Capitol Alert

California kangaroo bill shines light on Australian government

A red kangaroo hops around the conference table in the Governor’s Office at the Capitol in May.
A red kangaroo hops around the conference table in the Governor’s Office at the Capitol in May.

Late-surfacing legislation allowing California to continue importing kangaroo products has illuminated the Australian government’s role in trying to influence California policy.

A previous bill authorizing the sale of kangaroo leather in California is due to expire Jan. 1 unless the Legislature acts. Assembly Bill 1188 by Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, seeks to extend the window. It would not carry a sunset date, unlike recent bills to allow sales of kangaroo parts, commonly used for shoes, particularly soccer cleats. The bill until recently dealt with gambling regulation but has acquired a new purpose, a common late-session move colloquially known as a “gut and amend.”

“The importation of kangaroo products has been allowed in California for years, and state, federal, and international laws continue to protect all endangered animals,” Gipson said in an emailed statement. “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.”

Some ecologists and animal welfare advocates reject that argument. Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist who represents the Humane Society of the United States, said that there was “no scientific basis” for the Australian government’s claim.

“There’s mounting evidence that kangaroo populations are crashing, fueled by excessive commercial take, a historic drought, and a government more concerned with industry’s bottom line than with conservation,” Fearing said. “This is exactly what a full vetting in the Legislature would allow people to bring forward.”

If Gipson’s revamped measure passes, it would accomplish the Australian government’s stated goal in funding an industry group that has retained a California lobbying firm. The country’s Department of Agriculture last year allocated $143,000 to the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia in an effort to “retain market access to California,” according to a document available on the department’s website.

To that end, the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia has enlisted Sacramento lobbying firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. The kangaroo association’s president called efforts to cull Australia’s kangaroo population an “essential environmental and agricultural management tool in Australia,” echoing a justification advanced by Australian government officials, and said it follows that Australia needs somewhere to send kangaroo parts.

“Kangaroo management is an essential and a responsible thing for the Australian government to be doing,” Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia head John Kelly said. “The Australian government has every right to tell California, ‘look, we know what we’re doing when it comes to kangaroo management and we do it responsibly and ethically.’ ”

But the government’s role has come under scrutiny. A complaint filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission accused the Australian government of dodging disclosure laws by not registering as a lobbyist employer. An FPPC spokesman declined to comment. In emailed statements to The Sacramento Bee, Australian Sen. Lee Rhiannon called the payment to the industry association a “shocking waste of money.”

“The underhand way the Australian government is operating in the US is of great concern,” Rhiannon said. “Australians don’t expect interactions between our governments to occur through paid lobbyists.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert