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Pragmatism not Populism: Developing effective National Animal Welfare Policy

Red tape places considerable onus on Australia’s agricultural producers and efforts to reduce this burden, including calls for greater consistency across jurisdictions should be applauded.

The release of the Productivity Commission’s (PC) Final report into the regulation of agriculture last week was by and large welcomed by the agricultural community.

While most of the recommendations made by the PC will streamline regulation in areas such as vegetation management and national heavy vehicle regulation, one recommendation presents a particular challenge for Australian agriculture: the establishment of an Australian Commission for Animal Welfare.

The effective regulation of animal welfare for agriculture has been a perennial issue for governments, industry, animal rights groups and activists alike. In the current environment it is fair to say that meaningful discussion about appropriate animal welfare regulation has descended into rhetoric driven by populism, activism and consumerism – what has been sorely missed is pragmatism.

It is difficult to understand how the establishment of a new Commonwealth entity imposing a new layer of Federal regulation will achieve more effective regulation and better animal welfare outcomes.

Much of the rationale for the PC’s proposal stems from the perceived failure of national animal welfare standards and guidelines to be adopted uniformly across all jurisdictions. While this is frustrating or fabulous and everything between depending on your personal perspective, the lack of uniformity is a symptom of federation – not necessarily a direct failure of policy or regulation. The PC’s proposal ignores the fact that current animal welfare standards have been developed and largely adopted by industry.

This is the where the PC’s proposal falls down – industry’s role is intrinsic to continuous improvement and effective standard setting for animal welfare given its dynamic connection to consumers and its knowledge of best practice. Federal standard setting is not an agile mechanism to achieve this, and all we are left with is more red tape without achieving better animal welfare outcomes.

Producers have invested millions of their levy dollars into research and development to continuously improve animal welfare outcomes. The operative word ‘invested’ is used intentionally. The work that has been done is not just a basic attempt to satisfy public perception, nor is it simply an attempt to build markets – it is a genuine investment into improving the welfare of animals that the sector relies on, and has responsibility for.

Standards are an important aspect of all businesses. As consumers we look for standards as demonstrable comfort that the services and products we consume are safe and we increasingly use standards to ensure that our values are met. There is no doubt that standards have a role to play in animal welfare. All animals deserve the dignity of being treated humanely – particularly those that are raised within our care for human benefit. As a sector the onus is on us to develop ways of demonstrating our integrity – but it must be industry that sets these standards. Why? Because we are the most enabled to do so.

What the PC recommendation has highlighted is that since the devolution of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy there has been an increasing void in national leadership on animal welfare policy matters. What has become clear is that it is now incumbent on industry to devise what this national leadership looks like – or risk having an unworkable model imposed at a point in time.

Mark Harvey-Sutton is NFF's Manager of Rural Affairs

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