THE National Farmers’ Federation’s (NFF) has joined forces with RSPCA Australia and the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) to try to establish a new overarching federal animal welfare standards setting agency.
But not all farm industry members are pleased at the proposed plan that’s currently being circulated among representative groups, citing concerns with empowering RSPCA Australia’s involvement as a barometer for the welfare of farm animals.
It’s understood the mooted new council would operate on a minimal budget and involves a panel of members with specific skill-sets and expertise in areas like animal and agricultural science, commercial livestock production, matters of public policy and law and commercial and trade acumen.
One of its core functions would be to conduct research but also advise the federal Agriculture Minister and their Department on nationally significant farm animal welfare issues, in seeking to achieve some form of uniformity of standards and work in with state agencies that are ultimately responsible for animal welfare regulations.
NFF Animal Welfare Taskforce Chair Chris Groves said all NFF members had a seat on the peak lobby group’s committee that’s responsible for animal welfare and it held a view that “strong industry-led leadership” on animal welfare was needed, at a federal level.
“In recent times there have been calls for an Independent Office for Animal Welfare to be established,” he said.
“The Productivity Commission also recently recommended an independent commission be established, for setting animal welfare standards.
“We are opposed to such proposals because ultimately they are impositions on industry.”
But Mr Groves said it was “quite clear” that it was incumbent on industry to help develop national leadership.
“To this end the NFF has been in discussions with the AVA and RSPCA about how an industry led animal welfare advisory body could look like and importantly how it could be developed,” he said.
“So far these discussions have taken place in good faith with a view to developing something that can work for all parties.
“Of course there are areas that not all parties will agree – but there are areas we can agree and this has been positive.”
Mr Groves said animal welfare would always be a priority for farmers and producers had invested millions of their levy dollars into research and development to continuously improve animal welfare outcomes.
He said a Livestock Production Assurance module focusing on animal welfare had also been introduced.
But he said what the NFF and the others were looking to develop via the new forum was “completely different” to the previous Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS).
Labor Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon promised his party, if elected at last year’s federal poll, would renew the AAWS and establish an Independent Office of Animal Welfare which farm groups have opposed due to fears of imposing red tape without achieving any practical benefits.
Mr Groves said the proposal that the NFF, RSPCA and AVA were currently working on was for production animals only and would have a focus on production and assisting with programs to help producers meet their animal welfare obligations.
“As a sector we have a responsibility to earn the trust of consumers and the community,” he said.
“We must do this in a manner that works for farmers.
“That is what we will do and that is the point of engaging in these discussions.”
Australian Dairy Farmers CEO David Inall said he didn’t know a lot about the NFF-driven plan at this stage and was happy to learn more about its intent at a later date.
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council declined to comment on the proposal but is an NFF member.
RSPCA Australia Senior Policy Officer Dr Jed Goodfellow said his group had been engaged in positive discussions with the NFF, AVA, and leaders of several commodity councils with a view to promoting “greater national leadership” on farm animal welfare.
But in a backhanded swipe at Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce, Dr Goodfellow said the Australian government “abandoned” its role in leading the development of national animal welfare policy and standards in 2013, leaving a “significant policy vacuum”.
However, he said all of the groups in the new process had identified a shared interest in seeing a more “proactive, nationally-consistent and science-based approach to addressing animal welfare issues in Australia”.
“Australia is one of the only developed nations not to have a national advisory council on animal welfare,” he said.
“This is a significant policy oversight given the significance of Australia’s animal industries and the extent of community concern for animal welfare.
“NZ, Canada, the UK, the EU, and most European nations have expert-based advisory councils on animal welfare that provide essential evidence-based policy advice to government and the community.
“By working collaboratively, the RSPCA, NFF and AVA are attempting to formulate a shared vision for national animal welfare leadership in Australia.
“We understand the trepidations expressed by some about the politicisation of animal welfare policy.
“We share those concerns and that is precisely why we are working with major stakeholders to develop a joint proposal that would help reorientate the debate and give greater prominence to science and evidence.
“This is something all stakeholders should welcome.”
Push-back on proposal
However, suspicion continues to plague RSPCA Australia’s role working with livestock production groups on issues like standard setting, having been considered untrustworthy by many farming representatives due to their central role in pushing the subversive political campaign that ignited the 2011 snap ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia.
Primarily, that suspicion is driven by retaining close ties with, and holding the same extreme policy view of wanting to ban the live trade entirely, as animal rights activist group Animals Australia.
That position is formed despite live exports contributing to improved animal welfare outcomes in export markets and those standards only likely to fall, if Australia exits any markets, given no other nations, of about 100 involved in the live trade globally, takes any responsibility for guarding the welfare of exported animals, beyond the legal point of discharge to execute a sales contract, or invests in improved outcomes.
“The NFF has climbed into bed with the enemy and this is not what some of their members really want,” said one source of the new standards setting proposal, but asked not to be named.
“This is activism leaching into mainstream policy setting and we should call it for what it is.
“Some of the member groups, that are in tune with the way the RSPCA behaves, are unimpressed.
“Some members like Victoria and NSW have read the riot act to the NFF on this but they’re pushing on with it anyway.”
Others have expressed concerns that the group developing the proposed council isn’t represented by post-farm-gate stakeholders in the meat production and processing sector and is a “thought bubble” that allowed the NFF a quasi-leadership role, on animal welfare issues.
The early design of Labor’s proposed Independent Office of Animal Welfare was led by former Fremantle Labor MP Melissa Parke, following a commitment made at the ALP’s 2011 National Conference, in an urgent but confused policy response to the Indonesian ban, where Ms Parke was one of the most outspoken critics of the live trade.
In a House of Representatives speech in February 2013, she said industry self-regulation had often amounted to “self-delusion” and no existing government department had overarching responsibility for animal welfare, as its core role.
Ms Parke said the new Office would be a statutory authority operating outside of the agriculture portfolio, dedicated to animal welfare policy, science and law and independent of undue influence from competing political and commercial interests.
She also acknowledged Dr Goodfellow’s work, in assisting with the proposed model that aimed to strip the Agriculture Department of responsibility for animal welfare alleging it had an inherent conflict of interest in also seeking to expand farm production, but to the detriment of welfare outcomes – a view animal rights groups have supported but one that’s been denied by livestock groups and the Department.
This week, RSPCA promoted a video message on Twitter of Dr Goodfellow saying a petition - tabled in parliament by independent Senator Derryn Hinch - was demanding an end to the possibility of live exports for horses, ponies, donkeys for slaughter.
But the Department of Environment has said there’s an estimated 400,000 feral horses and millions of feral donkeys, mainly in central and northern Australia, that are “serious environmental pests” and more humane methods are needed to control them, rather than starving due to drought or other influences.