Wednesday, 27 November 2019
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report
On behalf of the chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, Senator Sterle, I present the report on the feasibility of a National Horse Traceability Register for all horses, together with the Hansard record of proceedings, and documents presented to the committee, and I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
I rise to take note of the report on the feasibility of a National Horse Traceability Register for all horses, and I want to start by saying how excited I am that we are at the point of unanimous recommendations from Liberal, Labor and Nationals—and, of course, the Greens—that we need a National Horse Traceability Register in Australia. As the report shows, there are so many benefits that will come from having this register. To think that we don't even know how many horses there are in Australia at the moment really is an eye-opener. A birth-to-death traceability register would provide transparency and accountability. It would also improve animal welfare and prevent animal cruelty. It would also have significant biosecurity and safety benefits.
The federal government's response to this report will be a great opportunity for them to show some leadership, which has been sorely missing. It is completely unprecedented to have so many stakeholders and groups in favour of the need to establish a National Horse Traceability Register—everyone from Racing Australia, Australian Harness Racing, horse breeding societies, farming peak bodies, biosecurity bodies, the Australian Veterinary Association, animal welfare organisations and the police. In fact, as the report notes, just two submissions out of 70 opposed the concept of a scheme. Both of those submissions were from individuals. I want to wholeheartedly thank the committee staff, especially Joshua Wrest, for the incredible work they do, without which we couldn't have such in-depth inquiries and investigations.
It is my honour to have brought this issue to the attention of the Senate for scrutiny through my parliamentary motion in November last year, which called for a National Tracing and Registration System and then the motion to establish this inquiry in February this year. I want to thank my fellow committee members, in particular the chair, who approached this inquiry with an open mind.
For me, all this started when I read an article from Calla Wahlquist in The Guardian in October last year, titled 'Auction day at Echuca, where horse racing's also-rans await their fate'. Calla had gone to the saleyards to photograph and document the fate of so many racehorses sent to be auctioned off. What stuck in my mind was the picture of a chestnut thoroughbred with a white patch on its forehead, sitting on the ground of the saleyard pen with ribs poking through its skin. The caption read:
This 11-year-old thoroughbred last raced in 2014 and had total winnings of more than $100,000. He sells for $340.
This was heart-wrenching. For a horse who'd made so much money for its owners to then end up in such bad condition, being auctioned off to probably be brutally killed in a knackery or abattoir—it's despicable. It is totally unacceptable and has to stop. We owe these horses so much better. That's when I put up a motion to the Senate, noting the issue and highlighting the lack of lifetime tracking of racehorses, including the requirement that all slaughterhouses and knackeries scan horses that enter their premises. It wasn't long after that when Juliana Waugh and Mark Waugh contacted my office. We met in November 2019, which was when the Waughs told me their story and highlighted the need for a National Horse Traceability Register on many grounds, which I will come to a little later. I decided a Senate inquiry was the best way to bring these matters to light and to bring all the stakeholders together. The rest is, as they say, history.
I wish to acknowledge and thank Juliana and Mark Waugh, who are here with us in the chamber this evening. The Waughs will be no strangers to members of the committee. How could we not be struck by their tenacity and their determination to honour the memory of their 18-year-old daughter Sarah, who they tragically lost in a preventable horseriding incident in Dubbo TAFE in March 2009. Sarah was learning to ride as part of a TAFE jillaroo course in Dubbo, in the New South Wales central west. The horse she was riding bolted in a paddock and Sarah fell from the horse. It later emerged that the horse was a still-registered racehorse who was just six weeks off the racecourse when he was placed in a New South Wales government sanctioned course for beginner riders.
Juliana and Mark Waugh have worked tirelessly to improve rider safety in Australia. Through their hard work we have seen, for example, safety codes to regulate horseriding in New South Wales. One final piece in the puzzle is the enactment of a National Horse Traceability Register in Australia. The register would have allowed TAFE staff to check the history of the horse Sarah was riding and reveal that it was unsuitable for inexperienced jillaroos. Their evidence to the committee was informed and moving. They cogently argued the benefit of a register, not just for safety, but for the good of the horse industry, which they love. To the Waugh family, I thank you for all the work that you have done for animals, for the horse industry and for community safety, and I'm so sorry for your loss.
I also want to discuss the horseracing industry. To their credit, industry peak bodies pretty much unanimously support a National Horse Traceability Register, but what disturbs me is that, while they seem to agree in principle with the idea of a horse register, their evidence suggests that they are reluctant to take moral responsibility for the whole-of-life care for the thousands of horses bred each year. When I asked the former Liberal Premier of New South Wales, Barry O'Farrell, who headed up Racing Australia at the time, whether or not the racing industry has responsibility to look after horses for their life, he said:
I think they have a responsibility up until the time they leave the racing industry. If I sell you my car, Senator, it's no longer my responsibility to maintain it: it's yours.
Sorry, but a horse is not a car. A horse is a living, sentient being. When a billion-dollar industry is predicated on the breeding of thousands of animals purely for providing gambling profit through racing, they have a special responsibility to guarantee it a good life. That is exactly what we saw on the ABC special investigation into the horseracing industry, which revealed what goes on when racehorses' lives end in knackeries and abattoirs. It is much worse than what many of us imagined.
People across Australia were shocked and shattered at the extent and level of animal abuse in that expose. The industry went to ground. But the people took notice. This year's Melbourne Cup was the fourth consecutive year that attendance had dipped, and we saw the worst attendance since 1995—a 24-year low. TV viewership was down almost 600,000, dipping by one-third in Melbourne alone. Betting was subdued over the whole carnival. We urgently need to introduce breeding caps, birth-to-death tracking and responsibility, and a retirement plan for every racehorse born in Australia, whether they make it to the track or not. That is a discussion for another inquiry or, even better, a royal commission.
This isn't rocket science. Horse registers operate in Europe and in particular in the United Kingdom. Horse societies and the racing industry already maintain registers that could just feed into this database. What this register looks like, what it includes and how to develop it no doubt has some challenges, but let's embrace these challenges, instead of using them as an excuse for inaction. This is an incredibly exciting time for this work to be happening. Technology is advancing so fast that we could soon be looking at biometric identification for animals that can be accessed from our mobile phones. This gives us the chance to actually lead innovation in this area.
There are many horse advocates that I wish to note and thank, people who save horses from starvation, neglect and harrowing deaths: groups like the Australian Equine Unification Scheme, Animal Liberation, Hunter Horse Haven and the Coalition for the Protection of Horses, and individuals like Sandra Jorgensen, Gabbi Openshaw, Debbie Barber, Bianca Folber and Elio Celloto. Special thanks go to the incredible Caro Meldrum-Hanna, who has exposed animal abuse in the racing industry time and again. Thank you for everything you do for animals and to save these magnificent animals.
I can't think of an inquiry where stakeholders have been more aligned in wanting something to happen and unified in what it should be. They want the federal government to show leadership. I urge the government to respond to this report quickly and positively. Commit to a national horse traceability register for all horses and establish the working group to get this work done as soon as possible. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.