There’s a dirty fight in Western Australia over pigs, that has pollies accusing industry groups of telling porkies.

Greens WA MLC Lynn MacLaren used a rarely wielded parliamentary power last week to expose the hollowness of an industry promise to ban sow stalls — a factory farming practice that consumers and retailers are clearly not happy with.

Under the Animal Welfare Act industry regulations now are routinely presented to both houses of state parliament for approval, which is usually granted, but MacLaren said it’s possible for either house to reject the whole package of regulations, or to reject just a single clause. If that happens, the regulations can still pass but the clause is excluded.

In this case, she was getting stuck into the Animal Welfare (Pig Industry) Regulations, gazetted on November 5, 2010. Working within the prescribed timelines for comment, she proposed a disallowance motion that, as she told parliament, “deletes only a few lines”. Her issue was with the few lines that allow the use of sow stalls to continue beyond 2017.

She pointed out that: “In the same month that the regulations were tabled … the producer representative body, Australian Pork Limited (APL), voted to ‘commit to pursuing voluntary phasing out of the use of gestation stalls by 2017’. Therefore, the part of the regulation that permits the use of sow stalls after 2017 is redundant.”

The argument about sow stalls is all about the apparent cruelty of confining breeding sows to metal crates one centimetre longer than their bodies and too narrow to turn around in.

The industry has been making all the right noises about phasing out sow stalls. Quite possibly in response to pressure from big retailers like Coles, that declared in November that its ham, bacon and pork lines would be sow stall free by 2014.

Even before Coles weighed though, APL was acknowledging the public appetite for cruelly bred meat was waning. In 2007 the peak industry body revised its Model Code of Practice for the welfare of pigs to include specifications that sows could only be confined in stalls for six of their 16 week pregnancies and that stall size be increased to allow sows to turn around and lie down without injuring themselves. It cut itself some slack though, setting itself a five year deadline to 2012 for the implementation of the pen size allowance and a ten year deadline to 2017 for the decrease in confinement time.

The November 2010 APL AGM vote took this a step further and raised the 2017 commitment to a commitment to do away with stalls entirely. But the regulations put to the WA parliament didn’t reflect this new position; they allowed sow stall use to continue for six weeks of each gestation beyond 2017 with no phase out date in sight.

In her speech to parliament last week, MacLaren argued that, in a case where a large slice of an industry had voted in support of a change in practices, it was the role of the house of review to ensure that the regulations backed the peak body’s calls to action — by making undertakings enforceable, rather than reinforcing that they need be no more than pretty words.

She asked: “Why would they not want regulation, unless this is just an empty promise?”

MacLaren’s disallowance motion didn’t pass — it was defeated 17 Liberal and National votes to 12 Labor and Green votes. “There was clearly pressure from the pork industry that is claiming that the changes in practices will cost money that they don’t want to spend,” MacLaren said.

Taking it a step further than simply not wanting to spend money, the West Australian Pork Producers Association had a go at getting its snout in the treasury trough. Executive officer Russell Cox said in a media release on April 4 that while the organisation supported the “voluntary phasing out” by 2017 that “producers are likely to find it extremely difficult without adequate support from governments and associated parties”.

His points illustrate the tension within the industry, with some producers happily making the change and enjoying the marketing boost of being able to brand their meat as ethical, while others are stuck in the mud.

This tension is also clear on APL’s website that claims that “to do anything short of providing the best, humane care possible would be self-defeating”, while also warning that “calling for change for the sake of change will not benefit the animal and may endanger food safety, the health of the animal and the environment”.

It’s a mixed message that leaves them a fair amount more wriggle room than a sow in a stall has.

*Kayt Davies is a senior lecturer in journalism at Edith Cowan University