept the submission, but this is legislation that doesn't go to the issue of trespass; it goes to the issue of incitement, a very important difference. I'd ask if you would have a look at that—whether or not it actually undermines the capacity of people to speak up.

CHAIR: Senator Carr, do you have much more?

Senator KIM CARR: No, that's it.

CHAIR: Thank you. That's beautiful.

Senator VAN: Dr Latter, you've partially answered my question. Firstly, thank you for your submission. I think it's excellent and sums it up very well. You mentioned reporting of bad animal welfare practices. Does the AVA support, or would it support, mandatory reporting of bad practices or incidents of poor animal welfare?

Dr Latter : I can only speak to our policy.

Senator VAN: That's all I'm asking you to do.

Dr Latter : We do have an AVA policy, and that is specifically around veterinarians reporting.

Senator VAN: Yes.

Dr Latter : Our policy actually says that veterinarians should report where they have concerns or knowledge of neglect or cruelty, but we don't go as far as saying that they must. That was debated quite carefully. There is some discretion involved because, if someone is presenting an animal, then at least that animal has a chance of being treated. If you go as far as mandatory reporting, the concern is that it would be a disincentive for people to bring an animal forward, and it may miss out on the help that it needs.

Senator VAN: A fair point. Thank you very much. Chair, I'll take my leave.

CHAIR: No problem, Senator Van. Safe travels.

Senator McMAHON: Dr Latter, does the AVA believe that animals can be and are farmed and slaughtered humanely in Australia?

Dr Latter : Absolutely, yes. With best practice in all forms of animal husbandry and slaughter with stunning, obviously it can be done well. We don't know the proportion. I think the issue that all of this inquiry is about is the sorts of poor practices that come to light through media. It's very hard to know what level those are at, but generally we believe that the majority of industry do the right thing and aspire to continual improvement, not only for the fact that it provides better productivity and profitability but because they take pride in their roles as farmers.

Senator McMAHON: Does the AVA accept that these activists going onto farms pose a significant risk to animal health, welfare and biosecurity?

Dr Latter : Yes, absolutely. Our submission has outlined that we are very concerned by that sort of unauthorised entry, because people who are not working in that field would not be aware of the potential disease risks and disruption to animals. So we accept that that sort of trespass can't be permitted.

Senator McMAHON: We heard earlier from a self-proclaimed expert on the topic that there is no such thing as biosecurity on intensive animal industries such as piggeries and poultry farms because there are rats and mice and all sorts of things running around, so biosecurity doesn't exist. Would you like to comment on SPF operations and the level of biosecurity that actually does exist on these places?

Dr Latter : Absolutely. A set of very mature documents that are biosecurity plans for each of the different industries are produced by the Commonwealth government and Animal Health Australia. They go through all of the principles of biosecurity, which are preventing entry of disease onto the farm premises, control of vermin—all the sorts of measures to ensure that these sorts of diseases can't come into the property. Biosecurity is critical to good farm practice and good animal health. We know that, as I was saying before, people who work in poultry facilities have to shower in and out; they can't handle birds outside the facility and then go into the facility, because of diseases such as influenza. We have high risk of entry of avian influenza through migratory birds, so we have to have very secure boundaries in these premises to ensure that these diseases are not getting in. They would not only devastate—they're not only a financial risk; they're a health risk, and health is an integral part of welfare. Animals with diseases do not have good welfare. With SPF piggeries, we know they have excluded specific diseases from their herds and there have to be really, really strict protocols to ensure those boundaries are not breached.

CHAIR: Dr Latter, can you say what SPF stands for?

Dr Latter : Specific pathogen-free piggeries. Some of those have systems where the animals are born into almost a sterile environment and their whole lives they are protected from diseases. If they are then completely naive animals exposed to diseases, they're very vulnerable. So it's an important part of keeping those animals well and safe.

Senator McMAHON: The Australian Veterinary Association are the experts on animal welfare, animal production, animal disease. All due respect to a lot of other welfare organisations, but your organisation holds the expertise within it. Could you detail how some of the programs, such as WELFARECHECK and BIOCHECK, operate and where that would fit into farm health, welfare and biosecurity?

Dr Latter : Sure. Our organisation developed a scheme called BIOCHECK. This allows veterinarians to go on-farm with their clients and develop a biosecurity plan to address any potential risks on those farms and to then put practices in place to prevent disease introductions. This allows the farmer to then, every 12 months, assess how they're improving, to look at the production improvements they've incurred since they've introduced all of these new risk mitigation steps to reduce both endemic and exotic disease incursions. That's a really important program for biosecurity and for demonstrating good practice and it helps them, through farm production assurance programs, show that they are compliant.

Similarly, WELFARECHECK is also a program where the veterinarian goes on-farm, works with the farmer to develop a plan around known welfare risks, addresses those and improves practices so that they can then obviously have animals with improved productivity and improved welfare. That's actually a good example where a WELFARECHECK accredited farm could use that brand and that registered trademark to demonstrate that they're working with their veterinarian to incrementally improve welfare on their farm and adhere to good welfare standards. That's the sort of thing we're talking about in terms of industry QA, where they could be demonstrating in a transparent manner, 'Look, we have veterinary input here and we're working at best practice in animal welfare.'

Senator CHANDLER: I have a follow-on question to that. I think you've probably addressed it, Dr Latter, but I want to go to it explicitly. You talk about the majority of farmers doing the right thing and that industry QA is the best way for us to bring the rest of the industry along and enhance animal welfare. So it's your position that that is the most effective way to ensure the safety of animals, not by trespassers going onto properties and obtaining information they might then be able to release in a certain light?

Dr Latter : Yes; I think that's the way. Across the board, we need best practice standards; we need industry QA that demonstrates adherence to those standards. We need reporting on that so that it is transparent and people have that assurance that it actually is being monitored and regulated. I think industry QA is one part of that. Another part of that is government regulation—that is, enforcement where things are not being done properly so that the public then see that those poor practices are being rectified. I think they are the keys to this. And, although we know that we do need a complaints based mechanism in our animal welfare regulation, it still works in the states that people can report and those concerns can be investigated by the regulator. I think those are the appropriate mechanisms for improving welfare overall.

Senator CHANDLER: So you would see passing this bill as not impeding in any way our government's ability to ensure appropriate animal welfare?

Dr Latter : I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know. If there has been advice to the contrary from the legal profession that it may impede reporting, then I guess we—I think passing legislation that prevents trespass or prevents incitement of trespass is important.

Senator CHANDLER: For the biosecurity risks, amongst other things that you've talked about today?

Dr Latter : Yes. I think we still need a robust means of reporting. When we talk about the state regulators monitoring and enforcing the legislation, they can't be everywhere at all times and we do need the continuousness of a system where people can freely report to the appropriate authorities when they have welfare concerns.

Senator CHANDLER: Great; thank you.

CHAIR: Dr Latter, that concludes your evidence to the committee today. Thank you very much for the work you've put into your submission and for the effort you've made to come here today.

Dr Latter : Thank you.