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Kangaroo cull: necessary evil and the greater good

By Adam Henry - posted Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The controversy over the Belconnen kangaroo cull will not fade away quickly once it is completed. There is also a political and philosophical aspect to this controversy that stabs at the heart of Australian representative democracy. This controversy reflects not just a difference of opinion over the fate of these unfortunate kangaroos, but the fact that a truly open and inclusive debate has never been allowed to take place by the John Stanhope Government - something that is very common in Australian politics.

Locally, there is also a certain sense of déjà vu to this issue. The desired closures of various schools last year for the greater community good - made the consultation process sound hollow and feel more like a foregone conclusion. That being said, the consultation process for these school closures inspired unique scenes of local activism by those school communities that were targeted. At least those affected school children did not meet the same fate as the kangaroos currently in Belconnen!

A strong undercurrent in the local opposition (or at least displeasure) with the Stanhope Government is not just that a small clique of elites have seemingly, long ago, decided the “greater good” of this matter, but that little consideration has been given to the consequences of such attitudes on the wider community.


It is unfortunate that when we are informed by our elected (and non-elected) authorities of only two choices - the greater or lesser evil - why do we so often fail to reflect on just who has decided that there are only two available choices. Surely there are always other choices?

For example, to protect the ecological basis of the Belconnen region one might expect that the root cause (humans) to be more "humane" in how their presence will effect the movement of native wildlife. Why is it that these animals have no escape route from the site in question?

Is there anywhere in Australia where they have explored the use of safe, perhaps even fenced, crossing routes from one area to another using scent and food to encourage the animals? Would this cost anymore than culling the animals? I should not think so.

A genuinely open and ethical public debate could have expanded the options beyond the “to cull or not to cull?” The public relations disaster now facing the government (especially when you consider the Australian stand on Japanese whaling) has reached national and even international proportions.

There is no way to hide the fact that killing healthy animals is not very pleasant, nor is it much of a vote winning strategy for an elected representative. Second, the argument underpinning the pro-cull lobby is that, in order to preserve other endangered native species on the Belconnen site, these kangaroos must be killed for the greater ecological good. This is contested by alternative scientific views. Why?

Often in the greater good theory it is argued that one seemingly minor factor undermines the perceived "greater good" and stands in the way of a so called maximum benefit. Critically, the merits of the so called "greater good" are never allowed by our authorities to be openly and publicly tested before they chart the course; in fact quite the opposite occurs.


The political wrangling over the kangaroo cull highlights the fact that many in the Canberra community, including myself, do not agree with the ethical merits underlying the pro-cull position. If you do not see the killing and heartbreaking distress of the animals, it is of course much easier to argue that the cull is just a necessity. But it is no longer an abstract proposition when those that have decided how the greater good is to be achieved are publicly confronted by the unpleasant consequences of their actions.

Despite his recent conversion against its merits, Robert McNamara - former Secretary of Defence and architect of the Vietnam War, describes the dilemma of being entranced by the abstract big-picture concept. He mused that "to do good, you might have to engage in necessary evil".

Perhaps our elected, and non elected, authorities might spare some time to consider that when we see the consequences of "necessary evil" in pursuit of the so called “greater good”.

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About the Author

Adam Hughes Henry is the author of three books, Independent Nation - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations (2010), The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 1950–1966 (2015) and Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020). He was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights, University of London (2016) and a Whitlam Research Fellow, Western Sydney University (2019). He is currently an Associate Editor for The International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis).

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