The Liberal senator and veterinarian has tabled a bill in Parliament which, if passed, would require people with images or footage of animal cruelty to hand it to authorities within a day of receiving it.
It also seeks to increase penalties against people who intimidate, threaten or attack people associated with operating a lawful animal enterprise, and would prohibit trespassing onto or vandalism of such enterprises.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport legislation committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the proposed legislative changes, and more than 400 submissions have now been published onto the committee inquiry’s website.
The vast majority of published submissions are from individuals who oppose the bill. Many of these submissions follow a nearly identical format, containing just 50 to 100 words in total.
Several submission writers said they were motivated to act by the recent advertisement placed by animal rights groups in the Australian newspaper urging public opposition to Senator Back’s legislation.
An underlying theme of most opposing submissions is that animals in agricultural enterprises are being mistreated and laws requiring mandatory immediate reporting of animal cruelty footage and stronger penalties for trespass only serve to protect people who abuse them.
Many submissions describe the proposed legislation as “Ag Gag” laws, a term Senator Chris Back vehemently rejects (more on this below).
Selected quotes that give a sense of the content and tone of many opposing submissions include:
- “This is a misguided attempt to silence investigations”;
- “(this) criminalises those who reveal the abhorrent cruelty”;
- “the clear intent (of this legislation) is to protect industries practicing animal cruelty from public exposure”;
- “(this is) is intended to gag those whose intent it is to highlight gross abuses of animal cruelty through the accumulation of evidence”;
- “(this) would hinder brave and committed animal activists from shining a light on despicable acts of animal cruelty”;
- “(this) would allow people guilty of cruelty to be let off for insufficient evidence”;
- “Unauthorised entry is justified when individuals have reason to believe illegal practices or breaches of accepted standards are occurring”;
- “I have little faith in most farmers and people who choose to make money from animals” and
- “Basic common sense will tell you nobody can build a case against such horrid practices if any evidence gathered must be turned over in 24 hours”.
Opposing submissions have also been lodged by several animal welfare and rights groups (ie the RSPCA, Animals Australia, PETA Australia, Animal Liberation) as well as the Law Council of Australia, the Law Institute of Victoria and the Law Society of South Australia. The Law institute of Victoria says the provisions of the bill “unreasonably and unjustifiably curb the human rights of journalists and animal activists to exercise their rights to freedom of expression”, while the Law Council of Australia says the bill produces a number of anomalies and unintended consequences, and “does not sufficiently demonstrate the necessity of legislating the key offences”.
Submissions which support the bill have been lodged by individuals, farmers and numerous agricultural sector groups such as the National Farmers Federation, the Cattle Council of Australia, the Sheepmeats Council of Australia, Livestock SA, Australian Dairy Farmers and Australian Chicken Growers.
Where opposing submissions typically work from a base position that animal abuse is commonplace in animal agriculture, farmers in their submissions make the point that good animal welfare goes hand in hand with good business and profitable farm enterprises.
‘The first lesson a farmer learns is that welfare of farm animals underpins the whole successful production cycle…’
“The first lesson a farmer learns at a young age is that while farming is a business, it is the health and welfare of the farm animals that underpins the whole successful production cycle,” one farmer wrote.
Supporters of the bill emphasise the point that trespass is illegal and no individual or organisation should take the law into their own hands.
Nor should any lawful enterprise be subjected to harassment, threats or vandalism, supporters of the bill maintain.
A western Queensland cattle producer wrote of receiving abusive phone calls and death threats in the wake of the June 2011 live export controversy.
“I am a beef producer. My home is my work place. I have been at the receiving end of abusive telephone calls and social media attacks because of my business. One such phone call, it was suggested that my own throat and that of my daughters should have been slit and our heads smashed on concrete instead of the cattle abused in Indonesia which was highlighted in the ABC A Bloody Business. The man from Victoria did not identify himself, but took it upon himself to judge me without knowing me, because I stood up for my industry, He felt it his right to state that my daughter and myself should be inflicted with pain and suffering because he was emotionally driven by horrific sense of abuse on a TV program.”
The Australian Chicken Growers referred to instances where animals had been released during raids which led “to aggression between dominant animals and resulted in the animals having to be destroyed”.
Another submission said farmers were being vilified while animal groups were “merely looking to stockpile cases of cruelty simply for greater media and shock value”.
A common theme of many supporting submissions surrounded the biosecurity risk posed by unlawful farm entries.
For example the Australian Lot Feeders Association suggests that the bill be strengthened to include breaches of farm biosecurity standards that result from unauthorized property access. “The importance of farm biosecurity standards cannot be understated, particularly given that the close proximity of animals in a feedlot results in a higher risk of disease spread,” the ALFA submission states.
The Australia Veterinary Association made the point that people should report cruelty as soon practically possibly, but said the time frame in Senator Back’s bill was “too limited and restricted”.
The AVA’s submission recommends greater investment and resourcing of animal welfare enforcement agencies, increased investigative powers and strengthening of existing animal welfare legislation.
“This will reduce the need for covert and illegal tactics to uncovered malicious cruelty,” the association states.
It also calls for the Animal welfare strategy, or an equivalent program, to be reinstated to promote sustainable improvements in animal welfare across all animal use sectors and to coordinate animal welfare improvements.
Back rejects “Ag-Gag” tag
Addressing the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association conference in Darwin last Friday, Senator Back said the proposed legislation had sparked vitriol and attacks on him personally.
He said his bill was “simply to do with protecting animals”.
“If someone sees and films malicious cruelty to an animal, they are obliged to go and tell the responsibility authority and produce the image.
“Nothing else stops them, they can keep to doing it, they can go to the media, they can go to parliament, they can go to Aunty Maud, they can work with that responsible authority and if they think it is sustained they can keep going.
He said also rejected the mainstream media’s widespread use of the term “Ag-Gag” laws to describe his bill.
“People call them ag-gag laws. How the hell something is gagging someone when it actually requires you to report cruelty is beyond me.”
He said past actions by animal activists who illegally entered legitimate farming businesses made it essential to have stronger laws to protect people, property and animals on those farms.
He cited one example last where activists broke into a feedlot in WA and cut off the water supply to the animals and then cut the hydraulic supply lines beneath trucks and trailers.
“Anyone who breaks in and puts those animals at tremendous risk will find themselves in default under this legislation,” he said. “Perhaps that is why I’m getting such a huge amount of criticism.”
It was also essential to protect these operations from biosecurity risk. A Foot and Mouth disease outbreak across Australia’s agriculture sector would cost Australia an $50 billion a year, he said.