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As federal and state governments impose tougher laws to deter animal activists from trespassing on farms, there is growing concern that journalists and whistleblowers will be unable to report on unethical farming practices. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Farm activists face tougher laws

Protesters occupying a slaughterhouse.
Credit: Aussie Farms

Tom Hanrahan and his family run a dairy and chicken farm two hours south-east of Melbourne.

He claims recent protests by animal rights activists have seen an increase in mental health issues experienced by farmers who are stressed about potential protests on their properties.

Hanrahan says it has affected his own mother’s wellbeing. “My mother has elected to stay in Melbourne when she is faced with being home by herself, out of fear.” He says she feels unsafe in her own home.

“This has gone too far, and it is time for protections to be put in place and enforced to protect those who provide food and fibre for this country,” says Hanrahan.

Hanrahan’s story is one of dozens of submissions to the Victorian parliamentary inquiry considering the impact animal rights activists are having on the state’s agricultural industry.

Most submissions are from farmers, by turn frustrated and fearful about activists protesting on their properties. Many name-check Gippy Goat Cafe in Victoria, and the $1 fine handed down to an animal activist in March this year after she and two others removed goats from the cafe’s property in Gippsland. She was also ordered to pay $250 compensation, while the other two activists were placed on six-month good-behaviour bonds.

“[The activists] were given ridiculous fines which could be interpreted as the court’s support to go forth and trespass and steal,” wrote Vanessa Wells. Others suggest that activists pose a biosecurity threat.

The inquiry, set up in June, is also evaluating the effectiveness of the state’s laws to prevent and deter activities by protesters on farms.

Andy Meddick is an MP with the Animal Justice Party in Victoria and sits on the committee heading up this inquiry. He believes the inquiry will help the public understand what is driving animal rights activists to protest.

“People don’t protest … [or] go and plant cameras in a place just because. They’re doing it because they feel the authorities who the [animal] cruelty is being reported to are doing nothing,” says Meddick. “They want the broader public to know about what is going on.”

A handful of animal activists have also made submissions to the inquiry, with some suggesting cameras should be installed at farms by the government – to make the agriculture industry more transparent and remove the need for protesters to trespass on properties in order to install those cameras covertly.

 

The Victorian inquiry is part of a series of responses being undertaken by state, territory and federal governments to address the spate of animal rights protests across the country in the past 18 months. These have seen activists invade farms and chain themselves to equipment and, in some instances, release animals from what they claim are inhumane environments.

On Monday, the New South Wales government announced it would impose tougher penalties on activists who trespass on farms.

These include $1000 on-the-spot fines and potential jail time, with individuals facing further fines of up to $220,000. Corporations can be fined up to $400,000.

The NSW agriculture minister, Adam Marshall, said the laws would come into effect on August 1, adding that the state was “putting these vigilantes and thugs on notice”. Deputy Premier John Barilaro branded animal activists “domestic terrorists”.

“NSW will have the toughest laws anywhere in Australia for people that illegally trespass onto farmers’ properties,” said Marshall.

In April, Queensland moved to tighten penalties as well. It was announced that police and Agriculture Department officers would be given the power to issue on-the-spot fines, which the Palaszczuk government said would be faster than pursuing trespass charges.

In addition, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Queensland Police Service intelligence unit will form a joint taskforce on animal activism.

At the federal level, the Morrison government has been putting pressure on the states and territories to do more.

Speaking on ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast this week, the federal minister for drought and water resources, David Littleproud, accused the states of doing little to stop activists invading farms.

“Sadly, our state governments have done bugger-all. The reality is that if you and I and a hundred of our best mates stormed a house … in Canberra with our cameras going, we’d be in cuffs and in the clink within 30 minutes. That right should be afforded to those people,” said Littleproud.

Earlier this month, the federal government introduced new legislation into parliament aimed at cracking down on animal rights activists who use a carriage service – such as social media or websites – to incite protests.

The bill amends the Criminal Code Act 1995 by introducing two new offences in relation to the incitement of trespass or property offences on agricultural land.

Under the proposed laws, animal rights activists could be imprisoned for up to five years for publishing material that incites others to trespass or engage in property damage or theft on farms.

Attorney-General Christian Porter says the government hopes these laws will act as a deterrent.

“Recently and sadly, we have seen a number of incidents of trespass on agricultural properties and businesses. Farmers are, of course, a vital part of the Australian community. They deserve to go about their business free from harassment and threats of harm,” he told federal parliament.

Porter added that the conduct was “enabled and encouraged by the sharing of personal information online, including personal details of farmers’ names, addresses and workplaces”.

The laws build on earlier action by the federal government, which saw the controversial Aussie Farms website prescribed in April as an organisation regulated under the Privacy Act 1988. As a result, Aussie Farms now faces potential penalties of up to $2.1 million if it is found to breach the Privacy Act.

The move came after the animal rights group published a map containing information about Australian farmers, including their names and addresses. Many link the publishing of this map to a rise in the number of clashes between farmers and activists.

Fiona Simson, president of the National Farmers’ Federation, the peak body representing farmers across Australia, claims there has been a surge in what she describes as “anti-farm” activism. In a statement, she welcomed the tough measures.

“The NFF supports the right of individuals to engage in lawful and respectful protest,” said Simson. “Unfortunately, many anti-farming activists have chosen to express their views by trespassing, harassing and putting at risk the safety of farming families, their workers and their livestock.”

Labor, for its part, supports the objectives of the bill but questions whether it increases protections for farmers.

On RN Breakfast this week, the shadow agriculture minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, said there are potential “unintended consequences” that could target journalists and whistleblowers, as well as farmers who are part of the Lock the Gate movement opposing coal seam gas.

“If Channel Nine runs a video on its website and the story somehow inadvertently incites a trespass, are they exempt? Under this bill, they are not,” said Fitzgibbon.

Andy Meddick from the Animal Justice Party agrees.

“We already have trespass laws in this country that allow for prosecution of people that break the law,” he says.

Meddick has likened the bill to so-called “agricultural gag laws” that have been introduced in the United States. These “ag-gag” laws criminalise undercover investigations that reveal abuses on farms.

“Even the press, people like you, where you hear of animal cruelty in a farm, you will be prevented from reporting that. They haven’t talked about that yet, but this is where that legislation leads to because it’s exactly what they did in the United States,” says Meddick.

Several states in the US have passed these ag-gag laws, many after graphic footage was released by animal activists showing mistreatment of animals on farms. However, there’s been recent pushback – with bills defeated in 15 states and ruled unconstitutional in three others.

Christian Porter says the Morrison government’s bill will have “appropriate exemptions” for journalists and whistleblowers.

“For journalists, the offences would not apply to material relating to a news or current affairs report, where made by a journalist in the public interest in their professional capacity,” he told parliament. “… The bill would provide an exemption for a journalist acting in their professional capacity who publishes a story that listed the locations of farms with ‘questionable’ farming practices, [even if] activists use that information for future trespasses.”

But Porter says exemptions won’t protect journalists who suggest activists should use the information to carry out trespass.

“For whistleblowers,” he adds, “the exemption would apply in any circumstances where a law of the Commonwealth, or of a state or territory, provides that they would not be subject to any civil or criminal liability for the conduct.”

Aussie Farms has described the measures as a “smokescreen”. In a statement, the group’s executive director, Chris Delforce, claims there haven’t been any recorded biosecurity incidents on properties invaded by protesters.

“Clearly, these protest actions are being used as a smokescreen to stem the tide of footage and photographs which have been, for many years, a source of great embarrassment and reputation damage for industries that engage in commercialised animal cruelty,” says Delforce. “Were these industries transparent and honest about what happens inside these facilities, there’d be no need for anyone to take it upon themselves to capture evidence of it.”

Victoria’s inquiry will not report back until November, with submissions open until August 2. While the debate continues, the federal government’s laws are expected to pass the lower house in the coming weeks.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 27, 2019 as "Farmers’ strife". Subscribe here.

Santilla Chingaipe
is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.