Two RSPCA animal welfare experts have left the organization to campaign for a national independent animal welfare commission, saying the current regulatory structure is “broken”.
Dr Bidda Jones stepped down as chief scientific officer at RSPCA Australia in late 2021, after 25 years. Dr. Jed Goodfellow stepped down as a senior policy officer in October.
On Tuesday they launched the Australian Alliance for Animals, co-founded with Dr Meg Good, an animal rights lawyer and senior program manager at Voiceless.
They are calling for the formation of an independent national animal welfare commission, a reform which was recommended by the productivity commission in 2017 and has been long campaigned for by the RSPCA.
An independent commission could develop minimum standards without interference, in the same way that Food Standards Australia New Zealand does. That would improve both the lives of farm animals in Australia and Australia’s standing in global animal welfare rankings, Jones said.
“What is the minimum standard is what most animals will be subjected to,” Jones said. “You will only get changes to affect the majority of animals if you mandate it.”
Jones said she and Goodfellow had separately become frustrated facing the same roadblocks again and again when campaigning for welfare reform during their work at RSPCA Australia.
Some campaigns they worked on, such as the push to ban battery eggs, have stalled for years after getting snarled in byzantine bureaucratic processes.
“The frustrations over time have just piled up,” Jones says. “While within the RSPCA or other groups who were just focusing on trying to get change on specific issues, we weren’t able to dedicate the time to deal with that fundamental policy framework system issue. So we just got to the point where, separately, we both kind of thought we need to do something more about this.”
The drafting of the new Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry began seven years ago. A draft was sent out for consultation last year. It is still not finalised, and internal documents have revealed that one state may go against the recommendation to phase out battery hens by 2036 because of pressure from industry groups.
“Seven years to develop a document that is basically saying this is how poultry should be farmed in Australia,” Jones said. “It is absolutely ridiculous that it should take that time.”
It is not the only reform on the books: the draft guidelines and standards for slaughterhouses were produced 10 years ago and have not been progressed, and the minimum standards for pig welfare have not progressed past a literature review in 2018. A draft of the national minimum welfare standards for horses was completed in 2009 and has sat on the shelf. Adopting those standards was a key recommendation of a high-level report completed by the thoroughbred industry late last year.
The slow pace of reform has left Australia out of step with contemporary countries on the welfare of farm animals.
Animal welfare and farming groups in the UK urged their government not to sign a free trade deal with Australia because it would allow for the import of animal products farmed using practices which are illegal in the UK. The UK banned the use of sow stalls in 1999, battery cages for chickens in 2012, and prohibits mulesing. Australia still allows the use of sow stalls, despite a voluntary push from the industry to phase them out, and while the sheep industry recommends the use of pain relief when mulesing, Victoria is the only state to legally require it.
“It’s very likely that the same conditions will end up in the European Union free trade agreement as well,” Jones said. “It’s definitely in the interests of industry here to be seen to be improving and to have a system that works to improve welfare across the board.”
Goodfellow said laws and regulations in Australia had not kept pace with community expectations.
“The system used to create animal welfare policy in Australia is broken,” he said. “Millions of Australians care about animal welfare but their views are not getting through to our political leaders.”
Labor supported the formation of an independent animal welfare commission ahead of the 2019 election, and it is also backed by the Australian Greens.
Jones said the difficulties with reforming animal welfare in Australia were “bigger than any one organisation” and that while organizations like the RSPCA were quite rightly focusing on responding to urgent issues and dealing with the care, protection and rehoming of animals, there were very few resources for structural reform.
“We felt that there needed to be an organization that would be very, very focused on those structural issues and wouldn’t be distracted, lose that focus and [get] dragged down into the weeds,” she said.
The alliance will serve as a joint lobby group for Australian animal welfare organisations, with Animals Australia, Compassion in World Farming, FOUR PAWS Australia, Humane Society International Australia, World Animal Protection Australia and Voiceless signing on as core members. It is funded by grants from those member organizations and some philanthropic donations.
RSPCA Australia is not a core member but may support campaigns which align with its existing priorities.