California Kangaroo? Why Australia is lobbying in the Golden State

The Australian government has come under fire for efforts to influence the outcome of pending legislation across the Pacific.

Rob Griffith/AP
A kangaroo hops along a fence line bordering a field covered in a thick blanket of frost during a seasonal cold snap outside Canberra, Australia, July 19.

The Australian government is being criticized for building up a cozy relationship with California lawmakers in an effort to stop a ban on selling kangaroo products in the state.

Previous legislation, which authorized the sale of kangaroo leather – used commonly for footwear and gloves – is due to expire on Jan. 1, unless lawmakers approve an extension.

The state Senate is voting on a bill that would extend the ability to import kangaroo products from Australia indefinitely. Introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson, Assembly Bill 1188, originally dealt with gambling regulation before being amended to center on the kangaroo trade, a backdoor legislative technique known as “gut and amend.” 

Australian trade in the marsupial’s meat and skin is estimated at $140 million annually, Reuters reports, and has become a major issue among animal rights activists, due in large part to its iconic place as a major symbol of Australia.

“The importation of kangaroo products has been allowed in California for years, and state, federal, and international laws continue to protect all endangered animals,” Representative Gipson said in an emailed statement to the Sacramento Bee. “Furthermore, the ecological conservation methods developed by the Australian government ensure that the trade benefits we receive come from the sustainable management of the species involved.”

It is true that the number of kangaroos in the country is still massive, with almost 50 million animals around the country, more than double the amount of people on the continent, according to Reuters. In order to control the population, the Australian government has approved regular culls of the critters, and the sale of the resulting meat and skin.

California banned the import and sale of kangaroo products in 1971, but ever since the ban was temporarily lifted eight years ago, large corporations like Nike and Adidas have been happily taking advantage of the open-door policy.

What strikes some activists as onerous are the legislative methods used to introduce the legislation, as well as the Australian's government’s efforts to strengthen their foothold in California.

Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist who represents the Humane Society of the United States, says that there was “no scientific basis” for the Australian government’s claim and railed against the efforts to backdoor ending the ban.

"It smacks of special interest dealing and secrecy," Ms. Fearing told Reuters. "If they are so confident that kangaroos are abundant and there's no problem and California should continue to sell products, why so much secrecy?"

Last year, Australia’s Department of Agriculture funneled $143,000 to the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia in an effort to “retain market access to California,” according to a document on the department’s website. Some of the money went to hiring the lobbying firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

A complaint filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission accused the Australian government of sidestepping regulation by failing to register as a lobbyist employer, but so far the commission has not responded.

The bill must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate in a vote scheduled for Thursday before going to committee.

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