Greens introduce Independent Office of Animal Welfare Bill to NSW Parliament

Today Abigail has introduced into NSW Parliament the Greens Bill to establish an Independent Office of Animal Welfare. 

The Bill, which has been developed in close consultation with the Australian Alliance for Animals, moves responsibility for oversight of animal welfare in NSW out of the animal agriculture industry-captured Department of Primary Industries and into an independent statutory body dedicated to the best interests of animals. 

The Independent Office of Animal Welfare would be empowered to:

  • develop the State’s animal welfare policies and guidelines
  • develop an animal welfare strategy that provides for a State-wide framework for identifying and prioritising animal welfare issues
  • liaise with bodies responsible for national policies and guidelines
  • conduct inquiries, commission research and prepare reports on the State’s animal welfare laws, policies and guidelines
  • ensure compliance with, and the enforcement and effectiveness of, the State’s animal welfare laws, including oversight of the treatment of animals in a particular industry or sector, including greyhound racing, horse racing, agriculture and medical and scientific research
  • improve consistency across all industries and sectors that use animals
  • collect and disseminate information about animal welfare issues in the State
  • work towards possible harmonisation of the State’s animal welfare laws with similar laws of the Commonwealth, other States and the Territories. 

You can read the text of the Bill here

Abigail's second reading speech is in full below.

I am pleased to introduce the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Amendment (Independent Office of Animal Welfare) Bill 2022 on behalf of the Greens. This Bill establishes an independent statutory body to undertake key regulatory and administrative responsibilities relating to animal welfare and protection, constituted to ensure independent oversight and review of animal welfare in NSW in line with scientific knowledge, technological advances, and community expectations, and subsequently removes responsibility for animal welfare from the Department of Primary Industries.

There are some 75 million animals in the NSW agriculture industry, some 9 million companion animals, around 2 million animals used in research, thousands of exhibited animals, and uncountable billions of native and non-native wild animals affected by animal welfare laws in NSW. 

It seems strange then that protecting these animals has taken such a back seat in NSW politics. Over the past 40-odd years, our animal welfare and protection regime has become increasingly out of date. Contemporary scientific knowledge about animals and animal welfare, advances in technology, and community expectations and values favouring greater regulation have all progressed and evolved while our laws have stagnated. 

Unfortunately, when we look at the state of politics it is easy to understand why there has been a lack of leadership on animal welfare by the governing parties. The majority of political parties are captured, or at least heavily influenced, by those that profit directly or indirectly from animals, and so the laws they enact and departments they administer are skewed in favour of industry even when this may not be in the best interests of the animals for which they have responsibility. 

Perhaps the most blatant example of the influence of animal profiteers on NSW politics is the NSW Nationals and the 2021 caged egg scandal that their former Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall shamelessly oversaw. 

The Department of Primary Industries, which is overseen by the Minister for Agriculture, administers three of four pieces of primary animal welfare legislation, including the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979, and states in their strategic plan 2022-2030 that the Department’s purpose is “to maximise outcomes for NSW primary industries, the communities they support and the resources they rely on, both today and for the future”. 

The 2020 Select Committee on Animal Cruelty Laws in New South Wales, which inquired into the effectiveness of arrangements for the administration and enforcement of the laws of New South Wales for the protection of animals from cruelty, explored the question of potential, perceived, and actual conflicts of interest in relation to animal welfare matters. 

While industry bodies and this Government are united in the position that no conflict arises when a single Department is tasked with both overseeing animal welfare outcomes and promoting and growing agricultural industries, the reality of the situation is that where money is concerned maximising outcomes in animal agriculture is rarely if ever the same as ensuring genuine welfare outcomes for animals in the industry. 

This was a finding of the Commonwealth Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the Regulation of Australian Agriculture, stating that: 

“Representing the interests of the industry that a government department is tasked with addressing is not of itself a concern, it is consistent with its objective. However, issues can arise when that department is also responsible for implementing a regulation that has broader community interests that may conflict with those of the industry.”

The Greens, Labor and the Animal Justice Party all concluded the Select Committee’s inquiry with the view that the Department of Primary Industries has an inherent conflict of interest in its role of, at the same time, supporting agricultural industries while also being responsible for farmed animal welfare matters. The committee ultimately recommended that the NSW Government should move responsibility for animal welfare matters out of the Department of Primary Industries, and establish an independent statutory body to oversee the animal welfare framework.

I quote from the committee report: 

“We are of the view that the Department of Primary Industries views the concept of ‘animal welfare’ within the context of agricultural industries as being synonymous with ‘quality of stock’. The community, however, increasingly views animals as sentient beings, regardless of their use to humans. Given the Department of Primary Industries’ role in supporting agricultural industries, the committee is concerned that the Department of Primary Industries risks maintaining a narrow and outdated view of animal welfare matters which is out of step with the broader community.

Given our concerns, we therefore recommend that the NSW Government move responsibility for animal welfare matters out of the Department of Primary Industries to avoid any potential conflicts of interest in relation to animal welfare.” 

I do not doubt that there are good people with genuine expertise in and care for animal welfare in the Department of Primary Industries. The battery cages issue proves however that this is unfortunately not good enough if the Department is answerable to a Minister whose primary interest conflicts with animal welfare. 

I will note that this reform would be best accompanied by the creation of a dedicated Ministerial portfolio of Animal Welfare separate to the Agriculture portfolio, to ensure a more fulsome eradication of any actual or perceived conflicts of interest inside Cabinet. This is of course a matter for the government of the day however and cannot be legislated. 

Animal welfare matters of course are not limited only to animal agriculture or actions designated as cruel under the law. Even with the conflict of interest issue to the side, administration and enforcement of animal welfare spans various Government agencies and charitable organisations granted enforcement power under Ministerial order. In addition to the Department of Primary Industries, the Office of Local Government has responsibility for most companion animal matters, animal racing issues sit with the Office of Racing, and native animals are the responsibility of the Minister for Environment. Under the administration of these four different Ministers and associated Departments, the enforcement of various animal welfare matters falls to each individual local council, to the NSW Police, to Racing NSW and the Greyhound Welfare and Integrity Commission, and to the RSPCA and Animal Welfare League. No one body has ultimate oversight of all animal welfare matters in this state, and as a result there is huge room for improvement in inter-agency communication and coordination, and a vacuum of strategy and leadership. This is not necessarily the fault of any of these organisations, but a structural failure that lies at the feet of successive governments. 

I take a moment to speak to the work of the RSPCA NSW and the Animal Welfare League NSW. These two organisations are responsible for the lion’s share of animal welfare enforcement, despite being the only two organisations I have named that are not statutorily constituted or part of government. In fact, the very vast majority of their work enforcing the animal welfare laws of this state is not publicly funded, with core operational funding provided by the government to both the RSPCA and AWL put together totalling less than half a million dollars. This means that both organisations are reliant on charitable donations and other revenue streams to operate, which reasonably raises questions about perceived conflicts of interest. The RSPCA and AWL work incredibly hard within the confines of a flawed system and inadequate laws, and ultimately report to a Minister that has little interest in advancing animal welfare through policy or resourcing.

Establishing an Independent Office of Animal Welfare would create a single government body to act as a point of nexus for these various government bodies and charitable organisations, allowing coordinated progress on animal welfare through centralised independent oversight and a strategic framework focused solely on animal welfare outcomes. In addition, the Independent Office would also be responsible for liaising with all bodies responsible for national animal welfare policies and guidelines, and educating the community on animal welfare issues. There would also be a role for the Office to advocate for animal welfare in other Governmental policy development, such as feeding into disaster planning or planning policy reform.

The establishment of an independent statutory body with responsibility for animal welfare and protection issues is something that the animal welfare sector has been united in advocating for for many years. In response to the Senate Inquiry into former Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon’s Voice for Animals (Independent Office of Animal Welfare) Bill 2015, all animal welfare organisations which made submissions to the inquiry, including Humane Research Australia, PETA Australia, RSPCA Australia, Animal Liberation, Sentient: The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics, Lawyers for Animals, Animals Australia, Voiceless, and World Animal Protection, supported the introduction of a national independent statutory body responsible for animal welfare. More recently, the Australian Alliance for Animals, whose core members are Animals Australia, Compassion in World Farming, Four Paws, Humane Society International Australia, Voiceless, and World Animal Protection Australia, was last year launched with their core campaign a push to establish a truly independent national commission for animal welfare, alongside a separate Ministerial portfolio for animal welfare and improved processes for the creation of animal welfare standards. These calls have been echoed in NSW over the past four years, with literally hundreds of submissions from animal welfare organisations and advocates to both Parliamentary and Departmental inquiry and review processes calling for an independent statutory body responsible for animal welfare at the NSW state level. 

The public agrees with animal welfare experts. Management consulting firm Futureye, who specialise in issues of social licence, found in their 2019 report ‘Commodity or Sentient Being? Australia’s shifting mindset on farm animal welfare’, commissioned by the federal Department of Agriculture, that public support for regulatory frameworks like the Independent Office is growing and that without a shift, public outrage at Governmental failure to adequately regulate the agriculture industry would likely lead to a distrust in both. The Consultation Paper for the NSW Government’s own animal welfare reform noted significant support voiced for the establishment of an Independent Office of Animal Welfare in submissions and survey responses, with an independent office the key issue raised in the context of enforcement arrangements. It’s clear that establishing an Independent Office of Animal Welfare is both popular and best practice.

I turn now to the specifics of the Bill. 

Schedule 1[4] establishes and confers functions on the Independent Office of Animal Welfare, the Chief Animal Welfare Officer and the Office’s Advisory Committee.

The main objects of the Independent Office of Animal Welfare are to promote knowledge of animal welfare issues; to improve animal welfare outcomes; to ensure the State’s animal welfare policies and guidelines are independently reviewed and developed having regard to contemporary scientific knowledge about animal welfare, advances in technology, and community expectations and values; and to ensure the independent review of the administration and enforcement of the State’s animal welfare laws. 

The functions of the Independent Office of Animal Welfare include assisting the Chief Animal Welfare Officer in the exercise of their functions. These functions include developing the State’s animal welfare policies and guidelines and liaising with bodies responsible for national policies and guidelines; reviewing and monitoring, including conducting inquiries, commissioning research and preparing reports on the State’s animal welfare laws, policies and guidelines; developing an animal welfare strategy that provides for a State-wide framework for identifying and prioritising animal welfare issues; and ensuring compliance with, and the enforcement and effectiveness of, the State’s animal welfare laws. This includes oversight of the treatment of animals in a particular industry or sector, including greyhound racing, horse racing, agriculture and medical and scientific research.

Further, functions include improving consistency across all industries and sectors that use animals; collecting and disseminating information about animal welfare issues in the State; and where appropriate working towards possible harmonisation of the State’s animal welfare laws with similar laws of the Commonwealth, other States and the Territories. 

The Advisory Committee is made up of 3 representatives of non-government animal welfare organisations, 2 representatives of RSPCA NSW and Animal Welfare League NSW, 2 animal welfare scientists, 1 animal welfare ethicist, 1 representative of consumer rights organisations, 1 representative of commercial animal industry, 1 Government representative, and 1 local council representative. 

Schedule 1[5] provides that the Advisory Committee must be given an opportunity to review and comment on animal welfare codes of practice, guidelines and standards and must publicly report its comment and suggested amendments, before the document can be adopted. This replaces the current process, which provides representatives of relevant livestock industries and the non-statutory Animal Welfare Advisory Council the opportunity to review and comment on codes of practice, guidelines and standards relating to farm and companion animal welfare before the regulation is made. 

Schedule 1[5] also creates the power to designate a provision of animal welfare codes of practice, guidelines and standards as a mandatory provision, and makes it an offence for a person to contravene a mandatory provision.

Finally, Schedule 1[1] changes the definition of approved charitable organisations to recognise the RSPCA NSW and the Animal Welfare League NSW in the Act, and Schedules 1[2], 1[6] and 1[7] make consequential amendments. Currently, charitable organisations given enforcement powers under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act are exclusively appointed by order of the Minister, and their status as approved charitable organisation can just as easily be withdrawn by the Minister by a simple order, without any power of Parliament to disallow the change, let alone vote it down. This change recognises that the RSPCA NSW and the Animal Welfare League NSW have for decades been enforcing animal welfare laws in this state, and their inspectorate programs should not be at risk of dissolution by the simple flick of a Ministerial pen. This change is in line with the definition of approved charitable organisations in the Companion Animals Act, and will provide these important organisations with the security to fearlessly advocate for animal welfare without concern for bad faith retaliation by the Government, but while retaining necessary oversight and accountability through the Independent Office of Animal Welfare. 

I would like to thank the many animal welfare organisations that have assisted in the development of this Bill, and in particular the Australian Alliance for Animals and the RSPCA NSW. I offer my heartfelt gratitude to Dr Jed Goodfellow and Dr Meg Good of the Alliance for Animals for their expert advice on what a best practice Independent Office of Animal Welfare would look like, and also to Shakira at the Parliamentary Counsel’s Office for her patience with the many revisions that this process necessitated. 

The establishment of an Independent Office of Animal Welfare to oversee and review, and ultimately improve, animal welfare in NSW, will mean that for the first time NSW is on track to have an animal welfare regime that aligns with scientific knowledge, technological advances, and community expectations. I commend the Bill to the House. 

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