VARYING political forces have weighed into the debate over proposed new laws aimed at curtailing illegal trespass activity on farms by animal rights activists.
Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said he hadn’t yet scrutinised details of the so called “ag-gag” laws that Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has backed.
Minister Joyce wants to strengthen penalties against “vigilante groups” trespassing on farms to gather covert video footage, in a bid to protect biosecurity standards and private property rights.
Mr Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Agricultural Media he didn’t encourage civil disobedience, but world history had demonstrated it was sometimes a necessary ingredient to bringing on successful changes.
But he said “you can’t broadly talk about this issue, because every case will be different”.
“I suspect there will be cases where the actions of those seeking information will be entirely inappropriate and on other occasions that might not be the case,” he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon said he hadn’t seen specific details of the laws Minister Joyce was looking to harmonise and introduce with State agriculture ministers.
But he asked if there would be special legislation to penalise the activists, outside of the existing criminal code.
“Our criminal laws are our criminal laws,” he said.
“He (Mr Joyce) might be talking about the prospect of creating a civil offence but I’d want to see the drafting and ensure those sorts of incursions, into civil rights, don’t offend the law more broadly.
“Will they legislate only for those trespassing, if you like, on agricultural land or agricultural pursuits but not on mining pursuits?
“I really don’t know what Barnaby Joyce has in mind but if he wants to put something forward I’ll consider it objectively.”
Mr Fitzgibbon said most laws regarding the issue, such as trespass, animal welfare and biosecurity, were handled by State government laws.
“I’ll leave the State guys to sort out State problems and I’ll sort out the federal problems,” he said.
Last week, the Tasmanian Greens and ACT Greens both rejected the new laws being touted by Minister Joyce.
Tasmanian Greens Animal Welfare spokesperson Cassy O’Connor called on Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff to rule out the Tasmanian government’s support.
She said ACT Greens MLA and Territory and Municipal Services Minister Shane Rattenbury had written to Mr Joyce disputing his assertion that all State ministers supported introducing “ag-gag” laws.
Ms O’Connor moved a notice of motion in the Tasmanian parliament, saying “ag-gag” laws are “designed to prevent information dissemination about neglect or cruelty in an industry and to prioritise business or commercial interests over consumers, animals and farmers who employ high welfare standards”.
The motion said the offences of “trespass” or “damage property” already adequately address the actions of individuals who commit such offences.
It also asked the parliament to say it “applauds the work of individuals and organisations who have exposed the mistreatment of animals, often through undercover operations in factory farms, and agrees their efforts have been integral to educating the wider public to the plight of many creatures”.
Mr Rattenbury said his letter to Minister Joyce rejected the proposed “ag-gag” laws as unnecessary and “a distraction from the Australian public’s demand for higher industry standards on animal welfare in Australia”.
“I have expressed my commitment to a nationally consistent approach to biosecurity to Minister Joyce,” he said.
“However, the proposed ‘ag-gag’ laws appear to be a thinly veiled attack on animal welfare activists seeking to end the cruel and sometimes illegal industry treatment of livestock and farm animals.
“I am confident that our existing laws in the ACT are capable of dealing with any illegal conduct such as trespass or property damage carried out by animal welfare activists, or indeed carried out by any individual or group.”
But Minister Joyce said there were no “ag-gag” laws.
He said that label resulted from “the terminology used by the Greens and those who wish to say that there is a moral good in breaking into your private property and surreptitiously putting a camera in your property”.
“It’s like saying if I was to stick a camera in your house and you asked for it to be removed, I’d call it the wife bashing gag laws,” he said.
“But this is how they work - they change the words for their own purpose but they know precisely what they do.
“They’re a vigilante group and they break into your private property and stick a camera into it.
“Now let’s call them for what they are because they certainly change the terminology of what they do.”
Mr Joyce said the success of Mr Rattenbury’s portfolio was seen by the fact “he’s only got 160 farmers left in the ACT”.
“What is he doing to increase agricultural production in his area?” he said.
“Or is he just being a harbour for the destruction of agriculture in other areas?”
Egg farm break-in sparks call for stronger laws
The Minister’s comments coincide with reports that two female activists are expected to be charged with wilful trespass after breaking into the egg farm of Victorian Farmers Federation Eggs Group president Brian Ahmed in Werribee, Victoria last week.
Mr Ahmed questioned whether the activists realised they were risking the lives of his hens by entering the farm illegally at 2am, and breaching biosecurity protocols.
He also called on the State government to deliver on its election promise to curb animal activists’ attacks on farms.
“This is just further proof to me that animal activists have no idea of the damage they could do and just think they’re above the law,” he said.
A campaign against pig farming also continues to escalate with activists claiming to have “exposed” video footage taken at more than 20 Australian piggeries over the last two years.
That includes the property of NSW Farmers pork committee chair Ean Pollard last year who said he felt like he was being “set up” when contacted by TV reporters about the video footage.