A SENATE Committee report has recommended WA Liberal Senator Chris Back’s proposed Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill be passed - but with a less prescriptive time-frame for reporting animal cruelty offences to authorities.
The controversial bill is directed at animal rights activists trespassing on livestock facilities to take covert video footage and extended delays in reporting any subsequent evidence of malicious animal cruelty offences, to proper authorities.
The proposed legislation was first tabled in February and passed onto an inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee.
The Committee inquiry received 1671 written submissions including a large number of form letters prompted by animal rights and protection groups campaigning against the adoption of potential US-style “ag-gag” laws in Australia.
Evidence was also presented by a range of witnesses including the RSPCA, Voiceless, farm groups and veterinarians at a public hearing in Canberra on May 15.
The final report was tabled on Friday and recommended the proposed reporting period of one day be amended to require a person to report “as soon as practicable” to the relevant authority.
The second of the Committee’s two recommendations stated that the Bill should be passed, subject to the reporting period being amended, as per the first recommendation.
The inquiry was chaired by NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan and included contributions from other Coalition Senators, Labor and independents David Leyonhjelm and Nick Xenophon.
“The committee acknowledges that a significant number of the submissions to this inquiry questioned both the intention and the likely operation of the bill in regard to animal cruelty,” the report said.
“In particular, the committee notes the views expressed by those who argued that the proposed legislation would unfairly target those who seek to uncover animal cruelty, such as whistleblowers (including abattoir, farm and factory workers), undercover investigators and investigative journalists.
“Whilst the committee acknowledges these views, it also notes that the bill does not remove or limit the ability for people to report animal cruelty, nor does it preclude any individual from lawfully pursuing a specific case of ongoing and/or systematic animal cruelty.
“The committee does note, however, the argument raised by some submitters about the prescriptive nature of the timeframe for reporting.
“The committee acknowledges that, particularly in the case of remote locations, reporting within one business day may not be practical or possible.
“The committee therefore suggests that the time frame for reporting be less prescriptive.”
However, a dissenting report the Australian Greens - signed by animal welfare spokesperson and NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon – made 11 recommendations including not passing the bill.
Recommendation seven also said Departments of Agriculture represented “the interests of industry and should not be responsible for oversight of animal welfare investigations”.
The Greens also suggested “more and adequate funding and resources should be provided to animal protection organisations such as the RSPCA and The Animal Welfare League who are charged with investigating animal cruelty complaints”.
The Greens claimed Senator Back’s proposed bill “seeks to deter and punish those who would expose to the public visual evidence of animal cruelty in commercial animal industries”.
“It would do this by effectively criminalising investigators while turning a blind eye to the perpetrators of that cruelty,” the dissenting report said.
“Indeed, the bill would result in greater penalties being imposed on those who make visual records of animal cruelty, than those who would commit the cruelty which remains an illegal act.
“As such, the Greens reject the bill in its entirety.”
The Greens also said the bill unnecessarily duplicates existing laws with the risk of double punishments, confused legal processes and compromised investigations by authorities.
“State and federal laws already exist to protect all persons including “animal enterprises” from trespass, property damage, and conduct involving bodily injury, threats, harassment or intimidation,” the dissenting report said.
“Those laws are already adequate.
“This bill would put an end to the community’s most formidable weapon in exposing and prosecuting widespread routine and systemic cruelty: Covert surveillance in long-term investigations.
“The Greens condemn this bill.
“It is an undisguised and clumsy attempt to end the scrutiny of offending animal industries, by punishing the investigators and protecting the offenders.
“It offers nothing to repair our completely ineffective animal welfare regulatory framework.
“There has been no evidence presented to support a case that this bill is required or appropriate.
“It undermines basic legal principles necessary to a fair and just legal system.
“It has no social licence.
“The Greens unequivocally reject this offensive bill.”
However, former Australian Veterinary Association president Dr Barry Smyth told the inquiry that the longer “the delay between reporting and you, as a veterinarian, being able to access the animal and being able to institute treatment, the less likely you are to have a good outcome”.
Dr Smyth said he also did not agree with the AVA's submission which said they had concerns about the effectiveness of the proposed legislation to achieve any significant improvement in animal welfare.
The report said Australian Pork Limited (APL) had also raised concerns about video footage being used for “shock value”.
“APL submitted whilst it considers the proposed timeframes for reporting animal cruelty (and the provision of any record of this cruelty) are appropriate, it argued that the bill could be strengthened by: specifically stating that the removal of metadata or the manipulation of the electronic files (e.g. the incorporation of 'screams' from animals for 'shock' purposes) be prohibited,” the report said.
“APL is concerned that the altering of evidence in any form will potentially render evidence of animal cruelty inadmissible in a court of law.”
The report said the Committee had received a number of submissions which fully supported the bill’s objectives which were largely – but not exclusively – provided by those involved in various agricultural enterprises.
“These groups argued very strongly in favour of the amendments proposed by the bill, and told the committee that there is a very real risk that Australian food and fibre production systems can be compromised by the actions of any person 'that would for whatever reason, intimidate, threaten or attack any other person associated with an animal enterprise',” the report said.
“Members of these groups also expressed concerns in relation to issues of animal safety, the safety of farm workers and possible breaches of biosecurity protocols.”
It also quoted the National Farmers' Federation’s (NFF) submission to the inquiry highlighting support for the bill’s intent and belief the proposal “does not preclude any individual from lawfully pursuing a cause”.
“If an organisation or individual wish to raise a concern then they should use every course available to them to do so as long as it does not break the law,” NFF said.
“This [the bill] is a simple and logical approach which reduced the likelihood of the law being taken into individuals own hands and preventing any negative impacts such as breaches of biosecurity arrangements which would have serious consequences for the agriculture industry.
“The NFF view is that no one should be above the law.
“Farmers must conduct their business in accordance with the law and it only fair and equitable that other members of [the] community should act lawfully as well.”
The report also referred to a submission from NT cattle producer Jo-Anne Bloomfield who argued that the actions of those involved in farm intrusion can actually 'initiate negative animal welfare through intention or otherwise', and in some cases the invasion itself can lead to malicious cruelty through injury and/or death of an animal.
It said Mrs Bloomfield told the committee she supported the bill’s provisions and made the following comments on trespass and destroying and/or damaging property:
• trespass laws alone do not act as a deterrent to those people involved in property invasions;
• most people involved in property invasions have no actual animal husbandry skills and are not trained in the legal aspects of conducting investigations;
• it is only a matter of time before mass animal deaths occur due to intruders;
• it is also only a matter of time before a human being is either injured or killed during a farm invasion.