Victorian Senate Group Y: In which we talk for the Animals

I have to admit, I’ve been looking forward to the Animal Justice Party with rather mixed feelings.  On the one hand, given that I am a part-time vegetarian, and a food blogger with a strong interest in ethical eating and vegan food, it’s kind of fun seeing a party that, on the face of it, seems to be very pro-vegetarian.  On the other hand, I also look after medical researchers for a living, and I’m betting that Animal Justice won’t be keen on using experimental mouse models.  I’m also a little worried that they are going to fall into what I think of as the ‘fundamentalist vegan’ camp, and I feel uncomfortable around fundamentalists of any stripe…

Then again, I’ve been sitting here, quietly bemoaning the insufficiency of loony left parties in this election so far.  One’s election experience can never be truly complete without at least one party that makes you want to say “Please stop being on my side.  You are making my side look like it is totally crazy…”  Who knows?  The Animal Justice Party could be quite a boon on that count.

OK, I’m going to stop speculating wildly and see what’s going on with their Group Voting Ticket, where I see that they have given their first preferences to the Democrats, so maybe they aren’t so crazy after all.  They then give some love to Senator Online, Drug Law Reform, Wikileaks and Stable Population, and continue down the line of small left-wing and environmentalist parties, with one notable exception – where are the Greens?  Where indeed… They actually get around to preferencing Family First and One Nation in the mid thirties, and continue through a range of weird and wonderful parties, including the Country Alliance and the DLP before finally sending preferences to the Greens at 74-78.  Labor and Liberal follow immediately, and I think nobody will be surprised to learn that the two fishing parties are at the bottom of the ticket.

But back to the Greens, because one might think they were natural allies of the Animal Justice Party, and preferencing them so low and right next to the major parties sounds like a deliberate jab – one that comes with the subtext that the Greens have sold out.  Actually, I’m not sure that it’s subtext.  It might be text.

Ah yes… it is, indeed text.  Let’s just say that the Animal Justice Party are not happy with the Greens because they feel that they are complicit in kangaroo culls in the ACT, which they characterise as ‘murder’ and a ‘brutal slaughter’. They go into fairly graphic detail about what happens during a kangaroo cull, and I think it’s appropriate to warn you that if you are someone who likes animals and doesn’t like to read about horrible things happening to them, you might want to be careful where you go on the website, as the Animal Justice Party seems to be of the school of thought that shocking and horrifying people is the best way to change their minds.

(If you want to read the Greens’ side of the story, you can read Shane Rattenbury statement here.)

Incidentally, please note the use of language when speaking of the kangaroo cull.  Granted, ‘cull’ is a remarkably mild, unemotive word to use when describing the act of killing kangaroos to reduce the population (it is, however, the word used in most official context, which is why I used it), but describing it as ‘murder’ is a very interesting choice of words – we do not usually speak of animals being murdered; this is a word reserved only for human victims.  Consciously or unconsciously, this choice of language suggests a point of view that I think is very much what the Animal Justice Party are about – that animals do, in fact, have moral equivalency to humans.

Here is the start of the AJP’s policy paper:

The way we treat animals in this country is terribly, terribly wrong – ethically, morally, practically and legally.

The Animal Justice Party values the lives of all beings, human and non-human. It views animal lives as having an importance beyond the simple biophysical, and as deserving of our respect, kindness and understanding. The AJP does not see the value in animal lives as being determined by perspectives on consciousness, human utility, or the narrow quantitative determinism of much science and conservation. The AJP does not support prejudice towards animal species in matters of cruelty.

The two things to note here are the mention of legality and that of prejudice.  The latter is again, the sort of term normally applied only to human interactions.  The former, in line with the party’s name, suggests that animals have a right of legal redress that is currently not acknowledged.  Indeed, in their constitution their first key strategy is to ‘develop a new legal status for animals which acknowledges their rights to live protected from human harm’.

On their Manifesto page, we are informed about humans’ history with animals, and it is pointed out that “Most issues that come before Australia’s parliaments, in some way, impact on the lives of non-human animals, but non-human animals have no voice in these places. It is easy to be discounted if you have no voice and no power”.  Essentially, the AJP wants to provide a voice for animals in Parliament, and their policies are designed to do this.

Incidentally, I got a bit of a giggle from this statement:

We have to ask ourselves just what kind of species brutalises and extinguishes the lives of other sentient beings for their own comfort or entertainment?

How about cats?  Actually, just about any carnivorous animal, to an extent.  I’m not too sure where the argument goes from there, actually.  After all, if you’ve established moral equivalency between animals and humans, you can’t turn around and say that we are better than that or that they don’t know better, can you?  I suppose you could make the argument that humans are not carnivorous, but there are flaws in that, too.

But I digress.

There are 27 policy areas, a number of which focus on specific animals – kangaroos, wombats, koalas, dingos, bats, native birds, brumbies and introduced animals.  These specific animal policies are all essentially the same – they want to protect animals, keep or return them to their native habitats, educate farmers about them, increase fines for killing them, use wombat-friendly fencing, bat-friendly netting, and so forth. Animals also have a right to live free from disease, and so it is our job to work out ways to make this happen.

Introduced species were brought here by us, and we need to treat them with respect:

Many non-human animal species were brought to Australia purely for human benefit and gain, so we therefore have to deal rationally and humanely with any problems our actions have caused. We need to keep emotively and widely reported ‘damage’ in perspective and acknowledge that biodiversity has never been static and that extinction of species is not a new phenomenon. It must also be noted that anthropogenic climate disruption and changes in land use, resulting in habitat loss, are now the major contributors to species loss.

So extinction of species is OK now?  Or only if we’re not the ones doing it – if they do it to each other it’s fine?  I’m getting confused.  There is also a lot about how many people think of rabbits as pets and how poisoning rabbits or destroying them in any other way is unethical.  Which is probably true, but seriously, we have a lot of rabbits and they eat a lot of vegetation, and they are out there, breeding like… rabbits.  And didn’t you just say on the native birds page that you like biodiversity?

I think the intentions are great, but this has not been well thought through.

Companion Animals (ie, pets) also get their own policy, which largely revolve around better treatment of animals, better funding for things like desexing programs and microchipping, and moving towards making all shelters into no-kill shelters.  They also want to ban selling of cats and dogs in pet shops (because there are so many puppies and kittens bought and later abandoned, and people should adopt those), and to support re-training and re-homing of dogs with aggression problems.  Hmm.  They also want to regulate breeding of animals, which is something we definitely, definitely need, and generally promote responsible pet ownership.

In addition, they want to create an independent Office of Animal Welfare and repeal breed-specific laws – their view is that the incidence of dog bites is not decreased by banning the breeding of pit bulls, for example.

My favourite part is where “the interests of companion animals have been consistently and deliberately overlooked or marginalised by a succession of state and federal governments”.  Never assume incompetence where you can assume malice, that’s the slogan of the AJP.

The Animal Justice Party is against all forms of sport that involve harm or likely harm to animals, and this is a place where I can agree with them wholeheartedly.  So they want to ban jumps racing (which can lead to injury or death to horses), and apparently ‘the senseless killing and maiming of animals in the nation’s sporting arenas’.  When they say this, all I can think of is bear-baiting and cock-fighting, neither of which are still practiced anywhere that I am aware of.  We don’t have bull-fighting in Australia, either.  I’m a bit at a loss. In a separate policy, we learn that they are against using animals in circuses and rodeos. Perhaps this is meant to be the same policy?  I have to say, this is not the most well-organised set of policies I’ve seen.  Here’s a bit about the circus side of things:

The Animal Justice Party believes that animals should be enjoyed, appreciated, respected and cared for in terms of their natural behaviours, whether wild or domesticated, not terrified as they perform unnatural behaviours under the whip or, as victims, goaded into violent action to provide opportunities for humans to demonstrate ‘skills’ in taunting and subduing them for audiences’ amusement.

I imagine that you have already guessed that the AJP do not approve of hunting or fishing, though they haven’t fully developed their policies on these yet.  They do, however, want to introduce more marine parks.  I can think of one or two parties who would really hate that.

We then have a collection of policies on Farming, Live Export, and the Human Diet and Animals.  And when I say a collection, alas, they are not all put together in consecutive order, or even near each other, but they do belong together.  AJP, you are going to be very limited in your effectiveness if you can’t get organised!

(so speaks the person who organises people for a living.  To be fair, they often manage to be quite effective while remaining entirely disorganised, but they do mostly know how to organise arguments, which is what is relevant here)

Under farming, we are reminded of the way animals are frequently treated in conventional farming, and it has to be said, the AJP has some very valid criticisms here.  (And in fact, this is why I now only buy free-range eggs and meat that I know comes from free-range and ethical farmers.  I’m working on the dairy part – that’s a bit trickier to source).  We are informed about intensive farming methods, in which animals have little freedom of movement and, quite frankly, pretty distressing lives.  Animals, we are informed here and elsewhere, have the following rights:

  1. Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
  2. Freedom from discomfort – by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals own kind.
  5. Freedom from fear and distress – by ensuring conditions that avoid mental suffering.

This seems entirely reasonable and ethical and I am in favour of it.  I’m a little less certain about this:

Australia’s extreme weather conditions expose animals to drought and famine due to lack of food and water. The AJP will lobby assertively to shift the ‘mind set’ set of ‘laissez faire farming’ where animals can be left to fend for themselves which can cause large scale suffering and aggravated cruelty.

The AJP will reiterate the positive duty of care that is incumbent upon anyone who has animals under their care – no matter what number or species. If the appropriate food and water cannot  possibly be supplied, it is the farmers’ duty to effectively, humanely and swiftly euthanase suffering animals. 

I’m not entirely sure of the practicality of this on a lot of levels, but I don’t know enough about farming to make practical comments.  Similarly, a lot of the techniques they decry as mutilation (including castration and spaying of animals) do indeed sound horrible as described, but I don’t know enough about veterinary practice to know what’s going on here and whether there is more than one side to the story.

Throughout this page there are a lot of references to “While killing animals for food remains lawful…”, and sure enough, once we get to the human diet page, we learn that eating meat is unethical and not very good for you.  While the AJP does realise that Australians are not going to instantly be weaned onto a vegan diet, they want to promote education about this.  If the education is about how to eat healthily on such a diet (entirely doable, but something that does require a bit of knowledge), I’m all for it.

While it is a given that the demand from Australians for animal meat and by-products is highly entrenched and actively marketed and is unlikely to change significantly in the short to medium term, the Animal Justice Party believes the vast majority of Australians will not tolerate the unnecessary suffering of animals for food including through intensive ‘farming’, mutilation procedures without analgesia, and long-distance transport. Therefore, a major goal of the AJP is to bring awareness of these practices to the community, engaging them to exert consumer pressure and advocacy to expedite major improvements for ‘farmed’ animals. The AJP will seek to encourage action through the legislative and policy process to ameliorate any pain, distress or suffering to which animals used for food are routinely exposed.

I think they are probably right, but they might want to be careful how they go about it – I’ve seen the sort of posters that the more militant vegans sometimes display, and while they do produce the requisite horror, they also produce a feeling of anger and resentment at being manipulated or preached at. The message is a good one, but thought needs to go into its communication.

It does occur to the AJP, further down the page, that there are sound environmental reasons to move to a plant-based diet, as well as ethical reasons relating to feeding the world of humans, but this is clearly an afterthought.

And the AJP is, of course, absolutely against live animal exports.  The analogy they use here is the transport of slaves from Africa to America, because they are just that classy.  This is one of their flagship policies, I think, and it’s also likely to be one of their most popular ones – after the documentaries about live export a couple of years ago, many Australians became very aware of this issue, and lobbied the government for a ban of the practice.  I think the ban was later relaxed, however, so more lobbying may be required.

Finally, we get to their policy on animal experimentation, which is one that is close to my heart, though not in a good way.

The Animal Justice Party opposes the use of animals in experimentation unless it can be demonstrated that the experimentation will: (a) not harm the animal, (b) enable the animal to be returned to where it came from in a fit state, and (c) benefit both the individual animal involved and contribute to better outcomes for its species. Australian governments at all levels have a responsibility to prevent the suffering of animals of any species used in any type of research, whether it be for scientific, commercial or military purposes.

They quote Charles Magel saying “Ask the experimenters why they experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are like us.’ Ask the experimenters why it is morally okay to experiment on animals, and the answer is: ‘Because the animals are not like us.’”

Which is very pithy, really and both true and un-true. Bluntly, there are experiments you can do in animals that you can’t do in humans because humans choose who they will breed with in a scientifically indiscriminate fashion!  You can’t breed up a batch of humans with identical genotypes, and you certainly can’t cross particular genetic lines to get particular results.  And there are laws about backcrossing humans.  But sometimes you need to measure very tiny differences due to different treatments or different disease development, and for this you need living organisms which are identical in other ways, so that you know that different outcomes really are due to whatever it is you are testing, and not because those two organisms were going to turn out differently anyway.

So no, animals are not identical to humans, but they have enough genes in common to be very useful for the sorts of experiments that are simply impossible in human subjects – for practical reasons, even before you look at the ethical ones.

It may be of interest to mention that ethics committees in Australia work on the principles of reduction, replacement, refinement – reducing the number of animals, replacing animal experimentation with in vitro or other experimental methods where possible, refining experiments so that we can get the maximum data using the fewest mice.  So there is a bona fide attempt right at the start to use as few mice as possible as well as possible to get the information we need.  This is a funding requirement, incidentally, but it’s also something that the scientists I work with feel strongly about – if these animals have been created by us with these particular genetic conditions, we have a duty to use them as well as possible so that we aren’t just making them suffer for no purpose.  True, this is a human-centric view, because the benefit goes to humans, not to the mice, but I think the principle is still valid.

There is a lot of care taken to ensure that the mice are treated as well as possible.  This is not just an ethical consideration, it’s a pragmatic one – data about mice who are healthy, well-socialised and generally happy is going to be a lot more useful than data about mice who are living in abnormal conditions and are stressed.  So great efforts are made to ensure that the mouse housing is comfortable, that the mice have a reasonable amount of socialisation and enrichment in their environment, and that they are accustomed from an early aged to being handled by humans.  Even greater efforts are made to train the humans to work with them in their care at all stages of research.

I don’t know how strong the legislation about animal welfare in medical research environments actually is.  I am in favour of keeping such legislation strong, of requiring scientists to really think before they use a mouse about whether there is another way to get the same data.  And I am absolutely opposed to the use of animals in creating cosmetics.  There is no greater good being served there.

But when it comes down to it, I do, in fact, favour humans over animals.  I do believe that we need to continue using animals in medical research in order to understand certain processes that are vital for healing diseases (in humans and in animals, for that matter).  And… when it comes down on it, I really would rather test a risky new medication in a mouse than in a human being.  Certainly, there is a point where the mouse can tell us no more, but I have no ethical problem whatsoever with doing the first safety trials in animals.

I don’t think any other policy is practical, and I really like 21st-century medicine.  Sorry, AJP – I am entirely with you on live exports and getting people to eat more vegetarian food, with the banning of animals in circuses and rodeos, and on better protection for domestic and wild animals.  But medical research is important.  It’s not about killing animals for fun, it’s about saving lives – and yes, those are human lives.  But I am a human, so I’m OK with being prejudiced in that direction.

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6 thoughts on “Victorian Senate Group Y: In which we talk for the Animals

  1. “But I am a human, so I’m OK with being prejudiced in that direction.”

    “I’m x, so I’m ok with being prejudiced against those who aren’t x”.. well yeah, that’s how all prejudice works..

  2. Pingback: My personal How to Vote Card… | Cate Speaks

  3. I’ve gotten through most of your posts now. Thanks again for such a detailed analysis. I find myself nodding and agreeing a lot, and most of your voting is very close to mine.
    With the exception of the ajp.
    For me, thus is a very important issue. I’m not a Looney vegan type (I guess I’d say I’m a flexitarian food wise) and i grew up on a small farm, but I really think that its great someone has decided to give a voice to the fellow inhabitants of this country that no one else seems to think about.

    And I think that in 50 or 100 years, when people look back at these times, they will wonder how a society so advanced in many respects could continue the barbaric systems of farming to supply meat when they already have evidence that plant based foods are healthier, better for the environment and offer a way out of the suffering and abuse that the millions of animals endure on a daily basis. In the same way that programs like “go back to where you came from” can open peoples minds about the realities of refugees, I think people really do need to see for themselves the realities of factory farming and slaughter houses. Burying our collective heads in the sand just isn’t acceptable.

    I do agree that the ajp probably need a more moderate stance when it comes to animal testing as I agree and understand that there are some things we just can figure out any other way. But on balance, they are serious contenders for my 248.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sean.

      That’s absolutely fair, and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I think we all have our personal top priorities and our personal deal-breakers, and that’s OK.

      In all honesty, I like the AJP’s pro-vegetarian stance and their concern for animal welfare. A lot of their policies are great. But their stance on medical research makes them absolutely impossible for me to support. And I get upset at the implications that my colleagues (of whom I am very fond) are being needlessly cruel, when I know that they really do care about how the mice are treated.

      There is also a certain fundamentalist feel to the way the website is written that makes me uncomfortable. This is a purely personal reaction, but it is a true reaction for all that.

      I do take your point about raising awareness of how animals are treated in factory farms and elsewhere. We need to do better than that as a species. If it’s any comfort, I do get the sense that there really is a growing movement towards more people wanting to know where their food comes from, particularly animal-derived foods, and to my mind that *is* the first step towards a more plant-based diet and lifestyle. It has certainly worked that way for me, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

  4. A quick note here. In my town (Canberra) the AJP preferences have made it far more likely that the coalition will win the second ACT senate spot over the Greens. The AJP could be the lever for coalition senate control, in other words, with all that entails for animal wellbeing in Australia. Their fundamentalism makes them massively detrimental to the animals they claim to represent.

  5. Better check with the police.Cock fighting is still rife in Australia.A more disturbing problem is dog fighting and the use of small dogs as bait .Many backyard breeders or stolen pets are sources of supply

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