CONTROVERSIAL new laws targeting illegal trespass on livestock operations by extreme animal rights activists remain under the microscope in Canberra.
At the NSW Nationals’ annual conference in Queanbeyan last weekend, Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce was asked what his government was doing to develop laws to protect farmers against trespassing animal activists.
“Will you help farmers stand up to these vigilantes?” was the question asked of the Minister.
Minister Joyce pledged to do everything in his power to advance current moves by State agriculture ministers and coordinate new laws to ensure illegal trespass activity was outlawed.
He said activists were “basically invading peoples’ properties” to install cameras in livestock operations such as piggeries and dairies, obtaining video footage via illegal trespass and publishing it on the internet.
Minister Joyce said the activists were not only associated with committing a crime but they also had “the hide” to request public donations to aid their cause and claim those payments as a tax deductable gift.
However, the Minister’s comments sparked a strong response from NSW Greens' Senator and animal welfare spokesperson Lee Rhiannon, who accused the Nationals deputy leader of using biosecurity as a cover to introduce “ag-gag” laws as a way of preventing scrutiny of animal cruelty.
She said instead of working with farming communities to improve animal welfare, Minister Joyce was trying to “hoodwink” the Australian people by citing biosecurity as a reason to introduce laws protecting perpetrators of animal cruelty.
Senator Rhiannon said Minister Joyce wanted to punish people who exposed animal cruelty with harsher penalties than what covered those who “commit the violence”.
She said undercover investigators played an important role in the debate as their exposure of animal cruelty helped highlight the need for improved farming practices.
Senator Rhiannon said the Greens would also oppose any changes to legislation which protected people or companies that “could administer animal cruelty”.
But speaking to national media in Canberra on Monday, Minister Joyce returned fire saying he believed Senator Rhiannon was endorsing the roles of “vigilante groups”.
He said the vigilantes caused “immense problems” for animal husbandry and farm management practices while making property owners feel their rights had been “intruded” upon.
“If you have strangers in a shed then of course you’re going to stir up animals,” he said.
“If someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night you’d be rather stirred up too.”
Minister Joyce said he was working very closely with the States to ensure people who break into private property and place cameras in pig sheds or dairies are charged with break and enter.
“We can’t have vigilante groups deciding that they’re the enforcers of law,” he said.
“If people believe a crime has been committed, then that is a role for the police not a role for vigilante groups.”
Minister Joyce said there was a vast difference between genuine whistleblowers who informed the police of a real crime and the type of trespass activity targeted by the so call “ag-gag laws”.
Mr Joyce said he had no problems with whistleblowers, “whatsoever”.
“But the fact that you would break into someone’s shed or break into their farm or put a drone over their farm or basically break into someone’s house without the proper authority of a court, just take it upon yourself, there’s a word for that, it’s called vigilantes,” he said.
“They will always tell you that their intentions are proper but they’ve broken the law.
“If we say we’ll allow them to break into pig sheds, we’ll allow them to break into dairies, we’ll allow them to break into poultry farms, we’ll allow them to go onto other peoples’ private property, well what’s to stop someone saying ‘I also want them to break into peoples’ houses on the street to protect people against domestic violence’.
“Now domestic violence is a crime but it’s a crime that’s enforced by the police, not by vigilantes.”
Minister Joyce said he wanted to invoke tougher laws to protect farmers’ property rights “because this message has come back to us loud and clear” that they feel their rights have been violated.
Australian Pork Limited (APL) recently revealed it had applied to the Australian Farmers’ Fighting Fund (AFFF) to back a legal test case that can establish legal precedents to give farmers stronger protections against illegal trespass by extreme animal rights activists and how the video footage is then used.
APL chief executive Andrew Spencer said the AFFF application would look at a legal test case “where we can really ask some major questions of the law”.
“We want laws changed or precedents set in the courts around more appropriate protection for farmers,” he said.
“As it presently stands through precedent, we believe there is a significant lack of protection for Australia’s farmers from activities like farm raids.”