Whilst animal welfare has been on the policy agenda of the major political parties, it is only recently that we have seen increased pressure for the recognition of animal rights.
Objectively speaking, the legal protections afforded to animals are abysmal. Over the past five years we have witnessed a regular onslaught of exposes detailing the grim reality of live animal exports, puppy farms, factory farming and the racing industry.
It is from this outrage, and less than 2 percent of the vote that the Animal Justice Party was able to secure an upper house seat in the most recent NSW election.
Australia has one of the highest rates of domestic pet ownership in the world with almost 63 percent of households owning pets. We also have a great appreciation for our natural wildlife and this demonstrates the affinity that Australians have with animals. It is therefore unsurprising that animal rights are being forced on to the political agenda – and this is just the beginning.
We consume more animal products than ever with an enormous demand placed on mass production. However, at the same time science is teaching us that animals are more sentient than we recognise.
Animals are intelligent and vulnerable creatures with no voice to stand up against the injustices that they suffer. We live in a political climate where corporations are afforded more rights than animals, and acts of violent cruelty are protected by the law.
In the United States, this is changing with courts now considering whether to attach rights to non-human animals for the first time. Consumers and voters are outraged by the underbelly of animal cruelty in Australia and their message is clear – enough is enough.
What are 'animal rights'?
Australia promotes a system of animal welfare where native animals are property of the Commonwealth and all other animals fall within the realms of personal property. Our animal welfarist view outlines how we expect animals to be treated both in production, and recreation, but it does not afford them any rights of their own.
What many do not understand is that our legal system inherently fails these animals time and time again by favouring industry over basic respect and decency.
Australia operates within a loose network of animal protection legislation littered with exceptions for breeders, farmers and the racing industry.
In his inaugural speech to NSW Parliament, Mark Pearson MLC specifically characterised his agenda as animal welfarist rather than animal rights. This is a strategic move that allows his ideology to fit within our existing legislative framework of industry and trade, and demonstrates his willingness to do so.
From the racing industry, to kangaroo culling, factory farming, amateur hunting, and the abuse of domestic pets, animal cruelty is not uncommon in Australia. The spectrum of animal abuse is unsettling with factory farming causing the most prolific suffering of any other industry – over 500 million animals every year.
Animal cruelty legislation aims to protect a broad spectrum of animals from this kind of abuse by providing avenues to prosecution and penalty. However, the reality is that there are more exceptions to the legislation than there is space in this article.
Where these exceptions exist, unenforceable model codes provide the framework outlining the expectations of how we treat animals in our care. This essentially relies on the self-regulation of animal protection – and you can imagine how effective that is.
It is within these model codes that you will find chickens only need to be afforded space the size of one A4 piece of paper, baby male chickens can be deemed useless and ground to death, animals can be deprived of natural light for their whole lives and much, much more. Many of these practices are endorsed by the RSPCA.
Pearson condemns the existing legislative framework and the exceptions within it, which demonstrates an intention to push meaningful legislative change in cooperation with industry.
However, he goes further in his condemnation of animal protection responsibilities falling within the portfolio of the Department of Primary Industries, an inherent conflict of interest. He also questions the function of the RSPCA; an organisation that many animal rights activists have serious (and valid) issues with. Their kill policies are inhumane and they consistently fail to engage in meaningful prosecution for acts of animal cruelty.
Pearson will aim to address these issues by re-evaluating the function of the RSPCA and their ability to prosecute, as well as forming a new body outside of the Department of Primary Industries that will be responsible for animal protection.
Prioritising industry over change
Unfortunately, ALP policies consistently prioritise industry over basic and humane protections from animal cruelty. It is these very same industries that consistently abuse the powers that we afford them and suffer no consequences.
All those horrific animal abuses uncovered by Four Corners are often prosecuted only to have charges dropped at the last minute. Animal cruelty legislation operates as a toothless tiger until RSPCA prosecution is instructed to pursue a harder line. Instead, the political response to these exposés has been an insult to progressive politics.
Anti whistle-blower 'ad-gag' legislation has been introduced in most states, and now federally. This legislation makes it an offence to distribute (on social media or television) illegally obtained evidence.
Implementation of 'ad-gag' legislation will therefore mean that these abuses to remain hidden from the public. 'Ad-gag' legislation also creates an obligation for mandatory reporting of animal cruelty.
This means that workers are liable where they have not immediately reported breaches, which in turn stops animal rights groups from building evidence for prosecution.
Finally, the legislation requires workers to disclose any past or present ties to an animal protection groups. So you can guarantee that the Animal Justice Party will stand strong on this issue, and I hope that our union comrades will join them.
No political party has taken any positive steps to rectify these issues - Greens, Labor and Liberal alike. Whilst there has been a push to establish an Independent Office of Animal Welfare and state legislation to restrict puppy farms, these measures do not indicate any real change, but rather reinforce pre-existing poor standards. Instead, consumers, activists and voters have had to devise more innovative ways to get animal rights on the political agenda.
Consumers leading the fight on animal protection
Where legislative has failed to develop meaningful anti-cruelty measures, consumer and advocacy groups have had to be more creative in the how they address these issues.
This is demonstrated by consumer push for more transparent food labelling. Unless you purchase biodynamic eggs or eggs straight from your local farmer, you are guaranteed to have purchased eggs from a producer that engages in inhumane practices.
Even RSPCA certified eggs engage in debeaking and other unethical practices. There is no consistent standard on food labelling and the term 'free-range' has no certification system. Rather than policy makers responding to consumer demand, a number of cases were heard in the ACCC.
In these cases, whilst eggs were labelled 'free-range' the hens were unable to move freely. The ACCC therefore deemed the use of the term 'free-range' as misleading and deceptive conduct. This demonstrates that where policy makers delay, consumers are taking matters in to their own hands.
Why the Left needs to champion animal rights
Pearson is passionate about the above issues and we can expect him to stand strong on them. Over the next few years we can expect the AJP to push a ban live animal export, introduce more stringent legislation to protect animals from unnecessary harm in trade and industry, crack down on inhumane processes in factory farms, get tough on prosecution and block any measures to introduce ad-gag.
It will be a busy term, and he will need our help. There is an ideological shift on animal rights and these changes will happen with or without us, so it's time to get on board.
Our pro-industry stance needs to change in order to provide genuine protection to those who cannot speak for themselves. Many in the Left cannot fathom campaigning on animal rights until we solve more immediate human rights abuses – this argument is an affront to the multifaceted nature of progressive politics and an excuse to remain complacent.
The reality is that we know better. It is time that the Left put animal rights on the agenda.
These abuses happen every day whilst we continue to appease industry at the expense of cruelty that occurs on a grand scale. These breaches are not confined to animals either; recent reports are evidencing 'slave labour' like conditions for low skilled foreign workers in production farms.
Our current stance on animal rights policy is against the core beliefs of the Left. It is in our blood to stand up to industry on behalf of those who have no voice of their own. The public is sending a clear message that they are disgusted by the images and information they are confronted with.
It's time we get serious because equality and basic rights don't stop with people. The AJP policy may not be broad, but there is a clear animal rights agenda as we move away from pro-industry animal welfare. Whilst we may not know a lot about their plans in parliament, we can guarantee they are ready for a fight.