What role should government play in the protection of farm animals? This is the essential question which will be addressed by David Robinson Simon in the 2017 Voiceless Law Lecture, hosted by Griffith Law School. The question is an important one, since farm animals have an intrinsic moral worth, based on their sentience and cognitive abilities, justifying government intervention to protect their well-being.
The evidence in Australia is that governments at a state and federal level are failing to properly address the needs of farm animals. The federal government has retreated from coordinating a nationally consistent approach to protection, farm industry groups dominate the setting of standards for farm animal protection, and animal welfare science research is largely industry-driven. Animal welfare is very poorly resourced, compromising meaningful compliance monitoring and enforcement. The key government regulators — generally agriculture departments — are hopelessly conflicted: on the one hand, nominally responsible for administering animal protection legislation, while on the other committed to growing the size, productivity and profitability of the farm animal sector.
Private actors, including supermarkets, are becoming increasingly significant in regulating farm animal protection, whether through standard-setting schemes, quality assurance schemes, or other arrangements. Third party quality assurance and standards schemes are filling the gap left by the retreat of state regulators. In some respects, this reflects a positive response to consumer demands for higher welfare standards. However, problems of transparency and accountability in animal protection persist despite the emergence of these schemes. Further, in the case of quality assurance schemes, the evidence suggests they add little to existing inadequate minimum standards of animal welfare.
A complete overhaul of farm animal regulation is required, starting with the creation of an independent statutory animal welfare regulator. Such a proposal is not new, and has been endorsed in one form or another by the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party. The Productivity Commission, in a recent report on Australian agriculture, highlighted the limitations of existing regulatory approaches and endorsed the creation of a new, national animal welfare regulator, operating independently of agriculture departments. The momentum for institutional change is growing, based on evidence showing the failure of current arrangements and the existence of workable possibilities for reform.