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Animal Welfare in Australia: Politics and Policy by Dr Peter John Chen
Animal Welfare in Australia: Politics and Policy

We speak with Dr Peter Chen about the motivations behind his new title, Animal Welfare in Australia: Politics and Policy, the treatment of pets versus non-companion animals, the societal "meme" of meat-eating, as well as the recent ban on greyhound racing and its subsequent un-banning.

As a political scientist, what attracted you to animal welfare as a particular area of interest?

Following the 2011 live export ban of cattle, I became interested in the topic because of the dramatic increase in perceived public attention to the topic and the intervention of political elites. I wondered if this area of policy-making – long considered only an “insider” policy process – was transitioning in its significance. I found a range of interesting academic sources on the topic, but none about Australia from the perspective of political science, so that motivated my work on the topic.

Your research highlights the striking contrast between how we treat companion animals on one hand, and the animals we farm for food on the other. You note that Australians spend $8 billion a year on our pets – and eat an average of 22 animals per person in the same period. How can we explain this contradiction, and what consequences does it have for animal welfare policy?

As a constructivist I see this as about the way we create and sustain cultural norms lead to the categorisation of animals into particular categories (indeed “animal” is a category in its own right that this ambiguous). These are embedded in cultural practice that normalises our treatment of animals, but has a high degree of arbitrariness to it (consider horse-eating, for example). The movement of animals between categories is a source of power; as different species, breeds, or the same species and breeds in different contexts, opens up and closes off social practices. A good example is that of greyhounds at present. Traditionally, they are an animal used for recreational enjoyment. As more and more greyhounds move from industrial use (racing) into homes as companion animals (“pets”) through re-homing and rescue, their social meaning and the treatment of them changes.

Dr Peter Chen
Dr Peter Chen

In the book you show how meat-eating has long been tied up with ideas of “Australian-ness” and of masculinity. The promise of “meat three times a day” was used to attract migrants in the 19th century, and meat was seen as essential, especially for men doing physical labour. Has this changed? Do we still associate meat-eating with masculinity, and with robust physical health?

It’s a remarkably resilient meme in society, but certainly the consumption of red meat has declined relative to chicken and fish in society – this is associated with health reasons, as opposed to welfare concerns – but health discourses are being re-appropriated by the red meat industry to encourage its consumption by women (with an emphasis on dietary iron). Still, however, the notion that most meals need to contain some animal “protein” (as it’s often described on cooking shows) remains a dominant discourse, even if increasing numbers of Australians are opting to reduce meat in their diets. There’s a divergence here to some degree: more flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans, yet Australians overall are eating more meat today than a decade ago in total.

You interviewed an incredibly wide range of people for the book: industry representatives, animal welfare activists, politicians from several parties. To what extent do these groups understand each other?

Generally poorly, albeit with notable exceptions. To some extent this is natural: some of these groups are existential opponents and so have no common ground, and are engaged in a “fight to the death”. On the other hand, many industry organisations are starting to see welfare treatment as a threat to their social licence to operate and are investigating actively public concerns about welfare and are “talking welfare” more, even if actual changes are sometimes illusive, or undermined by regulatory action (as we saw with national changes to stocking density associated with free-range eggs recently). Many activist organisations too have recognised they need a greater knowledge of animals and industry practices, and so are developing new expertise to engage in public debates about changing practice. This is particularly the case with the anti-vivisectionist organisations in Australia.

When your book was in the final stages of production, NSW Premier Mike Baird announced a ban on greyhound racing. Just after the book went to press, he announced a reversal of this decision. What can we learn about the policy process and the political climate from all this?

The greyhound reversal is emblematic of many high-profile policy decisions in recent years, of which the live export ban is a good example. This policy area tends to be marked by this type of policy process, and I think it’s associated with a range of factors that include low levels of sustained public interest, disengagement of political elites from the topic, and short media focus on specific areas of concern that are very episodic in nature – rather than being linked together in a thematic way. Because of this the politics of welfare is very fragmented, subject to very specific and localised “shocks”. This makes it very unpredictable.

If you had to predict the future, what animal welfare issues do you think are most likely to grab headlines and political attention in the next few years?

Ha! Unpredictable! I’m going to be watching the issue of puppy farming, where there have been a variety of responses in Queensland and Victoria. More broadly, advocates have been proposing a national Independent Office for Animal Welfare be established, an idea that the Labor party has formally adopted. If there is a change of government I wonder if the idea will be quietly shelved under pressure from industrial actors, but also parts of the party who see this as too clearly aligned with the position of the Australian Greens. Overall, I’m interested in this institutionally, but also following the abolition of the national animal welfare strategy under the Abbott administration, the lack of national co-ordination is a space to watch.

Do you prefer silence, music, or something else when you’re writing? Do you have any writing rituals?

I do tend to write in silence, but otherwise, I’ve no rituals. Interestingly I did write most of this book standing in a cupboard in my small unit in Ashfield, but that’s a long story.

What are you reading now?
Pacific Ways: Government and Politics in the Pacific Islands, an edited collection on the politics of the Pacific by Stephen Levine.

Dr Peter Chen is a political scientist at the University of Sydney who works on Australian politics, political media, and public policy. Animal Welfare in Australia: Politics and Policy is now available from Sydney University Press.

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