The Commonwealth’s role in animal welfare

Claire Petrie, Law and Bills Digest

Key Issue
The states and territories have primary responsibility for animal welfare issues. However, the Commonwealth’s role in this area continues to be a source of debate, particularly in regards to the regulation of animal testing of cosmetic products and ingredients, and the development and policing of animal welfare standards.

Animal welfare is predominantly dealt with at a state level, with animal welfare laws in force for each state and territory. Additionally, animal welfare codes of practice exist for farming and research animals, although they are not legally binding in most states. Enforcement of animal welfare laws is generally shared between the RSPCA and state and territory government agencies.

The Australian Constitution does not refer specifically to animals (except fisheries) and therefore the Commonwealth’s responsibility for animal welfare issues arises largely in relation to international trade and treaties. To date, this has primarily encompassed quarantine, wildlife protection, health and the live export trade (see ‘Regulating live exports’ elsewhere in this briefing book).

Regulating cosmetic testing on animals

A complex array of Commonwealth and state laws regulate animal testing for cosmetic products. The use of animals in scientific testing is regulated by state and territory laws which are underpinned by the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes. Neither the Code nor the legislation specifically bans any form of testing, including cosmetic testing.

The Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989 (Cth) (ICNA Act) provides national standards for cosmetics imported into, or manufactured in Australia. The Cosmetics Standard 2007, issued under the ICNA Act, requires imported or manufactured cosmetics and cosmetic ingredients to be registered with the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) and undergo assessment for their human health and environmental impacts.

ACCORD, the association for the hygiene, cosmetic and speciality products industry, has stated that animal testing of cosmetic products and ingredients is not currently undertaken by the industry in Australia.

Proposed ban on cosmetic testing

As part of its policy platform for the 2016 election the Coalition announced its intention to ban cosmetic testing on animals from 1 July 2017. The proposed ban will apply to the testing of finished cosmetic products and cosmetic ingredients on animals in Australia and the sale of products and ingredients tested on animals outside of Australia.

The Coalition’s policy announcement brought it in line with that of the ALP and the Greens. The ALP’s Ethical Cosmetics Bill 2016 was introduced as a private member’s bill following a public consultation process. This bill and the Greens’ End Cruel Cosmetics Bill 2014 sought to insert new offences relating to the testing and sale of cosmetics tested on animals into the ICNA Act, but both lapsed without being debated.

An independent office of animal welfare

The administration and promotion of animal welfare laws is currently the responsibility of administrative bodies in each state and territory, typically located within the relevant agriculture or primary industries department. Federally, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) is responsible for animal welfare issues arising in regards to live export and international agreements.

Concerns that the current regulatory approach gives rise to possible conflicts between the interests of primary industry and animal welfare, have led to calls for an independent, federal animal welfare body. Prior to the 2016 election, the ALP promised to establish an independent Office of Animal Welfare, responsible for providing advice and oversight on a broad range of animal welfare issues, with equal involvement from the Commonwealth, states and territories.

In June 2015 the Greens introduced the Voice for Animals (Independent Office of Animal Welfare) Bill 2015, which sought to establish an independent statutory authority focusing on Commonwealth-regulated activities such as the live export trade. A 2015 inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport recommended that the Bill not be passed, finding that the substantive functions of the proposed body were already achieved through existing mechanisms. The Coalition supported this recommendation, stating that an independent office would result in significant cost to the Commonwealth, requiring enabling legislation, relocation costs and ongoing specialist expertise whilst adding a layer of bureaucracy.

National animal welfare standards

Until 2014 the Commonwealth contributed funding to the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS). The AAWS was originally endorsed in 2004 by the then Primary Industries Ministerial Council, and was aimed at creating a more consistent and effective animal welfare system. Following a 2005 review of Model Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, the AAWS was tasked with replacing these with national, legally enforceable standards and guidelines.

The Australian Government ceased funding the AAWS as part of its 2014–15 Budget measures. Animal Health Australia, a not-for-profit public company, has been commissioned by DAWR to manage the process of developing the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines.

The Productivity Commission’s draft report on the regulation of Australian agriculture, released in July 2016, found a national approach to the setting of animal welfare standards, with sufficient flexibility to address local circumstances, to be desirable. It recommended the establishment of an independent body to develop national standards and guidelines.

Further reading

R Dossor, ‘Cessation of animal welfare assistance in destination countries and Australian Animal Welfare Strategy’, Budget Review 2014–15, Research paper series, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2014.

Productivity Commission, Regulation of agriculture—Draft report, Canberra, July 2016, (Chapter 5).


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