WESTERN Australian Senator Chris Back believes former Liberal colleague Gary Humphries will have a moderating influence on RSPCA Australia which must address an unbalanced attitude towards livestock production.
Last week, Mr Humphries - who left federal parliament in 2013 - was appointed chair of the RSPCA’s board of directors.
Senator Back said Mr Humphries was an ACT Liberal Senator and co-chair of the RSPCA Parliamentary Friendship Group during the 2011 “debacle” where the former Labor government suddenly suspended the live cattle trade to Indonesia.
He said at that time, he and his former Liberal Senate colleague “had a fairly spirited discussion” about the live animal export trade’s standing and issues underpinning the suspension.
“I was fairly critical of the RSPCA at that time and he (Mr Humphries) was concerned by the criticism I expressed,” the former veterinarian said.
“I basically spoke in the party room and informed Coalition members and Senators about my experiences and background with the live export trade and its importance.
“Gary indicated that he had some concerns and so we sat down afterwards and had an amicable discussion.
“We resolved that issue but where I will be anxious for him to play a role now will be to re-establish the RSPCA’s balance in terms of production animals and companion animals.
“I’ve had serious concerns for some years - which have also been expressed by others as well - that the RSPCA in a sense went down the companion animal industry pathway and disassociated itself from the production animal industry.
“I know they would disagree with that view but I will be having a discussion with Gary to congratulate him and also to remind him that the RSPCA needs to regain a lot of lost ground with the production animal sector.”
Senator Back said as a long-term Senator for the ACT and a former ACT Chief Minister and Attorney General, Mr Humphries would bring a rich history of public policy development to his RSPCA leadership role.
But he said the new RSPCA boss must ensure the RSPCA understands and respects the animal welfare issues associated with animal production.
Live exports the 'elephant in the room'
Senator Back said the elephant in the room for the RSPCA was its position in wanting to ban the live export trade which Mr Humphries supports.
“The animal activists will say that the best welfare outcome for animals is to travel the least distance from the farm to the processing establishment,” he said.
“But as I constantly say, in the case of Northern Australia, the least and most comfortable distance to travel is by sea to Indonesia rather than long distances by road to southern Australia and markets where Bos indicus cattle are not in demand.
“Live exports is an issue the RSPCA has to come to terms with in my view.
“Gary has said he will make his decisions based on good science; well there’s one prime example of good science.”
Senator Back said the RSPCA’s long-running opposition to live exports needed to consider regulatory changes made since the 2011 suspension which have improved animal welfare outcomes on the global stage; not just for Australian animals.
“There is no case of the banning of the trade and if people are genuinely interested in animal welfare then animal welfare standards don’t stop at Australia’s borders,” he said.
“Over a long history both scientifically and from a trade/market point of view, we can point to Australia’s involvement in improving animal welfare standards in all of our target markets.
“Not just for Australian raised and bred animals exported to those destinations, but also for locally bred animals and animals from other countries.
“If the RSPCA and others want to genuinely engage in this space then they need to recognise the international perspectives.
“In every other sector Australia is asked to play its role in terms of human rights - the rights of children particularly - so therefore why can’t that apply to the rights of animals?
“The fact is we do produce animals for consumption by humans in other countries (and) we have a greater obligation, than just looking inside our own borders.”
RSPCA a 'balanced voice': Humphries
Speaking to Fairfax Media, Mr Humphries said the value he brought to the RSPCA chairman’s role - having been a former member of the federal parliament - was in knowing and having worked with many members and understanding how government works.
“I hope that I can improve the dialogue between the federal government and the RSPCA about the issues that matter and therefore move those issues forward, get them taken more seriously, discussed at the right levels, identify the areas of common ground and therefore move to a point where we can lift standards,” he said.
“It may not be that we get agreement on closing the industry down any time in the next little while.
“But I do think there’s the basis here for discussion about what needs to happen to alleviate the misery of those animals that live in horrendous conditions travelling to those countries that import them and then often facing quite unacceptable standards of slaughter and treatment.”
Mr Humphries said the RSPCA would continue working with animal rights groups like Animals Australia on public campaigns where their views overlapped; like wanting to ban live exports.
“The RSPCA has always taken a quite distinct position and I would think we can say, with confidence, we are a respected and balanced voice about the treatment of animals,” he said.
“We don’t argue for example that the exploitation of animals for food or for the benefits of human kind is wrong.
“We accept that is an appropriate use of animals however we argue that the animals need to be treated humanely while alive and the humane slaughter of the animals when it comes time to use their meat or for other products.
“We sometimes work with other organisations where we have common ground but we don’t necessarily take the position of other organisations with respect to the end point that we want that process to lead to.
“We’d want to be saying to federal government agencies and others and certainly to the farming sector, that we have a position which is quite clearly articulated.
“It’s based on good science, we’ve worked through those issues very carefully and we’ll take that position consistently.
“Sometimes that will put us in the same camp as other organisations like Animals Australia – sometimes it won’t – and if our paths cross well that’s fine.
“But we’ll maintain our independence and our ability to invoke the sense that we are honest brokers in this area.
“We present a balanced picture; one that does rely on good science and is the basis of good discussion about where we go in the future to get better outcomes.”