Michael Kirby: The nation should be a leader in animal welfare


Opinion Piece by The Hon. Michael Kirby

The Nation Should be a Leader in Animal Welfare


The way we treat other sentient beings is one of the great moral questions They are creatures with feelings very similar to our own.


A GREAT shift towards ethical choices faces us in Australia. The time of not knowing the cruelties behind our consumer decisions concerning animal products is passing. Increasingly, Australians understand the sentience of animals and the realities of factory farming. They also know that eating animals is not going to stop any time soon. That fact increases, and does not diminish, our duty as human beings.


So when I ask myself what are the big moral questions we are going to be facing in the future, one of them is certainly animal welfare. Over the past six months alone, we have seen a groundbreaking momentum in the animal protection movement as consumers and advocates alike join forces to instigate change for the better treatment of animals.


The industry can no longer hide behind deceptive images of sunny pastures, happily frolicking lambs and well-crafted statements of industry improvements to mask the realities of factory farming. Too many of us now know the image of a lone pig locked into a steel stall barely big enough for her body. And the chickens crammed into wire cages no bigger than an A4 page, fighting for space to even spread their wings as they are treated as an egg production line. For too long these images were hidden from the public. For too long the law has disregarded their plight. 


Sow stalls, in particular, are becoming an increasing concern for Australian consumers who know the cruel facts. In Australia, most pregnant pigs are confined individually in sow stalls for at least some of each 16-week pregnancy. Sow stalls are already banned in Britain and Sweden. New Zealand will ban them from 2015. Switzerland, The Netherlands and Finland have implemented partial bans and an EU directive restricts the use of sow stalls to the first four weeks of any pregnancy by 2013.


The US states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Oregon have also passed legislation to partially ban sow stalls. In Australia, one state government, major grocery retailers and the pork industry are starting to move away from sow stalls. Conscious consumers are driving this change.


As in marriage equality, New Zealand is always ahead of us. Why should that be so?


Many Australians continue to be shocked to learn that millions of farmed animals are not afforded even the most basic legal protection granted to other sentient creatures we share this world with. Why is this so?


What is illegal to do to a dog is practised daily on pigs, chickens and other factory farmed animals. Castration, teeth clipping and the cutting off of tails without anaesthetic are all daily occurrences within Australian factory farm industries.


Yet this conduct is banned in countries that we would consider comparable to ourselves. More progress in animal law is needed in Australia. Law and farming practice are probably the most effective way we can improve the lives of all animals and acknowledge that they are more than just things. 


Refreshingly, some developments are under way as new legislation continues to be introduced across five Australian states and territories dealing with free range labelling, animal welfare and banning live exports.


What's more, government bodies are beginning at last to react to consumer sentiment in Australia. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently began legal proceedings against three large industrial chicken producers for misleading conduct. New bills are being introduced into our parliaments requiring fairer labelling of animal products.


While these wins are well deserved and long overdue, there is much catching up to do. The laws governing animal protection need to be updated and changed to reflect what so many of us now understand. Animals are sentient beings. They are creatures with feelings very similar to our own. They feel pain, fear and joy just like us. If we can understand our own fear and pain, we should be able to understand that of other animals and treat them accordingly. And Australia should be a leader in animal welfare, not a reluctant straggler. These are not the demands of fanatics. They are the voice of conscience of Australians for whom a "fair go" includes animals.