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The next Animal Welfare Act - Pete Hodgson Speech

[Address to a joint conference of the Australian and New Zealand Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Training (ANZCCART) and the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee (NAEAC).]

Good morning everyone. Thank you for the invitation to speak.

I have just presented a New Zealand Science and Technology Medal to Dr Catherine Smith. I get to present a few of those – not many, they don’t give them away – but no presentation has given me as much pleasure as this.

Let me tell you why.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there used to be a Labour Government. In its last year, before it was retired unceremoniously from office, its work programme included a review of New Zealand’s 30 year old Animal Welfare legislation. The Minister was a man called Jim Sutton.

Then verily there was a new Government with a new Agriculture Minister called John Falloon. He continued the work for a year or two and got it quite well advanced. The new Minister was a good man but he was not good enough to get the job finished and a legislative slot secured.

The next minister was Dr Lockwood Smith. He reckoned that legislation such as the Meat Act would come first, and the Animal Welfare Act would have to wait. So it did. For about six years altogether.

Enter another Dr Smith. Dr Catherine Smith chaired a body called the Animal Behaviour and Welfare Consultative Committee. The Committee watched the Government's inactivity for a while and then declared that enough was enough.

So, probably in desperation, Dr Catherine Smith wrote to me. Could I, a lowly opposition backbencher, help? I gulped.

I rang her up. "You write it sister and I’ll get it through." Dr Smith gulped.

Enter Neil Wells. Yes, he said carefully – for he was a lawyer – he could help. And he did. He wrote a Bill, which I placed in what is called the private members bill ballot. I won the ballot first time, an almost unheard-of event.

The Bill was based on the decisions already taken by an earlier National Cabinet. There were no political games afoot. It was a straight up and down piece of legislation.

More to the point, the Animal Welfare and Behaviour Consultative Committee, the one that Dr Catherine Smith chaired, consisted of every animal welfare grouping imaginable, including a lot of primary production representatives. They wanted action.

They were not only friends of the good Dr Smith, they were also friends of the other Dr Smith. The Ministerial one.

This political glue cemented Parliament into passing, a year or two later, the Animal Welfare Act 1999, in the name of Dr Smith’s successor Mr Luxton. The Bill in my name had made that inevitable, because Governments will generally always pass their own Bills rather than see an Opposition member's Bill succeed. That letter to me from Dr Catherine Smith had knocked it all off.

So you will understand why the presentation of an S&T medal to Catherine Smith was such a poignant moment for me. Review of the 1960 Act had taken almost ten years from being placed on the work programmed in 1990 to coming into force on the 1st of January last year. Had it not been for Catherine Smith, it might not have happened even now.

John Martin’s sense of humour is, I am sure, behind his suggested title for this speech, which is “The next Animal Welfare Act”. I am only half joking when I say we won’t be having one, ever. Here is why.

The Act is modern legislation. It won’t be in forty years, but it may well still be very functional. The reason is its construction. The codes of welfare and the codes of ethical conduct that hang off the Act can and will be changed over time.

More than that the changes can only be made if an adequate process is undertaken. This is law in which the process is the outcome, in which the negotiation over changes in codes becomes negotiation into how to put those code changes into effect.

The front bits of the Act can only be amended by Parliament and therefore may wear out first. Indeed the first, tiny, amendment was made last year in the form of a widened definition of a trap.

The Act isn’t perfect legislation. I regret there are no codes of conduct to set hunting and fishing standards. I regret we can export live animals without the Minister being required to take into account their likely fate at their destination. Perhaps self-indulgently, I regret that we still allow tail docking in dogs.

But it is good legislation and I hope you are able to make it work well.

Just a few minutes back I mentioned that it was the Government Bill, rather than mine which was passed into law. The main difference between the two Bills was that the Government’s was twice the size of mine, because issues around the use of animals in experiments were given a lot of prominence and detail.

This law was not well thought through back in the early nineties when the Cabinet decisions on which my Bill was based were taken. Between the early nineties and the late nineties, thinking changed quickly — and there was agreement that an explicit legal framework was needed to give greater certainty to all parties.

The law is now starting to bite. NAEAC is busy with implementation of its functions. So too are the various animal ethics committees, NAWAC, anyone developing codes and so on. The level of activity is high. There are deemed codes to be brought up to date, new codes to be developed.

The front part of the Act is taking effect too. Two Saturdays ago the front page of the Otago Daily Times was dominated by a story of a rather sad man who has been forbidden from owning several species of animals for many years. Under the 1960 Act such a conviction was near impossible.

But not all is well.

As Minister of Fisheries I am taking a close interest in the alleged and repugnant practice of shark finning. Some fishermen are allegedly slicing the fins off live sharks, for sale on the Asian market, then throwing the sharks back in the sea to die a slow and stressful death.

Securing proof of this will be difficult, and even then there are questions about whether a non-New Zealand vessel operating with a New Zealand fishing licence outside the 12 mile limit is caught by the Act or not. So far it’s the same old story – the number of legal opinions equals the number of lawyers asked. But I’ll get to the bottom of it and we will discover whether the Act has holes in it, or not.

Your conference programme is encouraging to the point of being remarkable. It is just great that you devoted all of day one to education and all of yesterday morning to primary and secondary education.

I would particularly have liked to hear Gary Reese from SAFE give the Cam Reid oration. I would have liked Cam Reid to have heard it too.

Now that we are in session 3, future challenges, I want to devote a bit of time to the animal rights perspective, because that is where I think some of the future challenges lie.

I need to begin with a caveat. I know nothing of the subject. I have never studied it. I rarely read the academic literature on it. I sometimes don’t understand the arguments others make and I am generally a little confused about it.

The Animal Welfare Act is about welfare not rights. Absolutely. Determinedly.

Except that we decided in the Select Committee to give a wee bit of ground on the issue of Great Apes, and in doing so crossed the line into Animal Rights. We were the first nation in the world to make the changes we made. We attracted a lot of international media interest, though here in Godzone the response was somewhat more muted.

The Great Ape Project is now almost certainly hassling the daylights out of other jurisdictions to improve upon the modest gains made down under.

What does it all mean? Well I’ve already said I don’t know but that won’t stop me plunging in to take a guess.

My assertion is that our species relationship with other species is changing, quite quickly, and that such changes are partly cultural, partly spiritual, partly philosophical and partly convenient.

When I was very young Opo the dolphin went missing the week before our family was due to travel to see him. We had no car so the logistics had taken time to arrange and even today I feel cheated. But that same year we were actively hunting whales in Cook Strait. Perhaps the biggest change in the relationship between humans and other species in New Zealand in my life time is with cetaceans.

But it is not the only one. Sharks are less hated and feared, and more respected, than ten years ago. Falcons meant half a crown for a pair of legs to me when I grew up: now I just study their grace.

But what goes up might come down. When wekas start to keep us awake again, will our attitude toward them change? When seals haul out on Tamaki Drive, make people late for work and rough up the local poodles, will their status decline?

The harder question is the exploitation of animals as such and what the limits are. We live in a culture that exploits dogs by taming them, yet is repulsed by the idea of farming and eating them. The Hindu culture has a similar view of cattle, which we in turn find curious.

The limits are to do with what is exploitation, what are acceptable forms of exploitation and what an animal is.

Here so-called rational or deductive thinking sets itself up in conflict with thinking that doesn’t pay attention to rationalism.

The animal welfare versus animal rights debate – if indeed it can be characterised that way – is not the only such battle ground.

There are plenty of others, and a person who is rational in one arena might easily revert to a spiritual analysis in another. I do it all the time.

Try this game. Ask if you know any searingly rational scientists who oppose trout farming. If you do, tease them. Let’s assume the biosecurity issues can be properly laid to one side. Ask whether the underlying reason is that the residual hunter-gatherer instinct within them would be offended at the idea of arriving home, knackered, in a mud covered 4 by 4, by now also knackered, troutless, to be served a delicious trout meal by their spouse courtesy of a $14 purchase at a supermarket.

Handling those conflicts is a political challenge, and our nation is about to start another round on one of them when the Royal Commission reports.

But it is clear that people must both listen and hear, speak and be heard, if progress is to be possible. That is why I am delighted that Gary Reese was offered the Cam Reid oration and why I am sorry I missed it.

The other side of that is that scientists need not, indeed must not, desert their science or its findings in order to each agreement. That is a recipe for another Dark Age and it would be an irresponsible course of action.

On the contrary, scientific knowledge and its inevitable uncertainties must be freely asserted at all times. Of course all science takes place within a value system and is therefore contaminated. But there is no better tool to roll back the frontiers of knowledge.

It’s just that that new knowledge must be assimilated by those who use it. People will assimilate and use it differently, even within a culture. Extremism, and the presumption of unilateral action that attends it, is sometimes the result of society demanding that new knowledge must be used in only one way. An example is the rational risk analysis that demanded people believe in the safety of nuclear technology. Some people didn’t, determinedly. Those people include the majority of the New Zealand public.

Where does any of that fit into the next Animal Welfare Act?

Well, I’m not sure as I’ve already said. My best guess is that interspecies relationships will change in this country, and that the new 2038 Act will be called the Animal Welfare and Rights Act.

But that’s a long way away. In the meantime bio-ethicists have got the explosion of biotechnology to deal with. Are there animal welfare issues with double muscled sheep? No? How about quadruple muscled? If the answer sooner or later becomes yes, how come there are not already animal welfare issues with traditional breeding? The British bulldog is an excellent example. It has been bred to be continually under some form of respiratory stress, yet is held to be iconic, even revered, by some.

It’s as well you keep meeting. It’s as well new Zealand is blessed with an extensive, multifaceted, open, confident and competent animal welfare ethics community. It’s as well that we are building academic capacity in this area, that we’re folding the public into the committees, that you are focusing attention on education.

Because the issues you are grappling with will grow more and more complex, dynamic, interesting and hard. Yours is an intriguing, even exciting area of endeavour.

On reflection, our brand new, shiny, barely amended, thoroughly flexible and best-in-the-world legislation might age and corrode quite quickly after all. You had better take good care of it.

I wish you well.


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