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Speech: Agricultural Protection Bill

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 11 Sep 2019

I rise to speak on the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019, which should really be called the 'ag gag bill'. Let's have no doubt that this is nothing but an 'ag gag bill'. The Greens will be opposing this bill because it is a terrible and unnecessary piece of legislation. You lot seem to have completely missed the fact that almost every state and territory already has trespass and incitement laws. On first reading, you can tell that this bill is just the government's embarrassing and poorly thought-out kneejerk reaction to a handful of incidents. But it's actually much worse than that. This is an antiprotest bill dressed up as protection. It takes us further down the road of a police state. It's just the latest bill in the long line of legislation aimed at protecting big agribusiness and corporations from scrutiny and transparency. It is designed to stop the public from using their democratic right to protest.

The ramifications of passing the bill are significant. It would apply to huge swathes of Australia. It would limit the right to protest and take nonviolent direct action, not only for animal protection but in the fight against climate-destroying coalmines and coal seam gas on agricultural land. Why else would this bill be so incredibly broad in its inclusion of any agricultural land? It includes any land, like fruit and vegetable farms or private native forestry. If this were about the so-called vegan activists, why would it include non-animal agricultural land? Anyone who thinks that this bill is about mum-and-dad farms has had the wool pulled over their eyes. This is a completely illiberal response which is inconsistent with the Australian public's right to free speech, freedom of information and freedom of the press. As such, it has significant implications for animals, consumers, the media and all members of the public.

I want to underscore that this bill is an attack not just on animal activists as foreshadowed by the minister but on all activism and on all rights to protest. It is a law that will apply to at least half, and probably more, of the vast land of our country. It will be applied equally to any activist group suppressing their democratic right to stand up, speak out and protest. Just think about all the coalmines and the coal seam gas operations located on agricultural land. Even when people protest to protect farmers who want to lock the gate on coal seam gas mining, they will be caught up in this. That's how much you care about mum-and-dad farmers.

This bill is also an attack on the media. It puts an extra burden on journalists, who will have to prove that their work is in the public interest or else risk being exposed to the serious penalties in this bill—up to five years in jail. This bill is the continued slow march to a police state. This bill is the antithesis of democracy. As my colleague Senator McKim has put it in this place, it is part of the slow march to fascism.

'Ag gag' legislation serves only to shield the commercial interests of intensive farming operations and stifle transparency about the standard practices on many factory farms. I say to the government that the world is changing. You are on the wrong side of history, and so is the Labor opposition. After Senator Watt put together a long list of all the problems with this bill, they're still going to vote for it. Animal welfare issues are now front and centre for the people of Australia. The government should be in the business of helping to improve animal welfare outcomes by working with industry to introduce better standards, not trying to avoid scrutiny and criminalising those who expose animal mistreatment. In the absence of any serious monitoring of animal welfare in factory farms by the government, animal activists have had to fill the void.

At the core of the government's confusion—and it is partly confusion—is their unwillingness to admit that there is a huge problem with animal welfare in this country. I simply could not believe the audacity of the agriculture minister, Bridget McKenzie, when she told ABC's Country Hour recently, 'We have a raft of measures in place to ensure animal welfare standards of the highest order in this country.' Senator, you're either dreaming or you're being wilfully ignorant. I was even more shocked when I tuned in to the Senate inquiry into this bill and the hearing with Mr Christopher Delforce of Aussie Farms. I was shocked by how ignorant coalition senators are of the reality of farmed agriculture. Senator McMahon insisted that livestock was not exempt from animal cruelty laws. But we know many model codes of practice exempt livestock. In my home state of New South Wales, to give just one example, livestock is exempted from the requirement to provide exercise to a confined animal—a provision which enables cruel battery cages and sow stalls.

As a country, we should be ashamed of what we allow to go on in animal agriculture. Of course many farms don't use these cruel practices but many still do, especially industrial factory farms. As a country, we allow procedures and practices that would never be allowed to be carried out on your family cat or dog without pain relief, such as dehorning and castration of cattle, debeaking of chickens, cutting the teeth of piglets and mulesing sheep. Someone can literally lock up chickens in cages for their whole lives and raise ducks who never see water. They can keep pigs in pens so small that the pigs can't even turn around. All of this is legal. It is not just me who thinks that our laws are inadequate and must change. The government commissioned a report called Australia's shifting mindset on farm animal welfare, conducted by Futureye, and the results were pretty amazing. Just 10 per cent of people think that our animal welfare standards are adequate. The other 90 per cent want to see change. More than 70 per cent of people think that farm animal welfare is a moderate or a serious issue, and more than 90 per cent of people think that cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens are sentient or somewhat sentient. Yet, the laws allow them to be subjected to abuse and mistreatment.

You are in denial if you think that there isn't an animal welfare crisis. Even inadequate animal cruelty laws are rarely enforced. We should be passing national animal cruelty laws that protect all animals, including farm animals, not the government's nonsense that we are debating today. We should be introducing mandatory CCTV in abattoirs, and banning battery cages and sow stalls, yet here we are. The laws that you are pushing through today are completely unnecessary and they are completely disproportionate—unnecessary because trespass and incitement are already offences and disproportionate because you would criminalise people who are concerned about animal welfare much more than a person committing the most violent and cruel abuse of animals. Imagine the most heinous, horrible and cruel things that someone could do to an animal, where an animal is killed or seriously injured by that cruelty. The absolute maximum prison term that monster would get in my home state of New South Wales is two years, but in this bill the government is saying that someone who puts up a Facebook event or sends a text message about potentially going onto agricultural land to rescue an animal from abuse could be sentenced to up to five years—much longer than the person who actually commits aggravated cruelty. What a horrible distortion of justice! If someone became aware of an animal suffering horrifically from cruelty and neglect and took action to rescue that animal, they would be penalised more than the person who committed the cruelty. How can that possibly be justified?

Daniel Brighton was recently jailed for stabbing a dog with a pitchfork at least six times, hanging it from a tree for 45 minutes and bashing it with a mallet about eight times. He then put the animal in a plastic bag and told an employee to dump it. The maximum penalties in this bill for trying to expose animal cruelty are 1½ times more than what this person got for extreme cruelty.

Don't give me this rubbish that animal welfare isn't in the federal government purview. Our advice clearly states that the Commonwealth has the power to create laws that can protect animals and agriculture. Currently, in most states and territories farm animals can legally be subjected to excruciating and painful procedures and this has to end.

We know that this bill is just part of the agenda of attacking animal welfare organisations. Just recently we saw false and defamatory cash-for-cruelty smears against Animals Australia perpetuated by this government and the Murdoch media. We know that this is happening hand in glove with the New South Wales government. Their new trespass fines, announced under New South Wales Biosecurity Regulation 2017, are an egregious betrayal of biosecurity principles and a politicisation of a very important issue.

When the Biosecurity Bill 2015 passed in New South Wales parliament, I and others pointed out that that was an 'ag gag bill'. At the time, the then Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair, said, 'the bill is not about farm trespass, it is not about animal welfare, other than as it relates directly to biosecurity risks, and it is definitely not ag gag legislation.' Yet, two years later the government is breaking its word. What a surprise.

This smear campaign against animal welfare organisations has been going on for some time. When I was in New South Wales parliament, I obtained a document summarising then agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce's comments to a national Farm Trespass Roundtable in 2015. That report did make for some very interesting reading. Joyce said, in reference to animal welfare laws: 'If laws are inadequate, there are open processes through the parliament to seek change to such laws.' This is the minister who oversaw the export of hundreds of Australian greyhounds to be raced to death in Macau and refused to stop it.

This is the minister who abolished the Australian animal welfare advisory committee, the only national forum that brought together industry, welfare groups and government to progress much needed reforms in Australia. He also defunded the Australian animal welfare strategy and the dismantling of the Department of Agriculture's animal welfare unit. It was under him that a national standard for free range eggs was established which set a stocking density seven times higher than the guidelines published by CSIRO in the Model Code of Practice. Is it any wonder, then, that the people don't trust this government when it has such indifference to animal suffering? Barnaby Joyce isn't alone. He and his actions were backed lock, stock, and barrel by this government.

The report goes on to say something even more interesting. It concludes: 'No law or regulatory intervention alone is likely to eliminate farm trespass completely.' It talks about lifting animal welfare standards and transparency, and none of that has transpired.

The summary of the presentation from Scott Hansen, director of the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, went on to the core of this issue and states:

The promotion of high farming standards, with greater openness and transparency surrounding the conditions in which animals are bred and raised, along with a concerted and community directed education and information effort, contribute to the social licence between the community and producers. Such transparency will lessen the incentive to 'reveal' alleged mistreatment by lawful businesses.

This is what this government should be doing.

This bill contains the aggravated offences for inciting someone to damage stock or commit theft. If you were honest and serious about rural crime you would be looking at the biggest issue in farm trespass. You know that the biggest issue is illegal hunting and pig-dogging, yet you don't see any resources or rushed legislation devoted to that issue. Associate Professor Elaine Barclay from the University of New South Wales surveyed more than 3,000 farmers across New South Wales and Queensland. She found incidents of trespassing and unauthorised hunting had doubled. She said the current pig hunting craze had produced offenders who were well equipped with off-road vehicles, GPS systems, and high-powered rifles. She said:

They are responsible for gates left open, damage to fences, crops and vegetation, vandalism, arson, littering, disturbing, stealing or shooting stock, having dogs that attack livestock, and the thefts of fuel, tools and equipment, tyres, lights or GPS equipment from farm machinery.

This is the thing that affects everyday farmers, which is being completely ignored by this government.

The 2016 NSW Stock Theft and Trespass Review conducted by the NSW government found that the main issues raised during consultations with land owners were stock theft, stock identification, rural trespass, especially by pig hunters and goat harvesters, and police response to rural crime incidents. The majority of these illegal hunting incidents involve the hunting of pigs with dogs. Why have you not once mentioned this issue? Because the only reason you have this bill is to go after animal welfare activists.

The simple reality is that the government has let big corporate agribusiness go on with no accountability and no transparency for far too long. Maximising their profits by using and abusing animals. The cruelty in the greyhound racing industry or the live export industry should have been uncovered by government agencies. Better yet, we should have strong laws to protect those animals. But, because this is sadly lacking, those who care for animals and have the courage to expose cruelty are forced to do so. This is why there is a need for a well-resourced independent office of animal welfare separate from primary industries, so that we can monitor, enforce and drive change in animal law and practice in Australia.

Just last month we saw footage released of cruelty to hens at a Victorian poultry farm, uncovered by Animal Liberation. In the vision, one worker pulls on a chicken's head, and is heard saying that it feels good, just after another says, 'I hate it when their heads come off.' Another worker can be seen picking up clucking chickens and banging them against a surface. Another animal is poked with a pole while flapping its wings trying to escape. This is just pure evil. It is sickening. And your response to that cruelty is to say how great our animal welfare laws are while passing these laws that would make criminals of those exposing cruelty. The truth is you just don't want anyone to see this. Ag gag laws are the wrong response. We should be embracing transparency not closing things up.

Ag gag laws passed in the United States are having disturbing impacts on freedom of speech, animal welfare and the reputation of the agricultural industry. Just recently, a federal court judge ruled that Idaho's ag gag laws banning secret filming of animal abuse at agricultural facilities are unconstitutional. Not many years ago, Animal Liberation NSW revealed severe acts of cruelty at the Hawkesbury Valley Meats processor through secretly recorded footage. In response, the NSW Food Authority conducted a full review of domestic slaughterhouses across our state. The meat processors in question eventually elected voluntarily to install surveillance cameras to improve transparency. Some policy progress has been made since then, but we need stronger regulation that is actually enforced. The Greens will not be party to the passing of laws that will silence protestors and jail animal welfare investigators and other activists. People have a right to know how their food is produced. As Will Potter, an American independent journalist and public speaker, says:

The reason that activists are a "threat" isn't that they are breaking windows. It's that they're creating them.

The Greens oppose the bill.

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