- Animal Law in Australia: An Integrated Approachby Alex Bruce
What is “the law”? What is its function? When I was a young, revolutionary socialist in 1970s-1980s Queensland, Australia, the purpose of “the law” (the legislature, the courts, the police) was clear. Its role was to protect the Bjelke-Petersen government, and its operatives (police of various shades) didn’t hesitate to use violence—deliberately and viciously—in pursuit of that aim. It was obvious, to those of us in opposition, that “the law” was very far from the unbiased, balanced, fair thing it is sometimes purported to be.
Animal Law in Australia: An Integrated Approachhas again prompted me, a nonpractitioner, to consider deeply issues of the law and its function. As a young socialist, it was taken for granted that the role of the legal system was to safeguard the established interests of the state, the wealthy and the powerful. Any impression of impartiality was just that: a fiction designed to hide the ruthless one-sidedness of the system. For the weak and powerless to place hope in the law as an instrument of justice, therefore, was foolish.
As I was reading this comprehensive, highly readable, and well-researched volume, it struck me that, with regard to nonhuman animals, my prior understanding of the structural biases inherent in the legal system was essentially correct. Nonhuman [End Page 114]animals (hereafter animals) are the weakest and least powerful of creatures in most 21st-century societies, and as Alex Bruce’s book reveals, the law offers them disturbingly little protection, at least in the Australian context.
Animal Lawsets out the basic framework in which regulation of matters pertaining to animals operates in Australia. This structure is an incoherent mishmash incorporating three levels of government (federal, state, local), each of which publishes its own documents, such as laws, codes, and standards. As a consequence of Australia’s history as a grouping of separate colonies, the state governments have assumed primary responsibility for animal welfare. Problematically, the shape this takes varies markedly between the eight different states and territories, resulting in dramatic inconsistencies across the country. While the federal government is able to issue codes and standards, these do not have the status of law because no such power is provided by the Australian Constitution. Beneath these two layers are local governments that themselves set out a number of regulations concerning animals. To identify, therefore, the law as it relates to any one issue about animals requires the excavation of three different layers of complex documentation that often contradict each other. What this absence of national, enforceable law means for animals is that for humans to advocate on their behalf is time consuming and difficult. It also means that there is no national regulator or protector of animals. As Bruce points out, this task is left to the state-based, privately run, and poorly funded Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals organizations. These charitable organizations are also shouldered with the expensive responsibility of prosecuting animal cruelty cases.
The situation sketched above, which could be said to be largely unintentional and mostly the result of history, goes hand in hand with an explicit, deeply entrenched dualism that underpins nearly every piece of animal regulation. “Animals” are placed in a different category to humans: They are “property,” while humans are “persons.” Animals are “owned” by various entities such as governments, corporations, and human individuals. Things can be done to animals—they can be bought and sold, for instance—that cannot lawfully be done to humans. Animal Lawoutlines the regulation of animals in various spheres such as animals used as food, “pest” animals, companion animals, animals used in science, and animals used in entertainment. In all of these areas, Bruce reveals, the characterization of animals as “property” is the basis upon which the regulation rests. This dualistic understanding of human versus animal, which mirrors that of the wider society, constitutes the most significant impediment to...