Voiceless Animal Law Lecture Series

David Weisbrot, President, Australian Law Reform Commission, at Sydney Law School, The University of Sydney, 19 May 2009 | Panel Discussion (David Weisbrot AM, Celeste Black, Peter Sankoff, chaired by Katrina Sharman)

1.  David: As President of the ALRC, you spend a lot of time looking at deficiencies in certain laws and making recommendations for change. What do you think is the greatest deficiency in Australia’s regulatory framework for animal welfare and how would you like to see it change? (3mins)

DW: I think we need:

  1. national – or at least harmonised – legislation that protects animal welfare; and
  2. is not set at the lowest common denominator; or
  3. is so riddled with loopholes that you could drive a large factory farm truck though.

For example, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals 1979 (NSW) and Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) s 530(1) are fairly typical:

prohibit ‘serious animal cruelty’, an offence committed where a person, ‘with the intention of inflicting severe pain: (a) tortures, beats or commits any other serious act of cruelty on an animal, and (b) kills or seriously injures or causes prolonged suffering to the animal’. 

Maximum penalty for breach is five years imprisonment.  

However, a major loophole is provided in sub-section (2), according to which persons are not criminally responsible if they have acted in accordance with ‘routine agricultural or animal husbandry activities, recognised religious practices, the extermination of pest animals or veterinary practice’, or with legal authority under the Animal Research Act 1985 (NSW).  

And, perhaps not surprisingly given the size, influence and economic importance of the agriculture and livestock industry in Australia, such practices as factory farming and battery egg production are regarded as ‘routine activities’ for the purposes of the law.  

Along similar lines, I’d like to see high quality, national legislation regulating animal imports and exports – especially live animal exports – as well as animal welfare food labelling requirements, to unlock consumer choice and power, and thus drive good behaviour from the industry.  

4.  David: you’ve been quoted previously as saying that ‘animal law is potentially the next social justice movement’. Can you tell us a bit about why you made this statement and is the movement coming – or is it actually here?  (3mins)

DW: I think that’s been by far the most widely quoted thing I’ve ever said – and I’m not at all unhappy about that, even though some of those repetitions are weirdly out of context (and probably intentionally so.  Yes, that, means you, Miranda Devine).  

What I was getting at is that: we are continuously evolving as a society, and try to tackle areas of injustice and inequity.   And although it may seem a long and frustrating process for those involved, we do actually move over time from the kernel of an idea – maybe even an unpopular idea – to the growth of a social justice movement, to a time not long after when it seems ridiculous that we ever thought otherwise.

So only 150 years, we had slavery in the US and other western societies, and now we have a black President in the US.
We’ve had major changes in the legal and social status of women.
We’ve had major changes in the legal status of Indigenous people – even though we’re nowhere near closing the social and economic gap yet.

It’s a challenge explaining to your kids that not so long ago, black people and women were regarded legally as property – as the chattels of white men.  Much like animals are now.

We’ve seen a tremendous rise in consciousness about environmental issues.
Just recently, we’ve seen changing attitudes and key changes to the laws about the rights of same sex couples.

And now, I think we’re approaching a change in the zeistgeist, or reaching the ‘tipping point’, to use Malcolm Gladwell’s catch phrase, in respect of animal welfare. 

  • Look at the growth in the number of supermarket shelves devoted to organic and free range food products.
  • Look at the completely changed social attitudes to fur as fashion.
  • Look at the growing concern about the use and welfare of animals in research.
  • Look at the growth in the number of Animal Law courses in law schools.
  • Look at the growth in the number of lawyers willing to do pro bono work on behalf of animals.

And so on.

But I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

We still haven’t got animals welfare/animal rights onto the political agenda – politicians are not being asked, or required to answer, what they are doing to address the problems (the way they are in respect of racial or gender-based disadvantage, or global warming, for example).    Soon, I hope!