ANIMALS Australia has re-hashed long-running grievances with Senator Chris Back in a submission to an inquiry into his proposed anti-trespass bill.
The submission accused Senator Back of having a conflict of interest on live exports, which he dismissed as “laughable”.
Senator Back’s Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill was tabled in February, which launched an inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee.
The inquiry had received 805 public submissions as of Wednesday and was due to report on May 13.
However, that deadline is likely to be extended with a half-day public hearing scheduled for May 15 calling individuals and groups, including from the legal community.
The Committee inquiry website has also provided a list of 12 examples of different form letters used in about 1900 submissions, opposing the Bill at varying degrees.
One form letter (used in 1476 submissions) expresses concerns the Bill will punish perpetrators of animal cruelty and unfairly target undercover investigators, journalists and whistle-blowers.
The form letter also “fully endorses and reiterates the position expressed” by the Voiceless group’s submission.
The Bill is directed at animal rights activists trespassing on livestock facilities to take video footage. This footage is often used emotively by groups in an attempt to influence consumer opinion against intensive livestock farming.
Senator Back says the new laws would ensure any alleged animal cruelty is reported to proper regulators without unnecessary delays.
The Bill proposes a range of penalties, including five-year imprisonment for any offence causing economic damage exceeding $10,000 and 20 years imprisonment for offences resulting in serious bodily injury or economic damage exceeding $1 million.
Anti-activist, not anti-cruelty: AA
Predictably, the submission from Animals Australia executive director Glenys Oogjes rejects the proposal alleging the Bill’s operation is contrary to animal protection.
Ms Oogjes argues the Bill would prevent the ability to investigate systemic animal cruelty, “thereby ‘protecting’ animal cruelty offenders”.
She said it would subsequently “punish those who are forced to investigate animal cruelty due to inaction on the part of government and industry bodies”.
Animals Australia’s submission points to two of the group’s high profile investigations - into the live export industry and live baiting in the greyhound racing industry - as justification for delaying provision of footage to regulators in order to expose “systematic” animal cruelty.
It says the immediate defence usually presented by industry bodies - and the Australian government in the case of live exports - is that the cruelty uncovered is simply an isolated incident, “thus requiring multiple investigation days to gather evidence of systemic and recurring animal cruelty to force and compel the necessary action”.
“Senator Back, through various public statements, has drawn a clear nexus between his perceived need for a Bill such as this Bill and animal cruelty investigations carried out by Animals Australia,” Ms Oogjes said.
“At the outset, it is important to note that every investigation conducted by Animals Australia has been driven by a compulsion to do so because of inaction on the part of industry and government.”
Ms Oogjes referred to Senator Back’s example of the three-month delay before video footage taken in Indonesian abattoirs by Animals Australia appeared on ABC TV in May 2011.
She said this “short period” of delay needed to be considered against a backdrop of 10 years of “inaction on the part of industry and the Australian government that allowed the horrific cruelty in Indonesia to continue unabated”.
“The Australian government was already aware of the situation in Indonesia, prior to Four Corners, as these cruel handling and slaughter practices were documented in detailed industry reports and provided to the government in the ten year period between 2000 and 2010,” she said.
“Further, the Committee should be aware that RSPCA Australia had been lobbying the Australian government to take action on these cruel slaughter practices in Indonesia since December 2010.
“It was this short period of collating the extensive evidence gathered (from 10 abattoirs) and working with Four Corners to expose the cruelty once and for all to the Australian community, that led to live export regulations finally being put in place and to the increased pre-slaughter stunning methods implemented in Indonesia – an outcome that just months earlier the industry had dismissed as an ‘aspirational’ goal only.”
Ms Oogjes urged the Committee to assess whether Senator Back had a conflict of interest on live exports issues, given he has been a paid consultant to the live export industry and his brother is a veterinarian in the live export trade.
She also accused Senator Back of attempting to undermine the evidence gathered by Animals Australia from Indonesia in 2011.
She said under the protection of parliamentary privilege, the Western Australian Liberal Senator made allegations that a worker in one of the Indonesian abattoirs had been paid “to kick the animal in the head repeatedly until they got the film they wanted”.
“Senator Back has never been able to substantiate these allegations,” she said.
But Senator Back said the allegations against the authenticity of Animals Australia’s video footage - raised at a Senate hearing in late 2011 - were contained in a sworn affidavit from the Indonesian abattoir worker. He said the accusations of a conflict of interest were personally motivated and ignored his professional standing and industry expertise.
“I have no conflict,” he said.
“As a professional vet who’s worked in the production animal sector for more than two decades I have no problems with coming into parliament with a level of expertise that’s able to guide policy.
“That’s not a conflict of interest; it’s a convergence of interest and should be applauded by the Australian community.”
“And it’s laughable (to) suggest that someone with great experience of a certain area, that’s being discussed in parliament, is having a conflict.”
'Disjointed and superfluous'
Ms Oogjes also said the Bill presents as “disjointed and superfluous, and irrelevant to animal protection”.
“There are already laws in place to cover offences such as theft, trespass, criminal damage and assault, and the penalties in the Bill for these same offences attract much harsher penalties than the same offences that do not apply to animal industries,” she said in her group’s submission.
Ms Oogjes said even assuming the Bill’s intention was to increase reporting of animal cruelty, the timeframes provided in it were “unreasonable”.
“The Bill states that the report has to be made within one day from the time of recording,” she said.
“When investigations are conducted, it is not uncommon for cameras to be left recording over a number of days, following which, the numerous hours of footage has to be reviewed and, in some instances, expert opinions have to be sought, before knowing whether cruelty has been recorded.
“Even if a report was made as soon as it was determined that cruelty had been captured, in some cases, it would most likely still be in breach of the proposed Bill.
“It is unsurprising the Bill demonstrates a lack of understanding about the practicalities of conducting investigations into animal cruelty, as there was no prior consultation with animal welfare enforcement bodies such as the RSPCA before the Bill was drafted and introduced.
“Animals Australia also has doubts as to whether the Commonwealth has necessary powers under the Australian Constitution to enact this Bill.”
Just share the footage: Back
But Senator Back said there was “absolutely nothing” in his Bill that prevented people from going to the media, parliamentarians “or anywhere else” before or after reporting any evidence of animal cruelty, within the prescribed time periods.
“Nobody is prevented from gathering evidence; all they need to do is provide it to the responsible authority within a certain timeframe so where’s the problem with that?” he said.
“Nothing would prevent a responsible authority to say to that person, ‘That’s interesting, we’ve had two or three allegations against that particular group or person; why don’t we work to investigate further?’
“Perhaps people may want to reflect on why these groups want to rush to the media or anyone else before they speak to a responsible authority.
“This Bill aims to prevent further animal cruelty, rather than using these incidences for political or other purposes.
“If someone believed a group in their locality was dealing in drugs they’d report that information to the police.
“But what’s to stop them continuing to investigate and show concern to gather evidence and then present that evidence to someone who’s actually capable of stopping it?”
Senator Back has said the motives of many animal activists were clear from their own published statements; that they want to see the end of Australia’s livestock industries, with many opposing any form of animal production.