STRONGER trespass laws and greater protection of privacy from overflying drones were the two things farmers and livestock industry representatives said they wanted most last week to stop animal activists disrupting their lives.
About 100 farmers, livestock transport operators and industry group representatives attended the ‘Calm the Farm’ information evening at Harvey recreation centre last Thursday night.
They heard from Commander Allan Adams, WA Police and agribusiness lawyer Phil Brunner on their rights and on activists’ rights.
Dairy Australia’s stakeholder relations and issues manager Georgia Nicholls from Melbourne offered advice on ways to minimise the risk of farms being targeted by activist intruders.
National Farmers’ Federation chief executive officer Tony Mahar, by video link from Canberra, updated farmers on progress of negotiations with Google to get animal activist group Aussie Farms’ controversial online map of farm types and locations taken down.
The meeting was organised by WAFarmers’ dairy section president Michael Partridge and its general section Harvey zone president Phil Depiazzi in response to farmers’ concerns about their properties being listed on the Aussie Farms’ “attack map” and publicity-seeking activist activity.
The strong message back from those attending was that they considered activists akin to “terrorists” because of their actions which have included a night raid and live vision streaming from inside a Pinjarra piggery and attempting to stop stock transport vehicles by jumping in front of and onto them.
Activists have also confronted a farmer outside his farm and allegedly driven erratically in front of his tractor to provoke him and other farmers have reported seeing a vehicle they did not recognise on their property.
Several farmers believe drones have been flown over their properties to film them.
The meeting was closed to media, but according to some who were there, farmers were concerned they were being “unfairly” portrayed by vegan animal activists.
They were also concerned at the impact the confrontational and abusive approach employed by activists so far might have on their families and farm workers.
Thursday’s meeting was followed up on Friday with livestock and dairy industry representatives meeting with police command for the South West region.
Mr Depiazzi said “a pretty fair summary of the meeting” was a desire by farmers and others in the livestock industry to see trespass laws tightened and new laws controlling the use of drones, particularly in agricultural areas where they could scare or disturb stock.
“Drones are still relatively new technology and the legislation controlling the use of them is still some way behind what they (activists) are using them for now,” Mr Depiazzi said.
“Farmers who attended got some very good advice on what their rights are and what they can do if confronted by activists.
“Basically they are disappointed with the way they are being depicted by activists,” he said.
“What hurts is that farmers comply with all the rules and regulations that are there to ensure animal health and welfare, they do the right thing and they are proud of their animals and what they do, but the sensationalist actions of a very small number of activists makes them all out to be mistreating animals.
“You don’t work with livestock in the first place unless you want to see them healthy and happy,” Mr Depiazzi said.
Brunswick Junction’s Wedderburn Transport manager and Livestock and Rural Transport Association executive officer Mark Talbot, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said farmers and transport operators wanted laws strengthened and clarified.
“I think the message that came out of the meeting was that people want the trespass laws strengthened,” Mr Talbot said.
“They also want whatever laws that can be applied to be used to prevent activists running at trucks trying to stop them accessing facilities - that’s just dangerous - and climbing up the sides of the crates trying to film the stock inside.
“In that situation the stock really don’t need to be stirred up or frightened by people climbing up the sides.
“Coming onto somebody’s farm or a (processing) facility when they are not invited or welcome, or standing in front of trucks, denigrating farmers and drivers for what they do - attempting to disrupt lawful businesses – is a form of terrorism.
“The farmers and others involved with livestock at the meeting just want the laws and penalties to reflect that,” he said.
Mr Talbot said the operation of drones over farms and stock processing facilities was another area of concern where laws and responsibilities for enforcing them needed to be clarified.
“There needs to be an education program about the operation of drones and when an offence is committed, what is required as proof and how it can be better policed,” he said.
“(One of my drivers) has had a drone flying within about five or six metres of him – it’s not supposed to come within 30 metres – while he was unloading stock.
“He (driver) said if he had a stick in his hand he could have brought it down.
“But if he did that then he could be the one in trouble.
“That message came through loud and clear – keep a cool head, stop and think if you are being provoked by activists,” Mr Talbot said.
The Nationals WA agriculture spokesperson Colin de Grussa also attended and agreed farmers wanted stronger laws.
It was explained to the meeting there was still an onus on farmers under existing laws to inform animal activists trespassing on their property that they had no right to be there, Mr de Grussa pointed out.
“They (farmers) have to revoke their (activists’) right to be on their property,” Mr de Grussa said.
His party has called on the State government to review trespass laws and ensure regional police are adequately equipped and resourced to respond “to the spike in intimidating activist behaviour”.
“We need to ensure our laws are strong enough to stop this sort of extremism, but still allow people to raise awareness in a way that doesn’t put fear into ordinary people who are just doing their lawful job,” he said.
Another area where the State government may be able to help, Mr de Grussa said, was in relation to privacy aspects of drone flying.
While acknowledging drones were regulated by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and came under Federal government jurisdiction for control and penalties for inappropriate operation, Mr de Grussa said there might also be scope for State government intervention through a review of surveillance laws in relation to the use of drones.
“The New South Wales Parliament looked at this last year and made a number of recommendations and I think we could learn from them,” he said.
CASA has two sets of rules for drones, one for “recreational” operators and one for “commercial” operators.
The recreational rules prohibit flying a drone within 30 metres of people or above people where activities are taking place but make no mention of farm animals and are clearly aimed at stopping drones being flown over crowds at community or sporting events.
Drones can only be flown in daylight and when the operator has unassisted line-of-sight visual control.
CASA’s rules require drone operators to not fly them “in a way that creates a hazard to another aircraft, person or property”.
Its rules also require drone operators to “respect personal privacy, don’t record or photograph people without their consent – this may breach state laws”.
“In reality, what the rules mean at the moment is that they (activists) can fly a drone over a farm and film or take pictures of everything underneath it,” Mr de Grussa said.
“What they can’t do is come down low and look into sheds.”
A lot of clarification was needed in relation to existing drone legislation, he said.
“How do you identify a drone and who is flying it, for example, to lodge a complaint to CASA about illegal flying?
“It is quite obvious they (vegan activists who have confronted farmers and attempted to stop stock trucks arriving at Harvey Beef) have received professional legal advice.
“We know they have been using drones but that footage hasn’t surfaced yet.
“Why? Probably because it shows illegal flying and the people who took it have been warned they risk prosecution if they do show it and, because it’s CASA, the penalties could be substantial.
“If a farmer happens to bring one (drone) down on his property, what happens to him, does CASA view it the same as causing a light plane or helicopter to crash?” Mr de Grussa said.
The Nationals WA have presented a petition to parliament calling on the government to investigate tougher penalties for rural crime to better protect landholders against theft or damage to livestock or property, trespassing and hunting or fishing on private land without permission.
They have also suggested the police stock squad, disbanded in 2008, be reformed.