Australian cosmetics could finally become free from animal testing with a new public consultation being launched to figure out how to enact laws that will completely ban the practice.
Stopping animal testing on cosmetics has been hampered by Australian rules that in some cases demand the tests, as well as by a global supply chain under which the same products are sold in countries with differing laws on the issue.
But even the cosmetics industry umbrella body, Accord, appears to have accepted that the weight of global opinion means that Australia may soon follow the lead of Europe, Britain, India, Israel, Norway and others.
Its submission to the consultation being launched this week by the Labor Party says that Australian regulations are "a big factor standing in the way of any possible ban".
Labor will hold the consultation sessions this week in Sydney and Melbourne, as well as other cities, to gauge opinion and try to engineer a way around existing legislation. Currently cosmetics and their ingredients are treated as industrial chemicals in Australia. As a result, animal test data is sometimes needed by the regulator, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS), which is part of the Department of Health.
NICNAS says on its website that is aware of the European Union ban introduced in March last year and is closely monitoring the progress of the development of alternative test methods and accepting them for use in safety assessments as they become available and validated.
Accord spokesman Craig Brock said: "No one likes the idea of animal testing. That's why our industry is committed to the eventual elimination of such tests. On a global basis, the industry has invested heavily in alternatives to animal safety tests.
"Accord's submission to the Labor process highlights that current regulation of cosmetics in Australia is a big factor standing in the way of any possible ban. Any policy supporting a ban that does not first adjust the local regulatory framework is likely to become both unworkable and unenforceable."
However, the group also believes a Greens "End Cruel Cosmetics Bill", presented in March by Senator Lee Rhiannon, was introduced without proper consultation with the industry.
"As a result, the Greens' bill would simply result in an unworkable mess for cosmetics regulation in Australia," it states.
Throsby MP and opposition assistant health spokesman Stephen Jones said Labor had some sympathy for the industry, which is worth $4 billion in Australia.
"They are caught between their consumers who rightly demand certain standards in the products that they buy and by government legislation which actually imposes obligations on them to meet certain test standards," he said.
"I think the industry does acknowledge that there is an international move to ban animal testing. They don't want to be caught behind the eight-ball on this but at the same time they are caught needing to comply with existing Commonwealth legislation.
"We also need to ensure we don't come up with unintended consequences of altering the way we regulate this space. People don't want to put a suncream on and get blisters do they? There's compelling evidence that we can achieve what everyone else wants us to achieve. I haven't seen a submission yet that defends the status quo."
Hotham MP Clare O'Neil, also behind the consultation process, said it was the nuts and bolts questions like how would a ban be enforced, who would investigate claims that animal testing had been done and who would be empowered to impose penalties that could trip up any proposed change.
"The law is not up to date with current belief and ways of thinking about this," she said. "Industry is asking if we replace animal testing how will the new system work and what will they be required to deal with. They are genuinely committed to making a change but needing to have some areas clarified to make the law function correctly."
Asked what cosmetics she used, Ms O'Neil said it was always changing.
"We use Lush at home often," she said. "I don't believe I use anything that is currently tested on animals but this is one of the issues; most of the products for sale in Australia have at one point or another been tested on animals."
But Senator Rhiannon said the cosmetics industry was "muddying the waters".
"I don't think they are giving a clear and accurate response to what we are putting forward in our private members bill," she said.
"Surely they should be putting up a way to make it legislatively workable. They are criticising without coming forward with a solution that they are committed to.
She said it was disappointing that Labor had not agreed to co-sponsor the bill.
"This will happen in Australia. The world is moving and we need to ensure it happens sooner rather than later. That's what the public wants."
IBISWorld senior industry analyst Ryan Lin said the Australian industry was dominated by global brands. While the Body Shop and Lush were some of the original pioneers within the ethical brand movement, their recent growth has been slowed by the growing number of copycat brands, he said.
"Any global brand also sold in China must be tested on animals to meet local regulatory requirements," he said. "This means that if these products are also sold in Australia, they have at one point been tested on animals."
British comedian and actor Ricky Gervais backs the Be Cruelty-Free Australia campaign co-ordinated by Humane Research Australia, which is part of the largest campaign in the world to end animal testing for cosmetics.
He said: "I love all animals and I hate to see them suffer in any way. Rabbits and mice who have cosmetics dripped in their eyes or spread on their skin are just as deserving of our compassion as the animals with whom we share our homes."
A survey last month showed "Not Tested on Animals" is now one of the top three features Australian female consumers look for when buying cosmetics.
Hannah Stuart, of Be Cruelty-Free Australia, said: "It's no surprise to us that animal testing rates so highly for consumers when considering which cosmetics to buy. Australia needs to step up to the plate and introduce a ban as swiftly as possible."
Melbourne: Victorian Trades Hall, 43 Victoria Street, Carlton, on Wednesday, August 20, at 5.30pm.
Sydney: Trades Hall, 4 Goulburn Street, on Tuesday, August 19, at 6pm.