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AUSTRALIAN ACTIVISM: MARGARET SETTER
It was 5am on a mild Easter Sunday morning. The lights snapped on
in one of Australia's many battery hen death camp sheds. The first
person to greet us was Margaret Setter. We were waiting for the
police to arrive. I remember thinking at the time how her face
betrayed no nervousness. She looked calm, yet determined. One never
knew how the police would react to a bunch of activists prepared to
get arrested for a battery hen!
Margaret Setter is a veteran of the '70s socialist and peace
movements, the anti-nuclear movement, the feminist movement and the
modern-day animal rights movement. In spite of many obstacles in
Margaret's life, it has been her strength of character coupled with
her eloquence of speech that has brought many people to the animal
rights movement. These qualities alone have moved many hearts and
minds to join in the struggle to liberate non-human animals.
When Margaret was young, girls generally left school at 15 and
that is what she did, with only two years of high school behind her.
In 1970, she joined the Workers Education Association. A tutor
casually suggested she go to university, where she met Professor Ron
Neale. Neale was a Marxist and through him she learnt about the
transformation of society and how to make revolution possible.
Although Neale died prematurely in 1985, he remains a significant
presence in her life.
Margaret Setter has five sons and one daughter. She found the
love of her life with her second marriage to Ken Setter. Ken himself
is another effective Australian animal activist with a great story
to be told. But, for now, we would like to introduce Margaret
Setter, animal liberationist – Australian-style.
Interviewed by Claudette Vaughan
Claudette: What does the word activism mean to
Margaret: I am a grassroots activist and, like most
women, prepared to have a go at most things. My involvement in
Animal Liberation means a lot to me. It provides structure and
purpose to my life, and I enjoy the satisfaction of being
involved in a common endeavour with like-minded people. The
life of an activist is not always easy, but it is a life that
The work I do is fairly mundane. It involves office duties,
helping with those seemingly endless tasks so essential to
keeping the organisation running. But activism entails more
than work it is a way of life. Most of all, I like
talking to people about animals rights, in the street, while
on the bus, or wherever I encounter someone prepared to engage
me on these important issues.
Animal Liberation regularly investigates and documents the
squalid existence that is the lot of intensively farmed
animals. Each investigation requires careful planning and the
operation is carried out in the dead of night. Strict silence
must be observed while negotiating barbed wire fences, or
traversing paddocks made slippery by pig slurry, or even
worse, littered with sharp thorns.
On one occasion we had to enter a battery hen shed. I am
not the bravest person in the world and I am scared stiff of
heights, but when you, Claudette, said: "Don't worry,
Margaret, I will look after you," I thought: "Right, I can do
it!" And I did! When the moment arrived I streaked across the
paddock and reached the top of that ladder before I had time
Claudette: What kind of influence did the '70s peace
movement have on your decision to become an AR activist, if
Margaret: Hardly any, I would say, at least not at
any conscious level, although I knew of Peter Singer's
activities and had heard stories in the media of
institutionalised animal abuse. I think most unaware people
believe that the publicity ends the abuse. I inhabited a
different universe, where animal rights and vegetarianism were
scarcely known and never discussed. Like most women of my age,
my life revolved around paid work and caring for a large
I was already something of an oddity among my neighbours,
having been involved in peace activities since the 1960s. I
purchased my first television set in 1964. The Australian
Government had just announced we would be sending troops to
Vietnam. This was the first television war, with scenes of the
most appalling violence coming into our living rooms.
Sensitised by personal experience of violence at the hands
of an abusive partner, I watched in horror, wondering what on
earth I could do about it. The answer came with an
advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald advertising a
meeting at the Sydney Town Hall on December 1, 1966. With five
small children in tow, I made the long trip into town. The
Town Hall was packed to overflowing. "The war will be over in
three months," I said to myself. It was to be seven long years
before Australian forces were brought home.
That meeting changed my life. Not only did I make a host of
new friends in the burgeoning peace movement but I met the
love of my life, with whom I had another child.
Claudette: What was the defining point for you in
becoming an AR activist?
Margaret: That came about some years later. By 1986,
with our children almost grown up, Ken and I decided to take
an overseas trip to England and Europe. At that time we were
campaigners for nuclear disarmament, so I consider it quite
ironic that a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl spewed out its
radioactive dust on the very day we arrived in
While in London we participated for short periods
in the perpetual vigil in support of Nelson Mandela outside
the Embassy of South Africa. Our hero!
English breakfasts must take some of the blame, or credit,
for making a vegetarian out of me. One morning, while staying
in Bath, my favourite English city, I gazed at the egg and
bacon on my plate, and decided that I would become a
vegetarian as soon as I went home. A day or so later, I
discovered an excellent vegan cookbook in an elegant bookstore
in Milsom Street. Until that moment, I had never heard the
Toward the end of 1988 I began subscribing to Animal
Liberation Magazine. One issue contained a report about an
inspection of Bunge Piggery in Victoria. Reading such stories
resulted in many sleepless nights until the brain became
conditioned. The panic and the anger lessened in intensity,
the ethical commitment to change became dominant.
The opportunity to take action came with a newspaper
advertisement calling for "500 heroes" to volunteer to rescue
wounded water birds on the opening weekend of the annual duck
season. The venue was Barrenbock Swamp, 13km from Griffith. It
was to be the first of four trips to the wetlands, but that
weekend stands out in my memory as one of violence and
intimidation never equalled on subsequent occasions.
Claudette: You have petitioned Liverpool City
Council to ban circuses in that area. What has happened with
Margaret: This campaign began with a letter
requesting Liverpool Council to ban animal-based circuses from
performing on public lands. A councillor friend arranged for
me to address Council on the issue. They listened in silence
and when I asked if there were any questions I distinctly
heard one Councillor remark that he'd better go home and let
the budgie out of its cage! At least a decision was made to
hold another meeting to hear the views of all parties
We were in for a shock when we arrived for the meeting some
months later. It was the first and last encounter we would
have with Robert Perry, co-owner of Perry Bros. Circus and the
most opportunistic and street-savvy individual I have ever
known. About 10 representatives of the Circus Federation of
Australia supported him. The RSPCA inspector treated us with
courteous contempt and was not even aware of his
organisation's policy on animal circuses. I had to provide him
with a copy.
A short while later Ken addressed the Labor Caucus,
Liverpool being Labor-dominated Council. It appeared we had
the numbers to get a ban. We hadn't reckoned on the guile and
wit of Robert Perry who wasted no time in going to the media,
threatening to attend the council meeting accompanied by two
The mayor panicked and the ban was called off even before
the meeting was held. The elephants didn't materialise but Mr
Perry brought along 70 or so circus hands who shouted and
stamped their feet throughout the meeting. Robert assured
everyone "the Animal Libbers will get beat". And he was right
– for the moment at least.
We had made small gains. We had at least placed the circus
issue on the agenda. There were other meetings, more
publicity, before the matter ended, or so we thought.
Four years later many things had changed. Perry Bros were
no longer in business, having sold out to Stardust. Animal
Liberation continued to campaign vigorously against animal
circuses. The Government responded with a set of standards,
which brought much-needed improvements in the living
conditions of captive animals. Liverpool Council was
considering its own policy on circuses for which submissions
were being sought.
We set to work doorknocking for signatures. Letters and
signed forms came in from as far away as north Queensland.
They totalled almost 1500. Council was sympathetic, but wary,
having already lost two cases in the Environment Court. In the
end, Council decided to impose conditions sufficiently
stringent to keep circuses from applying to perform here. It
had taken us eight years, but we had won in the end.
Claudette: Who do you most admire?
Margaret: That's a good question. I admire many,
many people but I'll nominate Rachel Corrie. Rachel was a
young American woman who joined the International Solidarity
Movement and went to Gaza to help the Palestinians. On March
15 of this year she repeatedly positioned herself between a
bulldozer and a house about to be demolished. She was clearly
visible to the Israeli soldier manning the bulldozer, who ran
over her twice, causing her to die of multiple brain
haemorrhages. She also suffered four broken limbs and severe
internal injuries. She was only 23 years old.
What makes her so special to me is that she knowingly
risked and lost her life to protect the rights of people
unable to protect themselves. Her parents uttered not one word
of bitterness, choosing instead to honour her as a member of
the global community; a person "filled with love and a sense
Claudette: I think the animal rights movement in
Australia lacks a sense of urgency. How does Australian animal
rights activism compare to overseas?
Margaret: I think we compare very favourably, all
things considered. Remember, our movement is not yet 30 years
old. Christine Townend founded Animal Liberation in 1976.
Communications technology was then primitive by today's
standards. Christine would have had a typewriter and a
telephone but I bet she would have shared a photocopier
belonging to some other organisation. By the time I became a
committee member in 1990 the organisation had acquired a fax
Now, with the advent of email and the world wide web our
major campaigns have become national and even international in
scope, an example of the former being our current campaign to
abolish the dry sow stall.
Opposition to the globalised fast food industry has led to
international campaigns. This has forced McDonald's to lift
their game with respect to animal welfare. Once considered
invulnerable to pressure, McDonald's has made some progress in
this direction, however controversial the results may be. A
cultural revolution is beginning. How far it will develop will
depend on the people who articulate it in its many facets.
As someone once said: "The horizon of history remains