OPINION: The will of the people, or the party?

From greyhound racing to free-range chickens and concerns over the live animal trade, public opinion in Australia supports increased animal welfare measures. So why isn’t that translating into policy decisions?

OPINION: By ELIZABETH ELLIS on OCT 24, 2016 | The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect the views of Animals Australia.
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From greyhound racing to free-range chickens and concerns over the live animal trade, public opinion in Australia supports increased animal welfare measures, Elizabeth Ellis argues, so why isn't that translating into policy decisions?

On the same day that New South Wales Premier Mike Baird announced the reversal of his already legislated ban on greyhound racing, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce appeared on ABC's Lateline. When asked why the greyhound racing industry should be given another chance, Mr Joyce claimed the decision was based on the people's "will" and repeatedly commended Mike Baird for "listening to the people".

Joyce's response mirrors Baird's line that he was responding to community feedback and had "got it wrong". Although neither Baird nor Joyce has presented any hard evidence in support of this, the assertion that the ban was at odds with community opinion has been uncritically accepted by much of the mainstream media.

But what is known about the views of the community on this issue? A poll conducted in August for Fairfax Media showed 51 per cent of people were supportive of the ban, with 31.4 per cent opposed and 17.6 per cent undecided. An RSPCA survey in October in NSW and the ACT showed 64 per cent support for the ban, with majority support cutting across party affiliation, occupation and even the regions.

By contrast, the decision to reverse the ban was greeted warmly not just by the greyhound industry, but also News Corporation and radio personalities, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. In these circumstances, Baird's decision would appear to tell us more about the power of sectional interests, including some sections of the media, than about the concerns of the community.

It also reveals the pulling power of the Nationals, notwithstanding their status as junior coalition partner. Three National Party MPs crossed the floor when the legislation was voted on in the NSW parliament and the potential impact of the ban in the forthcoming by-election for the NSW seat of Orange heightened the divisions. With a reported challenge to Troy Grant's leadership of the Nationals in the offing, opposition to the ban within that party was undeniably significant in Baird's decision.

The influence of the Nationals brings us back to Barnaby Joyce, the federal National Party leader. From the beginning, Joyce opposed the greyhound racing ban despite admitting he had not read the report of the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry and did not intend to do so.

Clearly, Joyce's expressed support for the will of the people is selective. After the exposure in 2011 by ABC's Four Corners of shocking cruelty to animals exported live to Indonesia, community opposition to the trade was overwhelming. Websites crashed under the community response and the 2011-12 Annual Report of the federal Department of Agriculture noted a 556 per cent increase in the volume of ministerial correspondence, most of it related to live exports.

Yet, as the current federal Minister for Agriculture, Joyce has expanded this trade — and to countries with little, if any, animal welfare regulation. While the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System introduced post-2011 has led to some improvements in animal welfare, terrible cruelty persists. Significantly, this cruelty continues to be exposed not by the Department responsible for regulating live exports but mostly through the work of animal advocates.

This regulatory conflict of interests returns us to NSW. One of the National Party MPs who crossed the floor over the greyhound ban legislation was Katrina Hodgkinson, a former Minister for Primary Industries. This portfolio includes responsibility for administration of the NSW Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and other animal welfare legislation. As with the federal Department of Agriculture, the animal welfare function sits uncomfortably with the remit to promote primary industries.

In conjunction with its state and territory equivalents, and industry bodies, the NSW Department of Primary Industries is also responsible for developing national enforceable animal welfare standards to replace existing voluntary codes. But in 2015, Troy Grant, on behalf of the NSW government, signed an MOU with the NSW Farmers Association to "re-affirm our commitment to non-mandatory standards and guidelines for animal welfare". This stance is surprising given the minimal concessions to animal welfare that the standards contain, with animal welfare bodies having relatively limited input into their development.

The draft national poultry standards due to be released for public consultation in November look set to provide the latest example of the priority of industry interests. According to RSPCA Australia, the draft standards permit the continued use of battery cages for layer hens, despite comprehensive scientific evidence of the harm they cause to animals. Retention of battery cages also puts Australia at odds with international developments, with most comparable countries phasing out their use, where they are not already prohibited.

It is also at odds with that commodity apparently so prized by our politicians: community opinion. Responding to significant change in consumer preferences, all states and territories agreed in March to an enforceable national information standard for free range egg labelling.

Expected to take effect in 2017, the information standard is designed to protect consumers, not animals. Even so, the "will" of industry has prevailed again, with farming of up to 10,000 birds per hectare still able to qualify as free range. By contrast, animal welfare bodies and consumers overwhelmingly supported a maximum outdoor stocking density of 1,500 birds per hectare.

Whether it's greyhound racing, live exports, layer hens or a host of other matters, it's pertinent to ask: to whom exactly are our governments listening? The answer might tell us why achieving animal welfare reform in Australia is so very difficult.

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