More than three years ago Field & Game Australia said publicly that we wanted “our RSPCA back” but another inquiry into the organisation risks undoing some of the gains already made.
Frustrated by RSPCA Victoria’s shift from animal protection to animal activism, we began lobbying for reform more than three years ago.
Eventually our arguments of conflict of interest and loss of focus earned recognition but it came from a most unlikely source: an internal review commissioned by RSPCA Victoria.
Former Victoria Police Commissioner Neil Comrie AO was appointed to conduct the internal review in the wake of public criticism over the organisation’s handling of horse deaths on a property on the outskirts of Melbourne.
Mr Comrie was thorough and receptive, making particular reference to the joint submission made by FGA and the Australian Deer Association in his findings.
Activism, including direct action opposing duck hunting, was cited as a prime example of an untenable conflict given the funding and authority granted to RSPCA to enforce the laws of the Victorian Parliament.
To its credit, RSPCA Victoria accepted all the report recommendations, withdrew from activism prior to the 2017 Duck Season, and removed public material with the sort of emotive judgements such as “brutality”, criticised by Mr Comrie.
RSPCA’s formal policy opposing duck hunting remains in place but the activism has ceased.
FGA said at the time, the test for the RSPCA in Victoria would be whether it vacated the animal activism field or simply pursued a strategy of sub-contracting controversial activity to organisations such as Animals Australia.
On face value, the withdrawal from public activism is real, although what really matters for campaigns is money and the necessary transparency is absent, making it impossible to judge either way.
In light of the Comrie review outcome, FGA thought it risky for the Victorian Parliament to launch its own RSPCA inquiry. Consequently, FGA and ADA urged the advocates not to pursue it.
A Parliamentary inquiry provides a platform for everybody, including one’s opponents. That’s why the outcome cannot be taken for granted and why history is full of stories of Royal Commissions and Parliamentary Inquiries that have backfired against their proponents.
When such inquiries are launched, it is essential to ensure the inquirers are fully informed of the issues and that takes time, effort, and money, even if that means diverting resources from other activities.
Our advice was ignored and the Economy and Infrastructure Committee is inquiring into: the appropriateness and use of RCPCA’s powers pursuant to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986; the appropriateness and use of funding provided by the Victorian Government; and any other consequential matters the Committee may deem appropriate.
Despite misgivings, FGA and ADA made detailed written submission. Nevertheless, despite the role the two organisations have played in this issue, neither will be invited to appear at any of the public hearings.
The “any other consequential matters” allows important issues to be raised through public submissions but it is also an open invitation to engaging in the sort of bashing normally reserved for banks.
A similar upper house inquiry into the RSPCA in Western Australia provides an example of the maxim that you should not launch an inquiry without understanding the outcome.
Despite the fact the Liberal, National and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party members made up the majority of the WA inquiry, it resulted in greater powers and more funding — not the withdrawal of powers many submitters canvassed.
In its own submission to the Victorian inquiry, the RSPCA specifically raised the need for the organisation and its officers to be protected from civil liability in the lawful execution of their role. Otherwise, the Committee members were directed to the Comrie report and its implementation.
Given the results of the Western Australian inquiry and the rejection by the-then Government of a set of weak recommendations, it will be interesting to see the outcome of this inquiry.