This paper is about the ACT government’s behaviour in relation to killing kangaroos, not just its treatment of the kangaroos themselves, but the way it has recently been trampling the rights of its own citizens in its zeal to kill kangaroos. This talk was one of three given on 5 April 2016 in Canberra in an event held by the Animal Justice Party, called, "Policy basis for kangaroo treatment in the A.C.T."
The truth about kangaroos in the A.C.T.: Abusing animals and dismantling democracy
1. The First Code of Practice
Very soon after the passage of the ACT Animal Welfare Act in 1992, an Animal Welfare Advisory Committee was formed under the Act, mainly to develop codes of practice for animal welfare.
One of the earliest codes AWAC developed was a Code of Practice for the Humane Killing of kangaroos. This was mainly for local farmers, but it also became clear that it might at some time be wanted by the government itself - if kangaroos ever needed ‘culling’ on public land..
While the Code was not itself mandatory, the legislation was written so that, where there was a code of practice in place, anyone causing pain or distress to an animal in a way that was consistent with the code had a complete defence from prosecution.
On the other hand, anyone causing pain or distress to an animal in a way that was not consistent with the code could be prosecuted.
The Code itself was pretty awful. It recommended bashing to death and decapitation of joeys whose mothers had been killed. But it did at least identify driving and trapping kangaroos as causing pain and distress.
That is the legislative context in which all the ACT kangaroo slaughters before 2014 took place.
2. Googong and BNTS
Not the first slaughter, but the first in which the government’s lack of science came to the attention of the ACT public was at Googong in 2004. FOI material obtained after the event showed that the slaughter was conducted without any scientific studies, or analysis.
Even Don Fletcher, at that time not working for the ACT government, recommended against that slaughter, partly because there had been no ecological studies to determine if it was necessary, partly because (on the government’s own figures) the numbers of kangaroos on the Googong Reserve had already crashed, and partly because of the risk of bush fires if so many of the remaining kangaroos were removed.
The next public slaughter of hundreds of kangaroos was at the Belconnen Naval Transmission Station in 2008.
This was the time first time the power the Animal Welfare Act, combined with the Code of Practice, to protect kangaroos from cruelty was tested in earnest - and failed utterly.
Despite the Code’s identification of driving and trapping as cruel to kangaroos, kangaroos inhabiting the grassland surrounding the decommissioned Naval Transmission Station, were driven into pens by vehicles, trapped there to be darted and killed by lethal injection.
Members of the public watching the whole procedure (except the actual killing which was shielded from the public by a kind of tent) from outside the surrounding fence. They watched mothers separated from their babies, as the mothers were driven into the enclosure. They watched kangaroos bashing themselves against the walls of the enclosure and colliding mid-air, falling to the ground in a tangle of limbs.
The Code which identified this treatment of kangaroos as cruel and therefore unlawful under the Animal Welfare Act was completely ignored, not just by the ACT government but also by the RSPCA, despite numerous calls from members of the public to remind them of the Code.
3. The Current Code of Practice
Perhaps the government realised it had broken its own law with the slaughter at BNTS - as footage of the herding and trapping went to air all over the world. First chance the government got (in 2014), it repealed the Code of Practice which identified driving and trapping kangaroos as cruel, and replaced it with a code (this one not developed by the ACT AWAC) which does not mention driving or trapping. Because it does not mention driving or trapping, the code now ensures that this particular act of cruelty is now entirely lawful.
Meanwhile all the other cruelties that the Code had always permitted continue unabated. Pouch joeys are bludgeoned or decapitated. An entire generation of young at foot every year is orphaned to starve, get mown down by cars, or get taken by predators. No doubt more than one of these young animals has suffered a similar fate to the young male found in one of the government’s burial pits. He was shot, stabbed and bludgeoned before dying either of blood loss or suffocation due to being buried alive.
During a shooting session, whole mobs of kangaroos are panicked into terrified flight, and so we find them crucified on barbed wire fences they could normally clear with ease, drowned in dams they could easily swim out of, or colliding with cars they would normally at least try to avoid.
All this is completely legal under the Animal Welfare Act because the Code of Practice does not identify any of these outcomes as unacceptable.
4. The KMP Bible and the Treatment of Heretics
Another way the ACT government has barricaded itself against criticisms of its kangaroo extermination campaign has been to develop the policy document known as the ACT Kangaroo Management Plan. This has become the unchallengeable authority for all the government’s ongoing kangaroo atrocities.
It has also become the basis for the government to ignore every representation it receives criticising the kangaroo slaughter, even where the criticism relates to breaking Territory law; even when it relates to endangering public safety; and even, believe it or not, when it relates to the government’s failure to adhere to that very same Kangaroo Management Plan.
In an effort to make its position even more unassailable, the government has raised penalties for the trivial offence of trespass on public land to a level high enough to force a low-income person into bankruptcy. It has closed its eyes to reports of shooting taking place when protestors were within spitting distance of the shooters. It ignored the autopsy report on the young kangaroo found in the burial pit.
It has hurled also around wild allegations that kangaroo protestors have committed acts of vandalism, in particular vandalism that hurts other animals, as though they were matters of fact, in spite of the fact the there has never been any evidence to support any of these allegations, nor any charges ever laid.
5. The ACAT Hearings
There have now been three hearings brought to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal against the ACT’s kangaroo slaughter:
- by Animal Liberation NSW in 2009;
- by the Australian Society for Kangaroos in 2013; and
- by Animal Liberation ACT in 2014.
To demonstrate the sacrosanct nature that the government’s policy document, the Kangaroo Management Plan has attained over recent years, the kangaroos and their advocates have lost the case at all three of these hearings.
In all three hearings the case for opposing the slaughter has shown overwhelming
- that the slaughter is cruel;
- that the slaughter is ineffective in terms of reducing kangaroo grazing pressure on reserve because kangaroos are pretty mobile within their ranges, and quickly move in from nearby farms to make use of the empty reserves;
- that the slaughter is unnecessary because eastern grey kangaroos are so slow breeding, have such a high infant mortality rate and manage their own populations effectively;
- that the slaughter is actively harmful to ecosystems because kangaroo grazing ensures diversity of habitat for a great diversity of others specie,s many of which cannot thrive in either ungrazed land or livestock grazed land.
The Tribunals also heard clear evidence that the government’s kangaroo counts are inherently inaccurate, that the KMP’s notion of an ideal number of kangaroos per hectare has no basis in science, and that that eastern grey kangaroos across their entire range seem to be in steep and alarming decline.
6.Why These Outcomes?
So why with all this evidence before them, did the three Tribunals rule in favour of the government?
All three Tribunals made this decision on one very simple and astonishing basis. They chose to accept the scientific evidence of Don Fletcher, over that of the independent expert witnesses who gave evidence.
In 2013, the Tribunal even recognised that Fletcher was not there as an independent scientific expert. On that basis, he was allowed to consult with his colleagues during the breaks, and seek further information and advice from his Department. The independent expert witness was not permitted to talk to anyone during the breaks. And yet the Tribunal ruled in favour of the evidence of a person it had already admitted was a government mouthpiece.
Having won three times at ACAT, the government is now supremely confident that all it has to do is mention the Kangaroo Management Plan and it can - perhaps literally - get away with murder.
7. Endangering Humans and Breaking its Own Laws
In 2015, the police allowed shooting with guns to go ahead in an open public place,
the Rose Cottage Horse Paddocks (RCHP), a place that is frequented by members of the public at all hours of the night and day: cyclists on the Centenary Trail; dog walkers; horse riders; teenagers chilling out; young lovers strolling by moonlight; not to mention kangaroos slaughter protestors quite lawfully out on watch for shooters entering the nearby reserve.
The ACT government did not even bother to warn the public that shooting was going on in the RCHP. The Minister, Rattenbury and the FOI Officer both sanctimoniously claimed that the RCHP paddocks because the licence was issued to a private company. This private company is the contractor engaged by the government to manage the RCHP on behalf of the public. Because it is a private company, the government has to protect that company’s privacy.
So much more important than the lives of its citizens.
It even turned out that the shooting on the RCHP on the night it was reported to the police was not even legal. It was made legal the following day by inclusion of the RCHP in an existing licence for shooting on other nearby blocks.
8. The Arrest of a Protestor and Ensuing Court Case
A week later, the same man who reported the dangerous and illegal shooting on the RCHP was arrested on those very same horse paddocks where he had every right to be - for blowing a whistle.
On the first day of the resulting court case (24 February 2016), most of the observers in the courtroom were there to support the defendant, and everyone in the court knew it. Someone (presumably someone outside the courtroom) alleged three times during the course of the morning that one of the observers in the courtroom was taking photographs. It was a small courtroom, and everyone could see anyone else, so it was unlikely the allegation was true, although obviously not impossible.
The third time the assertion was made, the phones of every observer were confiscated for several hours. This was immediately before the court was adjourned for lunch, so the phones were kept out of their owners’ view for a period quite long enough for their entire contents to be downloaded.
As if that was not outrageous enough, a police officer (although out of uniform and with no ID visible) tried to take all the observers’ names as they left the courtroom.
This police officer was none other than the same officer:
• who had falsely assured the defendant (and another member of the public) on 4 June that no shooting would take place on the Rose Cottage Horse Paddocks;
• to whom the illegal shooting on the RCHP had been reported on 24 June 2015;
• who had, on 24 June 2015, falsely assured the defendant the shooting on the RCHP was (after all) legal; and
• who had arrested him on the RCHP a week later.
It was, even at the time, hard not to assume that the allegation that someone had taken photographs was made for one or more of three purposes: to disrupt the coherence of the court case; to prejudice the magistrate against the defendant’s supporters; or simply to get hold of some protestors phones for sinister surveillance purposes.
On the second day of the hearing (8 April 2016), a fourth and even more likely reason came to light. The government prosecutor asked the magistrate to have the case continue as a closed court (ie observers excluded). She gave as her reason the allegation from the previous day of the hearing that someone had taken photographs, along wild assertions about ‘aggressive activists’ (ie this with a room full of women observers of age, intelligence and education similar to that of the magistrate). Thankfully, the magistrate refused the request.
9. Contemptuous Dismissal of Public Representations
Every success the ACT government has had from trampling on its own laws and its citizens’ rights seems to have bolstered its confidence to do it a bit more and a bit worse next time
A detailed submission to the Chief Minister by the Coalition of Animal Protectors (CAP), about the illegal shooting and risk to the lives of citizens went unanswered for three months. When a reminder was sent, someone in the Chief Minister’s Office sent a short, bizarre response was had nothing to do with the submission.
CAP followed this up with equally detailed submissions to the Ombudsman and Police Operations Standards Monitoring Centre (PSOMC). As yet received no response has been received from PSOMC, but very recently a response was received from the Ombudsman’s Office, claiming that matters of environmental administration are outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
Apparently it does not matter if a public servant who administers environment policy authorises illegal actions, or actions that put human lives at risk, or actions that are contrary to the government’s environmental management policy itself (as represented by the KMP). That public servant is apparently completely exempt from any responsibility to the public.
We have a government which, in its zeal to massacre kangaroos, is willing to:
- put people’s lives at risk
- break its own laws
- trample on the democratic rights of its citizens.
We seem to have no avenue of protest
- through the executive government
- their bureaucrats
- or even their appointed watchdogs, the Ombudsman and the ACAT
We seem to have no redress through the electoral system because the three parties who share the power, the Liberals, Labor and the Greens, appear to have made an unspoken and unholy alliance to keep the policy of massacring kangaroos unassailable.
The mainstream media has declined to undertake any serious investigative journalism into this issue, has refused to even publish the kangaroo defenders’ side of the story without dumbing it down to incomprehensibility.
The government and the media have also played a dirty tricks campaign, and successfully turned the general public against the kangaroo defenders by hurling about rubbish allegations of vandalism.
Even the power of the tactic of people putting themselves on the reserves to force the shooters to stop shooting has been seriously eroded, partly because people are quite understandably afraid of incurring $8000 fines, and partly because the shooters do not seem to stop shooting even when they are there.
11. So What Can We Do?
The short answer is not give up.
One thing we do have that we didn’t have when all this started is an Animal Justice Party to challenge the three-headed political monster we seem to be facing in the ACT: the Liberals, Labour and the Greens. (Please remember, though, that it is only the ACT Greens who seem to have done this deal with the devil.) Social media has also exploded since 2004, and we need to find imaginative, new ways of breaking through the electronic information overload to use it effectively.
However, we also have to keep using some of the old tools: the submissions, the attempts to engage the mainstream media, and getting out to the reserves during the slaughter. When these actions fail, as they now have repeatedly, we must not just throw up our hands and abandon them. These mechanisms are the very essence of democracy. Without them we have nothing.
We must win this campaign, not just for the kangaroos but also for our entire way of life, our entire political system: our right, as responsible citizens, to demand that government officials are answerable for their actions. Governments and their servants must not be permitted to endlessly lie and evade and dismiss, sure of re-election no matter what they do, who or what they kill.
So we must dossiers, as I am doing, on the government’s ever-increasing abuses of its own laws and its own citizens. We must keep believing that one day, we will be in a position to call this government to account for its crimes.
Most of all, of course, we have to win back the ordinary people of the ACT and indeed the rest of Australia to the side of the kangaroos – and all the other animals.
We are not going to save anything if we just dismiss the general public as apathetic and selfish. Most of them are essentially good people. They are just too busy with their own lives, and it is just so much easier to believe the government when it tells them all is well than to bother questioning anything.
We have to be always on our mettle to show ourselves to be people who are unfailingly rational, who know what we’re talking about, who are undiscriminating in our compassion for both humans and animals, and who are absolutely convinced we will win in the end.