If how we treat our animals is a measure of our development—a notion made famous by Mahatma Gandhi—then our society still has a long way to go. The law treats animals as property. Industry treats them as commodities. We consumers treat them as another product in our shopping trolley. Insufficient regard is given to animal welfare in meat production, and cruelty is entrenched in the codes of practice. We have become desensitised to our fellow animal—until we get a glimpse of what goes on in the meat production line and then our sympathies are provoked. Some recent glimpses have been ugly.
When Four Corners telecast footage revealing the treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs on 30 May last year, there was a massive public outcry. The Federal Government acted swiftly the next day to suspend exports to the abattoirs exposed in the Four Corners investigation. As the outcry amplified, it resulted in the Prime Minister announcing a full suspension of the trade to Indonesia by the end of the following week. The Federal Government has now resumed approval for Australian cattle exports to Indonesia in accordance with a new export supply chain assurance system, but it seems that animal welfare is not at all assured.
Footage of animal cruelty at the Timur Petir and Cakung abattoirs in Jakarta, which was obtained by an Indonesia investigator engaged by Animals Australia and telecast on the ABC TV Lateline program on 28 February 2012, shows that serious and systematic breaches of the Export Supply Chain Assurance System are still taking place. On behalf of the Australian Greens, my colleague Ms Lee Rhiannon has reintroduced a bill in the Senate to ban live animal exports, the Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill 2012. Anna Krien has an interesting take on the Government’s fix, in an opinion based on her dissertation in the Quarterly Essay, “Us and Them: On the Importance of Animals”. Krien suggests the point of the new Export Supply Chain Assurance system is “… for killing standards to be raised to Western-approved levels so that cattle can safely become objects once more.” Is she right that our conscience was briefly raised, but we are too willing to be reassured and slip back into the comfort of our complacence? I hope this is not the case and that The Greens bill will pass. But we are naive if we think this happens only in Indonesia and in countries less developed than ours. In February we were appalled when footage was released from a Sydney abattoir exposing horrendous cruelty to sheep, cows, goats and pigs. The footage was obtained covertly by Animal Liberation and with thanks to the bravery of whistleblowers. The abattoir, Hawkesbury Valley Meat Processors, was promptly suspended by the New South Wales Government. Statements were made suggesting it was a rogue operation. I am not convinced. I have joined calls from Animal Liberation, Animals Australia and the RSPCA Australia for mandatory closed-circuit television in all abattoirs.
Paul McCartney once said that if abattoirs had glass walls we would all become vegetarians. Committed meat eaters might resist, but video surveillance would at least allow increased scrutiny and ensure that cruelty cannot thrive behind closed doors. Hawkesbury Valley Meat Processors has been allowed to resume operations and has decided to install closed-circuit television cameras. The recordings will be inspected by the Food Authority, for which I commend the authority. It is not a mandatory requirement to have closed-circuit television cameras, but some in the industry are moving forward on it. In February Teys Australia, which is an internationally owned meat processing business, announced it would install closed-circuit television cameras in its premises. With industry moving in this direction, it would be appropriate for this Parliament to act and make it a mandatory safeguard to at least ensure the treatment of animals in abattoirs is lawful. However, I recognise that mandatory video surveillance is not an answer on its own.
The abattoir workers who handle, stun and kill animals must be trained and competent and that training must be ongoing. The Australian Meat Industry Council has animal welfare standards for abattoirs that are more rigorous. However, those standards apply only to abattoirs processing meat for export and not to New South Wales abattoirs that process the meat for the domestic market. They should. The RSPCA is writing to Ministers ahead of the Standing Council of Primary Industries to ask for the standards to apply nationally. I also will write to the Minister on this point. The question of what is lawful is the next matter we must address, if we are to evolve as a more humane society. As a result of codes of practice, piglets can have their tails sliced off and teeth cut without any form of pain relief. Laying hens suffer for their entire lives in battery cages where they cannot even stretch their wings, and millions of meat chickens die every year because they are bred to grow so fast that their legs are unable to support them.
What might ordinarily be considered an act of cruelty is not an offence under the New South Wales Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act if it is done in compliance with the codes of practice. If the codes of practice act as a defence against animal cruelty, then they need to ensure they are genuinely avoiding animal cruelty rather than sanctioning it. So, as a society, we have a long way to go before we are humane and respectful to our fellow animal. I want to see ambitious animal welfare law reform in this Parliament to bring about such a society. As one small yet important step towards this goal, I will soon table a private member’s bill for mandatory closed-circuit television cameras in New South Wales abattoirs.