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Tuesday, 5 September 1989
Page: 955

Senator BROWNHILL(3.29) —It gives me great pleasure to speak today on the report of the Select Committee on Animal Welfare entitled Animal Experimentation and to support the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Devlin. I and Senator Barney Cooney have the distinction of being two of the longest serving senators on that Committee. Without casting any aspersions against my good friend Senator Cooney, I think I can proudly lay claim to having attended more hearings and inspections associated with the report than any other senator. I think only the former Committee Secretary, Paul Barsdell, would have attended more hearings and inspections. Obviously, as Secretary of the Committee, he attended them all.

The report is a very important document. In years to come it will play a significant role in the direction that the animal welfare debate in this country takes. It not only sets down, I believe most thoroughly, the recent past situation regarding the use of animals for scientific purposes but also serves to record the Committee's general philosophic approach to the moral issues involved in the animal welfare debate. I regret the ignorance of those who believe that there is not much substance in animal welfare issues, because it is one of the most important moral and philosophical arguments that society is faced with today. This has been demonstrated to me time and time again on this Committee. I have been forced to challenge my preconceptions and critically assess my attitudes to a wide range of issues. I know that others on this Committee, both present and former members, have been similarly challenged.

In passing, I would like to pay tribute to a man I am proud to call a friend, the former Chairman of this Committee, Senator Georges, whom Senator Devlin has already mentioned. We attended many animal house inspections together in the early stages of the hearings into the subject of this report. While we had very different backgrounds, attitudes and opinions, I learnt to develop a healthy respect for his approach to animal welfare issues, and particularly the question of animal experimentation. I would be very interested to learn of his views on this final document now that it has been tabled here in the Senate.

Before moving to the substance of the material at hand today, I would like to record my thanks to the former Secretary of the Committee, Paul Barsdell, whom the Committee Chairman has already mentioned, and my appreciation of his work. His work was extensive; his interest in the subject matter at hand went well beyond the requirements of his position. Through it he has done a great service to the Senate and to the value of the Senate committee system. Because of his work, he and the Committee are held in high regard in the scientific community. His professional approach has been favourably commented on by many people. For my part as a member of the Committee, I thank Paul very much for what he has done.

I also thank the other members of the Committee secretariat-former researcher, Doug Hynd, and current staff, Barbara Allan and Doris Pratezina. This Committee takes great pride in its camaraderie, and it is a committee I greatly enjoy. In fact, the other night we had a very enjoyable dinner to wish Paul well on his new committee appointment. But I do not think that has always been so. I must confess that at one stage, having seen almost every animal house in Australia and, I suspect, some that Paul invented, I was thinking that Paul had been a little overzealous in his desire to get the real story on animal experimentation. That is now in the past, and today the Senate is presented with a most authoritative document.

When the Committee first started to examine this issue there was a great deal of community disquiet about the use of animals in experiments. What early submissions lacked in fact was more than made up for in emotion. I regret that the early submissions from some universities were little better. Clearly, in the eyes of some academics the Committee had no business in questioning their activities. I regret that some attempted to maintain that attitude throughout the entire hearings. One of the first steps undertaken by the Committee was to establish a national survey of research institutions to quantify and qualify the numbers of experiments, their types and their usage of animals, so that we had some idea of the extent of the industry and its problems. We received 50 replies to those questionnaires, and they formed a valuable basis on which the Committee could proceed for the next two years. I believe the appendix to the report listing the witnesses who appeared before us gives some indication of the breadth and extent of the inquiries. Some 160 witnesses are listed in that appendix.

I cannot profess to cover a full range of the recommendations canvassed in the report here today; nor do I intend to do so. The recommendations are there for anyone to read. I hope they will be read rather than just skimmed through. Much rather than proceed through the various recommendations, I would outline some of the reasons why the Committee came to these conclusions. In doing so, I would like to draw the attention of the Senate to paragraphs 1.21, 1.22 and 1.23, which serve to summarise the Committee's attitude on the subject and the sentiments which I believe the scientific community would do well to adhere to. The first two paragraphs state:

There is a general feeling within the scientific community to withdraw behind barriers when faced with violence or other illegal actions. That attitude is quite understandable. Yet it has been the secretive approach in the past and the reluctance to public information about their use of animals in experiments which have led to public misapprehension about the nature of animal experimentation in this country. Secrecy breeds suspicion and the media feed on suspicion. What might have been a misunderstanding becomes a crisis.

The most potent weapon in the armoury of research institutions is public opinion. If the public is satisfied that animals are being used humanely in experiments, there is little threat to such use. It is important, therefore, for institutions to be open and forthcoming about their experimental practices. Responsible animal welfare organisations should also be able to inspect institutional facilities. This would help to allay suspicions that animals are being housed in poor facilities or are not being given proper care.

Paragraph 1.23 states:

Institutions and government have a responsibility to ensure that animal experimentation is conducted humanely in accordance with approved rules and guidelines. By fulfilling that responsibility and by keeping the public informed of the extent and nature of animal experimentation, public disquiet should be kept to a minimum.

On that issue the Committee definitely condemned the use of violence to attain the objectives which some groups in the community were seeking to attain when evidence was first put together in relation to this report. There is in Australia a great need for a more responsible and ethical approach to be taken toward the use of animals for scientific purposes. For example, to date there has not been very good or accurate record keeping. We took evidence that showed at times a worrying lack of detail when it came to which animals were bred, used and required. In one submission from a leading university the records were so scant as to be almost unbelievable. Therefore, the first recommendation of the report talks of the essential need for various State and Federal governments to publish data on animal usage. One would assume that to be a necessarily basic requirement. The Committee found the situation to be quite the reverse.

On the question of animal houses, the report notes that in research units in hospitals there was a great variation between the various institutions. I would suggest that the Committee was not at all times shown areas that might have been less than standard. I would suggest that at least the existence and potential threat of the Committee making an inspection were sufficient inducement for a general raising of overall standards. Senate committees, whether they be select committees or otherwise, when carrying out inspections could improve the overall interests of that industry-in this particular case, the animals in science industry-by getting it to shape up a lot better than in the past. Paragraph 9.81 on page 165 of the report states:

Few institutions were able to supply the Committee with a copy of the standard operating procedures governing animal care within the breeding and holding units. In most cases procedures did exist but were not written down. Staff were either expected to know what needed to be done or to respond to oral instructions.

Again that was indicative of the casual approach all too prevalent in some institutions.

One area of great concern to the Committee was the use of animals, especially dogs, taken from pounds. The number of pound animals used is unknown. In some States-for example, South Australia-their use for scientific purposes is prohibited. In Sydney the use of pound animals is significantly higher than in other cities and they are used both for teaching purposes and for experiments. Valid arguments were put for the use by students. Professor Rex from the University of Queensland compared training in the United Kingdom and Australia and pointed out that students in the United Kingdom practised surgery only on cadavers. He suggested that, as a result, Australian veterinary graduates were better qualified than their United Kingdom counterparts.

The use of pound animals for animal experiments was not so clear-cut. It was suggested by more than one witness that pound animals could not always yield useful data and experimenters had an obligation to ensure that the pound animal was suitable for that particular experiment. There were also ethical considerations, and the very real concerns that family pets might well land up in experiments through error or events outside the control of the pound or the owner. The Committee felt therefore that the minimum holding period a pound held an animal before surrendering it to an institution should be seven days, except when an owner surrendered a pet, in which case written permission should be sought for its use in research.

The question of the use of cats was somewhat different from the use of dogs, given that is often harder to determine whether a cat is straying or merely `taking the night air'. Various allegations were made on this issue and for that reason the Committee has recommended that institutes wanting to use cats for research be required to either breed them or purchase them from an institution where they are bred for that purpose. The question of a code of practice for the use of pound animals is presently being examined by the Animal Research Review Panel in New South Wales and many concerns expressed to and by the Committee will no doubt be covered by this group.

Again, as with other aspects of animal welfare, it was indicated to the Committee that the level of husbandry provided to the animals made an enormous difference to their welfare. Accordingly the Committee has recommended that unqualified staff of animal houses be required to undertake technical training courses in animal care. It was quite interesting that most of the animal houses we went to had girls, who became quite attached to the animals, looking after them. Perhaps that is indicative of some parts of the human race being more caring than others.

It was pointed out to the Committee that not all researchers using animals in experiments had necessarily any expertise in animal handling and similarly many small animal houses also would find it extremely difficult to afford the employment of a qualified veterinarian. It was suggested therefore that institutions using animals ought to ensure reasonable access to such a person. The Committee indicated that a centralisation of breeding units would reduce this difficulty and ideally in future years animals would all be bred in purpose built facilities with professional staff.

A significant chapter in this report is chapter 13, which deals with animal welfare administration in Australia. The Committee felt it timely to consider administration of animal welfare, given that the administration of animal experimentation is intertwined with the more general subject. Since the commencement of this Committee a great many changes, both attitudinal and administrative, have taken place in animal welfare generally and within the scientific community. Indeed the Committee saw evidence of this with return visits of various witnesses to address the Committee.

In light of recent moves by the Federal Government to establish a national consultative committee on animal welfare (NCCAW), it was also felt necessary that the Committee's views on this subject be highlighted. I have been quite open in my opposition to NCCAW. I think at best this new group will duplicate the work of both the Senate Committee, without the powers of examination and community reporting, and the Standing Committee on Animal Welfare (SCAW), while at worst it will restrict debate on the issue, given that legislative responsibility for animal welfare is a State matter and one on which the States have been proceeding with some pace in recent years. I suspect that certain groups in the animal welfare arena which have supported such a council will come to realise their mistake.

On the question of Federal involvement in animal welfare matters, the Committee's attitude is clearly set out in chapter 13 and it recommends that States be encouraged to upgrade and unify their legislation, to establish animal welfare advisory councils and departmental animal welfare units such as has been done with great success in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

The question of codes of practice and ethics committees is discussed extensively in chapter 16 and follows on from recommendations in chapter 15 for adoption by all States, the Territories and the Commonwealth of a regulatory system for animal experimentation based on the systems operating in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The system is based on legislation, codes of practice, ethics committees and government monitoring. As the report notes, codes of practice are a key element in the legislative package. Regrettably, some institutions would not adhere to codes of practice if they were not backed up in law.

The Committee supports the suggestion of a national conference, comprising various groups such as the Australian Council on the Care of Animals in Research and Teaching, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, the Australian Society for Laboratory Animal Science, the National Farmers Federation, the Australian Veterinary Association, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to review every three years, or sooner if required, the code of practice for animal experimentation. It was obvious to the Committee that compliance with codes of practice did not always occur. I personally found at times the arrogance of some researchers offensive and indeed, in the odd rare case, the entire institution had an inappropriate attitude to compliance. The Committee is of the firm view that it is the responsibility of the various government authorities to ensure that all institutions comply with regulations.

The Committee regards ethics committees as `the linchpin in the system'. The effectiveness of ethics committees determines the success of the system. In some States they are the only control over animal experimentation. The Committee examined the membership structure of ethics committees and noted that it was important that they be representative of community concerns, and not a whitewash for the research being undertaken.

I have only briefly skimmed the surface of this report. As I said at the beginning, the report is a most authoritative document and one which I believe will become a useful tool in the administration of animal experimentation not only in this country but also overseas. I believe the very presence of the Committee and this inquiry has raised significantly the standards of animal care within the scientific community. I am confident that this report will provide the blueprint for further improvement and will bring Australian research institutions to the forefront in animal welfare administration. I commend the report to the Senate.