ANIMAL rights activist Chris Delforce is one of several witnesses who may be invited to give evidence before a federal Senate inquiry into proposed federal farm raid laws.
A private Senator’s Bill tabled by Western Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back this week aims to curtail the recent spate of trespassing events on livestock facilities by animal rights activists.
Senator Back flagged the new laws last year, in reaction to growing trespass and campaigning activities by activists gathering video footage aimed at emotively influencing consumer opinion and laws against intensive livestock farming.
He says the Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015 is aimed at “malicious cruelty to animals” but also makes provision to protect lawfully operating animal enterprises.
The Bill proposes a range of harsh penalties including five-year imprisonment for any offence which results in economic damage exceeding $10,000.
Speaking to Fairfax Media, Senator Back said the Bill had undergone a “rigorous” development process over the past year, with its drafting, in various forms, subject to “a high degree of high level scrutiny”.
It will undergo further scrutiny after the Senate’s Standing Committee for Selection of Bills last week recommended the former veterinarian’s legislative proposal to an inquiry.
The cross-party committee’s role is to consider the direction of all Bills introduced into the Senate or received from the House of Representatives.
The Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee’s inquiry is due to report by May 13 this year, with March 12 the deadline for submissions.
Senator Back said his Bill would amend the Criminal Code in two parts: firstly, in addressing the reporting of malicious cruelty to animals; and secondly, in dealing with illegal interference in the conduct of lawful animal enterprises.
“The first division of the Bill stipulates that if a person takes visual images of what they believe to be malicious cruelty to animals, they must report this to the responsible authority without delay,” he said.
“Authorities are then empowered to investigate, to act swiftly ensuring further cruelty is averted and to prosecute the perpetrators if proven.”
Senator Back said his decision to introduce the Bill follows recent examples of activist groups who present visual images - taken sometimes up to 12 months prior to disclosure - effectively preventing responsible authorities from accurately investigating animal cruelty allegations in a timely manner.
Video release delays
Along with other committee members, Senator Back has also been highly critical of protracted delays in releasing video footage of alleged animal cruelty, underpinning Animals Australia’s campaign to ban live exports.
Mr Delforce has been involved in another ongoing campaign in recent years publishing video footage gathered on-farm and in other livestock facilities - via trespass or other methods - on various internet sites and in social media.
The campaign has particularly focussed on pork production, with the activist group declaring to expose footage from 100 piggeries throughout Australia by the end of 2014.
However, critics have raised fears about potential biosecurity risks caused by the unchecked trespassing and portraying isolated incidents as standard industry practice, while ignoring significant investments already made to improve welfare conditions.
In an interview with Fairfax Media last July, Mr Delforce said it was “no secret” he believes various livestock industries “don’t have a right to exist anymore” because they’re “barbaric, archaic, a waste of resources and so unjust”.
He also believes meat consumption is “unnecessary” and it’s possible to reach a stage in the future where commercial meat production no longer exists.
His Aussie Farms website promotes vegan tips and recipes and contains a facility for submitting video footage and related evidence anonymously, for use in the ongoing campaign.
“We believe that between all of us, we have tonnes of visual evidence of animal cruelty and exploitation, a lot of which might just be gathering dust because it doesn't fit any particular campaigns, or otherwise isn't getting out there to the public who need to see it,” it says.
Laws 'reminiscent' of ag-gag
Senator Back said Mr Delforce could certainly be invited to provide evidence at any public hearings of the inquiry into his proposed Bill, along with legitimate farming groups or the RSPCA.
“Part of the parliamentary process to consult as wide as you can and part of that democratic process, of developing legislation, is that you invite people to participate and give their views on issues,” he said.
Senator Back said the inquiry could also look at how his Bill worked together with various State animal protection laws and undergo other consultations, now that the proposal has been formally tabled.
He has also rejected accusations of trying to introduce US-styled “ag-gag” laws.
But Mr Delforce said the proposed laws are “very reminiscent of ag-gag legislation already in place in US States.
“Their concern has nothing to do with animal welfare, but instead prohibiting investigations - and therefore exposure - of animal cruelty,” he said.
“There are already laws in place covering trespass and property damage.
“The act of trespass itself – which could be as simple as jumping a fence and pushing open an unlocked door – is surely justified in the name of exposing what should be considered a much greater crime; animal cruelty.
“Imposing harsher penalties on activists, who try to expose this cruelty, while doing nothing about the cruelty itself, cannot be sincerely claimed as being in the interests of the animals.”
Mr Delforce said activists adhere to a philosophy of non-violence and do not harm animals, or people.
He said farmers do not need protection from activists “seeking simply to show what they are doing to their animals and this very notion implies that there is much they want to hide”.
Mr Delforce said the Bill’s proposed requirement of turning over footage immediately was intended to prevent longer-term investigations, such as those conducted at Wally’s Piggery and other facilities.
“Handing over one day of footage and not being able to get any further evidence allows the authorities and industry to simply say the activities depicted are 'one-offs', not representative of day to day practices, which cannot be said when longer investigations are able to be conducted,” the Aussie Farms executive director said.
“Wally’s Piggery certainly would still be operating today if the activists involved had been forced to conclude the investigation after one day, instead of being able to capture a large quantity of damning evidence over a two-month period.
“Moreover, it ignores the fact that much of what activists expose is legal, industry-standard cruelty, with which the authorities can do absolutely nothing even if they wanted to.
“This is the primary focus of the majority of investigation work conducted today: not to find isolated incidences of extreme abuse, but to show the Australian public what farms and slaughterhouses are able to get away legally, on a day-to-day basis, while claiming to love their animals.
“Forcing activists to hand material to authorities prematurely means that absolutely nothing will be done, while the activists open themselves up to severe penalties.
“These proposed laws are in complete opposition to the safety and welfare of animals, and instead are aimed at further entrenching the secrecy upon which the animal agriculture industries rely.”
'Demonised' by 'minority group'
But Senator Back said one of the main catalysts for proposing the new laws was the considerable feedback about the animal rights movement he’d received from national farm groups in recent years.
“They have been asking me, ‘Why are we being constantly demonised by this minority group?’ and therefore something must be done about it,” he said.
“As an elected lawmaker, it’s legitimate for me to be a voice in the parliament on this issue.
“As I see it, there’s absolutely no incentive for any livestock producer or any other related group to inflict deliberate cruelty to their animals.”
Senator Back said his proposal has also been vigorously debated in the Coalition party room twice and he’d also spoken to relevant ministers in detail about the laws during the drafting phase.
That includes Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
He said he’d also spoken this week to Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon ahead of the Bill’s referral to committee inquiry this week.
Senator Back said Mr Brandis had given the proposed Bill his “imprimatur”, it had “very strong support” from Mr Joyce and Mr Turnbull’s best advice was to “keep it simple”.
He said another catalyst was the questioning and feedback he received from leading livestock industry representatives in the US during a recent visit.
“They asked me, quite rightly, why the Australian government wasn’t doing anything to protect the Australian farming sector’s well respected international reputation in animal husbandry, from these activist attacks,” he said.
The Bill’s explanatory memorandum says it uses “the least rights restrictive approach in that it does not censor or restrict media coverage”.
“It does not require material to be approved before it may be published,” it says.
“It does not restrict the ability of journalists to protect their sources.
“The Bill is not designed to censor the media or any other person in any way.
“Nor is it designed to allow the relevant authorities to censor the media or any other person in any way.”
But Voiceless legal counsel Emmanuel Giuffre said last week the Bill went against free speech.
“By saying that 'ag gag' laws are for the benefit of animals is absolutely absurd,” he said.
“It targets undercover investigators and whistleblowers who risk their wellbeing and their livelihood rather than the perpetrators of that cruelty.
“There are already laws to prevent intimidation or harassment or vandalism, so really we have to ask the question why is Chris Back stepping on the toes of state and territory governments?
“An appropriate move would be the introduction and requirement for CCTV cameras in all factory farms and slaughterhouses, even the establishment of an independent office for animal welfare.”