THE head of a key animal welfare committee has warned the Abbott government risks losing valuable momentum on important industry reforms by axing the inclusive advisory forum.
The Australian Animals Welfare Advisory Committee (AAWAC) is one of 21 non-statutory bodies being cut or rationalised by the new Coalition regime, amid moves to streamline government and reduce duplication.
The AAWAC had a number of roles, including to drive implementation of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS) and identify any issues or gaps in the existing animal welfare system in Australia.
The government says the committees’ activities are no longer needed or can be managed within existing departmental resources, with most having outlived their original purpose or are no longer focused on the government’s policy priorities.
AAWAC chair Gardner Murray told Fairfax Agricultural Media his committee was set up about eight years ago to provide expert advice to the minister of the day, as part of the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS).
He said the strategy was developed under then Agriculture Minister Warren Truss, with support from State Ministers, as an inclusive process encompassing experts from areas like livestock production, animal welfare and animals used in laboratory science experiments.
Dr Murray said the committee has provided advice on animal welfare problems and reforms, “not as a revolution but in an evolutionary and progressive way”.
He said its members generally met four times a year face to face but maintained ongoing communications to progress its various activities.
Dr Murray said the overall program cost taxpayers about $1 million per year which was “an amazing spend”, given its success with making animal welfare policy improvements and role in generating Australia’s “first-class” international reputation.
In addition, he said about 140 scientists and educationalists worked for nothing to develop policies and standards for consideration, which generated significant leverage on the $1 million spending.
Some of those programs made an investment return of $10 for every dollar spent and others returned $3-2 for every dollar spent, he said.
But Dr Murray said the Department of Agriculture would now assess implications of the committee’s loss and decide how to continue its work without losing momentum.
“I’m very disappointed this committee has been scrapped because animal welfare is a mainstream issue and Australia’s reputation is very important,” he said.
“I’m very hopeful the government will consider how this major gap will be filled and this well recognised international strategy can be progressed.
“This approach has really given Australia a seriously good reputation for its work in improving animal welfare, in an inclusive, progressive and scientific way.”
Dr Murray said the committee would be removed but the animal welfare strategy would remain, leaving the government with a key question on how it would now progress the ongoing reforms and continue investment.
He said the committee has achieved success implementing livestock transport standards, developing material for animal handling training at agricultural colleges and implementing policies on how to control feral animals humanely and how laboratory animals are handled.
Cattle Council of Australia chief executive officer Jed Matz said the committee was due to expire in 12 months time, but not without a replacement body identified.
Mr Matz said the question now was whether the committee would in fact be replaced and who would be custodian over the AAWS.
“How does the Minister propose to consult with industry and welfare NGOs in the future?” he said.
Animals Australia executive director Glenys Oogjes also expressed disappointment with the Abbott government’s decision.
“To lose an official forum that brought producers, industry bodies, scientists and animal welfare groups around the table is very disappointing and puts Australia way behind our international trading partners who support such government advisory bodies on animal welfare,” she said.
“Considering community interest in animal welfare, this is a regressive step to say the least and not in the interests of producers or animals.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the Prime Minister’s decision to abolish the Committee was “disappointing” as it risked further damage to public confidence in Australia’s live export system and the sector’s long term sustainability.
“This adds to previous decisions by the Abbott government that pose a threat to Australia’s live export trade, particularly the abolition of the position of Inspector General of Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports, and preparations for a move to industry self-regulation,” he said.
But Australian Livestock Exporters Council CEO Alison Penfold said the live export industry was “one minor participant” in the strategy.
“Our commitment to animal welfare goes far beyond committee structures to the thousands of people we are training on the ground in animal welfare, handling and slaughter as well as the investment industry is making in boats feedlots and slaughter facilities,” she said.
“It’s disappointing to see the former Minister using the live export industry to take pot shots at the Coalition.”
In a statement released on Friday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government was determined to deliver on its election commitment to reduce the cost of unnecessary and inefficient regulation on business and the community by at least $1 billion each year, every year.
“Regulation won’t be the default position for government and will only be imposed where unavoidable,” he said in the statement.
Mr Abbott said many non-statutory bodies had “outlived their original purpose or are not focused on the government’s policy priorities. As a result, their work is best carried out by the relevant government departments or agencies”.