Federal Politics

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Give chooks their space

IN THE lifetimes of many Australians, eggs were gathered daily from chook pens in backyards. Poultry was a menu treat, mainly because people were obliged to catch and kill their own free-ranging chickens.

Now, eggs and chickens are produced on an industrial scale, mostly in caged conditions that consumers would rather not see. Just as sales of eggs produced by non-caged hens are on the rise, the state government has excluded the consumer group Choice and the RSPCA from talks to set a more restrictive definition of what free-range means.

A model code, that states and territories adopted 10 years ago, stipulates a space for each caged hen. The RSPCA likens it to an A4 piece of paper, not big enough for hens to stretch their wings. A portable toilet would be the equivalent space for a human being, it says.

About two-thirds of our eggs come from such cages. But consumers are questioning where and how eggs are produced. According to Choice, sales of eggs from free-range hens rose 16 per cent by volume last year.

Enter the Australian Egg Corporation, the body representing most egg producers. It has devised a new standard that would allow farmers to increase chicken numbers from 1500 to 20,000 a hectare - more than a 13-fold increase - and still be allowed to market eggs as free range.

There is a sinister tone to the corporation's response to critics. With demand rising, it says, anything less than this new limit could raise the prices of free-range eggs. It could also necessitate egg imports from countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.


The subtext is obvious: could consumers trust foreign eggs? The argument, though, is weak from a production body in a country blessed by an abundance of farming space compared with that of our neighbours.

Choice and the RSPCA are right to raise their frustrations at being dealt out of the forum to resolve disputes over how eggs are labelled. The NSW Food Authority's excuse - that the talks were about an "industry-supported resolution to egg-labelling challenges" - insults consumers. If more chickens are crammed on to an identical open space, the same issues about humane farming that have turned many people off buying caged eggs will soon arise.

The South Australian Parliament is considering a bill making it illegal to sell as free-range, eggs from farms with more than 1500 chickens a hectare. A similar bill before the NSW Parliament would be timely.

Our man in the Holy See

YOU can take the man out of Sussex Street but that does not automatically take its culture out of the man, it seems. The practice of political rewards for old mates is a deep part of that culture, and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, has shown that even after nearly seven years out of state politics, it has not faded from his bones.

Thanks to a premature announcement by the NSW Bar Council, we learnt on March 28 that John McCarthy, QC, had been nominated as ambassador to the Vatican to replace the former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer. This was less than two weeks after Carr was appointed to his new job, and is understood to have involved unwinding an existing appointment initiated by Carr's predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

A widely liked barrister who won a path-breaking Aboriginal land rights case, McCarthy is a deeply committed Catholic - who for many years was the president of the St Thomas More Society - received a papal knighthood in 2006 and has a son in the priesthood. But it was more his long connection to Carr, going back to student days and stretching through decades working for the NSW Labor Party that made him one of the first, perhaps even the first, diplomatic assignments named by Carr.

That the Vatican is a great influence in world affairs, and that no other main religion has such a central leadership, argues for governments to have a formal discourse with it. Yet the merits of having a dedicated ambassador have not been fully explored with the public.

Until Fischer's appointment in 2008, Canberra had no resident, permanent ambassador to the Holy See. The post was a dual accreditation for an envoy in another European capital (the Rome ambassador is avoided because of the Vatican's status with Italy), and no one was complaining. At the end of Fischer's term, we should be told what benefits were brought by the change.

But until we are shown otherwise, the post appears to be a sinecure, an unnecessary embellishment to a diplomatic service that is already struggling to do its tasks. As the Lowy Institute has pointed out, budget restrictions have made it the smallest among the Group of 20 nations, and its network of 95 overseas missions is far below the average of 133 in the rich nation grouping, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.