VOICELESS has praised the defeat of proposed farm raid legislation in South Australia as a win for animal protection and media reporting.
But federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says the use of video images that only tell one-sided stories about livestock production can still cause “immense damage” to the industry and demand greater scrutiny.
In an opinion article for Fairfax Media, Voiceless communications head Elise Burgess said the Surveillance Devices Bill sought to criminalise the public release of information collected through the use of surveillance devices.
The SA legislation carried a maximum penalty of $75,000 for a corporation and $15,000 or imprisonment for three years for individuals.
“This bill would have had a significant impact on how the media reports on matters of public interest, including the treatment of animals in factory farms,” she wrote.
“Thankfully, on this occasion, cooler heads have prevailed with The Greens, Dignity for Disability, the Xenophon Group and the Liberal Party all voting the bill down.
“This is a win for consumer advocacy, workers' rights, freedom of the press and, of course, animal protection.”
Ms Burgess said while it was heartening to see SA legislators respond to “an immense public outcry” by voting against the so called ag-gag laws, “the debate is far from over”.
“NSW Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson and Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh have called for legislation to target animal activists in their respective states, a move supported by Federal Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce,” she said.
“Western Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back, a former vet and long-time advocate for tough laws targeting animal activists, has also announced plans to put forward ag-gag laws at a federal level.
“Given the secrecy within which animal industries operate, these moves represent a co-ordinated attack on the public's right to question the status quo and to ask questions about how millions of sentient creatures are treated in Australia every day.
“Greater transparency in animal production is needed, as increased public awareness has the potential to bring about real change and industry improvement.
“Shutting down the free flow of information, stifling debate and protecting industry from public scrutiny is not the way forward,” she said.
“Instead, open dialogue and transparency is needed - that is the future of this debate, not closed doors.”
Barnaby Joyce responds
Asked about the SA parliament’s response to the proposed laws, Mr Joyce said the police force and RSPCA were already empowered with the authority to investigate wrongdoing.
He said it wasn’t right for individuals to deem they have the right to come into a farm-shed or property and surreptitiously hide a camera to film activities.
“What right do people have to say: ‘I’m just going to come into your life and start filming you’?” he said.
“There is a process of law; we either believe in the law or we don’t, and if we believe in the law, let the people who have that authority, the RSPCA and the police, follow it.”
Mr Joyce said he’d prefer not to impose any federal laws to curtail animal activists trespassing on-farm to conduct covert filming and would prefer to work with States.
“I think everybody can understand that when somebody shows you a form of footage that they’ve selected on their own discussion, from gosh knows how much footage they have, that they’re just showing you their side of the story,” he said.
“As journalists know better than everybody else - go out and get the other half before you blindly report on it.
“(But) what they (animal activists) want to do is put it on YouTube and say because it’s on YouTube it’s the truth.”
However, Mr Joyce said publishing such video footage on YouTube can also cause immense damage to the livestock industry and people who are part of it.
He said it also sends a misleading message back to city-based consumers that livestock producers, or family farmers, “are somehow barbarians”.
“But they’re not; they’re people actually at work,” he said.
Call for 'ag-gag' laws
The call to introduce farm raid laws in Australia, similar to US styled 'ag-gag' laws, has been ignited by escalating on-farm trespass by animal rights activists in recent times, intent on ending meat consumption rather than purely improving animal welfare standards.
Mr Joyce said many farmers are saying they feel “under siege” with people breaking into their business in the middle of the night and disturbing it.
But he said some of those businesses, such as big egg producers, are quarantine areas where diseases are unwanted.
“Someone just making up their own arrangements and wandering around (in a quarantine area) is just not fair and it’s just not right, and it’s the same with pig producers, they have a worse effect, just unnaturally stirring animals up,” he said.
“If people believe there is a crime being committed or something is going wrong you have a proper process, it’s called the RSPCA (and) it’s called the police force.
“They have the authority to do it and if we start giving countenance to someone who takes it on their own behalf to be a vigilante crusader, what are we going to do when the next lot of vigilante crusaders stand up and say ‘well I’ve got a problem with certain doctors so I’m going to go and secretly film them and I’ve got a problem with certain things that might happen in other office spaces so I’m going to secretly film there?’
“They all believe that they are endowed by a higher authority to go out and do it, but it’s the rule of the land that says look: ‘it doesn’t matter who you think you’re endowed by, you follow the law’.”