Australia under fire for lobbying on California kangaroo trade

By Jane Wardell SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Australian government is under fire for lobbying the California legislature to stop a ban on the sale of kangaroo products in the U.S. state, a restriction the industry argues would cripple exports of the marsupials' meat and leather. The California senate will vote on Thursday on a bill to extend a moratorium indefinitely on the sale of kangaroo products like premier league baseball mitts and fire retardant gloves favored by U.S. firefighters. Powerful animal rights and democracy lobbyists in California are angry about the way the bill was introduced this week via the backdoor, just days before the end of the current legislative session, following extensive Australian government lobbying and financial aid. The A$200 million ($140 million) trade of kangaroo skin and meat is an emotive issue. The Australian native graces the country's coat of arms and is a major tourism draw, making it a high profile target for animal rights activists who oppose commercial killing. However, with a kangaroo population of about 48 million, more than double the human population, the animal is also considered a pest in many areas because of the threat it poses to agriculture, cattle and endangered animals. California - the world's largest market for upmarket leather goods - formally banned the import and sale of kangaroo products in 1971, but the market has flourished under an eight-year moratorium. Skins are popular with sportswear manufacturers including Adidas AG and Nike Inc. The moratorium is due to expire at the end of this year. Democrat lawmaker Mike Gipson this week used a tactic known as a "gut and amend" to switch a bill on gambling that had already reached the senate floor to one that proposes the extension of the moratorium, this time with no sunset clause. The bill must be approved by two-thirds of the senate in a vote scheduled for Thursday before going to committee. 'SECRECY' The maneuver is legal but frowned upon by many democracy advocates as it does not allow for open and extensive debate on an issue. "It smacks of special interest dealing and secrecy," said U.S. Humane Society spokeswoman Jennifer Fearing from the California Capitol building, where she was pressing lawmakers to vote against the bill. "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?" Another lobbyist, Lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project, has filed a complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission, alleging Australia may have acted illegally because it did not declare financial payments or register as a lobbyist employer. Australia's Department of Agriculture confirmed it provided A$143,000 to the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia to help pay U.S. law firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips to lobby Californian lawmakers against the ban. A spokesman for Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce declined to comment further, but stressed that commercial harvests of kangaroos, generally about 15-20 percent of the population, were both sustainable and humane. A group of 74 Australian scientists and activists has issued an open letter questioning the data. The industry is cautiously hopeful the Californian lobbying will pay off. Adidas and Nike did not respond to requests for comment. (Reporting By Jane Wardell; Editing by Robert Birsel)