Government

Animal welfare minister never replaced

As punters gee up for the increasingly controversial Melbourne Cup, Laura Walters asks why the Government hasn't appointed an animal welfare minister since Meka Whaitiri’s sacking

Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens all promised to install a minister responsible for animal welfare but there has been no-one in the role since September last year, when Meka Whaitiri was stripped of her portfolios.

While the country has continued to grapple with issues of animal welfare, the Greens and animal rights advocates say the Government has not been moving fast enough on its promises. With the Ministry for Primary Industries under-resourced, some of the responsibility has fallen to advocacy groups, they say.

Tuesday marks the annual Melbourne Cup racing event, also known as the race that stops a nation. But the iconic Australian fixture has become increasingly controversial, with six horses dying as a result of the race since 2013.

Add to that the recent broadcast of footage showing widespread cruelty to Australia's racehorses, and revelations that hundreds of healthy thoroughbreds are being sent to the slaughterhouse each year – calling into question the industry’s claims of its rehoming programme.

Horse racing in New Zealand has also had issues with horses dying as a result of injury or illness after races - sparking a focus on track safety - as well as those killed because they were too old or too slow. In 2016, three horses died in jumps races in a single day, in separate incidents.

There are discrepancies regarding the data, with no independent monitoring body to gather information on such things. New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing says there were 17 deaths in the 2018-19 season. The Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses says 2500 horses died.

Last year's Melbourne Cup saw another horse euthanised after suffering a fractured shoulder and breaking down. Photo: William West/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, New Zealand's greyhound racing industry has also been in the spotlight, with a recent inquiry painting a damning picture on the number of dogs killed and the lack of rehoming. There have also been instances of illegal live-baiting.

To add to these animal welfare issues, there have been problems in New Zealand’s farming industry, with cattle winter grazing practices slammed this year after a public campaign showing cows deep in mud. Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor launched a winter grazing taskforce, which was due to report back with recommendations by early October.

Over the past couple of years there have been discussions of cruel treatment to calves and dairy cows – mostly revealed through hidden cameras placed by advocacy groups – as well as reports of cruel practices in rodeos, battery and colony caging of hens, pig farrowing crates, and live animal exports.

While New Zealand has about 160 million farmed animals, there are just 26 welfare inspectors (up from 22). In the last Budget, the animal welfare allocation for education and enforcement rose to $10.36 million, and there are plans to increase inspector numbers by eight in the next two years.

An MPI spokesperson said there were further enforcement and compliance boosts, and more verification services were coming on-stream.

In the meantime, concerns about a lack of resources remain.

Groups like the SPCA cover the welfare of companion animals, but also face stretched resources, and advocacy groups say they are increasingly taking on a monitoring role in the absence of MPI inspectors.

Meka Whaitiri was the first person to be made a minister responsible for animal welfare, but held the portfolio for less than a year and was never replaced. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Former associate agriculture minister Meka Whaitiri was the first person to have a specific and sole responsibility for animal welfare – something that had been promised by Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First ahead of the election, but was never embedded in the coalition or confidence and supply agreements.

During her time in the role, Whaitiri stated her concerns about a range of practices, and committed to improve resourcing, transparency and policy.

She also held hui, bringing together key stakeholders, and in June 2018 she released the Animal Welfare Framework.

The framework included four main action areas, including establishing an independent voice for animals – such as an independent commissioner - improving transparency, strengthening welfare codes and regulations, and building skills and capacity.

But Whaitiri was stripped of her portfolios in September last year, following a “staffing matter”, which related to disputed allegations of a physical assault.

It was expected the role would be filled in June’s cabinet reshuffle, but it has remained vacant. And those working in the area say the Government’s progress on animal welfare issues have stalled.

Green Party animal welfare spokesperson Gareth Hughes the Government hadn’t moved as a fast or as far as he would have liked.

The initial creation of the separate role was a “incredibly positive step forward”, Hughes said, adding that he was disappointed Whaitiri had not been replaced.

Green Party animal welfare spokesperson Gareth Hughes says the Government hasn't made enough progress on this issue. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Since Whaitiri’s demotion, the responsibility has fallen to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, which some see as presenting a conflict of interest, given his role in supporting and growing agriculture and farming.

Hughes said it was a “structural conflict of interest”, and something the Greens had raised with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Those working in primary industries often lobbied or argued for reducing costs, and slowing transition times. These moves were not always in the interest of animal welfare best practice, and it was hard for the agriculture minister to balance those competing issues.

“The role was created because people realise animals need a voice. They can’t go to court, or lay a complaint, or argue political policy. It’s our responsibility to advocate for animal issues,” Hughes said.

A separate minister, and the establishment of an independent body – as outlined in the Government’s Animal Welfare Framework – would remove any conflicts, and ensure someone was being “a voice for the voiceless”, as well as playing a monitoring and enforcement role.

Hughes said the current law was quite good, and some described it as world-leading in recognising animals as sentient beings, but in practice New Zealand fell well behind other countries.

“We’ve got a lot of progress to make with animals.”

SAFE campaign manager Marianne Macdonald said she applauded what the Government had done to reduce poverty and address mental health issues, “but their brand of kindness needs to be extended to animals”.

“It’s 10 months into the ‘year of delivery’ and animals are still waiting.”

A Northland share milker caught on hidden camera beating cows also painted them. He had previously been the subject of a complaint to MPI. Photo: Supplied

The Labour Party, and the Government as a whole, had made a number of promises, but there had been very little progress in recent months, she said.

There had been a back-peddle on Labour’s promises to ban the worst rodeo practices, such as calf roping and flank straps, and on the plan to outlaw colony cages for hens.

The biggest piece of work in animal welfare this term was the review into live animal exports, currently underway.

However, live exports were continuing while the review was carried out. And some animals, including chickens, were not covered in the work that looked at cattle, sheep, goats and deer.

In the absence of the promised minister responsible for animal welfare, the Government had not taken its responsibilities seriously, Macdonald said, adding that the current situation, in which O’Connor was responsible for the portfolio, was a “ridiculous situation”, and a “clear conflict of interest”.

The Prime Minister has been contacted for comment.

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