Ag-gag bill defeated

Ag-gag bill defeated

On 16 October 2019 the Victorian Parliament voted on an ag-gag bill, which was introduced by another member of the crossbench.

And despite less-enlightened parliaments across the country introducing these laws, the bill was defeated.

I took the opportunity to speak against it and tell my colleagues exactly why whistleblowers are compelled to do the work they do.

Here is my speech:

Thank you President and I must say, this feels like deja vu. Only months ago, I rose to speak on this very issue and we came to a resolution of an inquiry with amended terms that would also consider our animal welfare laws. But once again we’re here talking about the issue that isn’t the one that needs addressing. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: if we addressed routine animal cruelty, there would not even be a need for this debate to take place.


My colleague noted in his second reading speech that there is a parliamentary inquiry into animal activism, which is still taking place. Indeed, it has seen many days of hearings throughout Victoria and in this place, from farmers, industry groups and from animal activists themselves. There have also been field trips to places like saleyards and animal sanctuaries. There were a total of 489 submissions, from all kinds of people and groups representing a broad spectrum of civil society in Victoria. 64% of these submissions supported the rights of whistleblowers to expose animal abuse. Every angle has been explored and there have been many interesting questions from the members who seek out a sensible way to address the various concerns raised in the Terms of Reference.


If my colleague has a genuine interest in this debate he could have involved himself in this inquiry, as I have, and heard these arguments to inform himself. Instead of doing that work, he has instead pre-judged the matter and seeks to preempt the result with a bill to target the whistleblowers. They say that if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I guess if your only job is to advocate for guns, everything looks like a target.


My colleague has, without looking at the evidence, decided on a solution that creates two classes of people in Victoria; normal people, including thieves, vandals and industrial spies, and animal activists, who are to be targeted with much increased penalties and mandatory jail time; removing the role from the judges and replacing it with his great and unmatched wisdom. 


We have heard opinion that this division is not just a bad idea, but possibly unconstitutional, from no less than the Law Institute of Victoria, and a retired judge from the High Court of Australia. Instead of taking their view into consideration, we are being asked to rely on the jurisprudence of my colleague and his own prejudiced view of the situation. 


We heard at the inquiry into animal activism, at other inquiries interstate, and I am aware of recent cases in Victoria, of farmers terrorised by trespassers. But not by animal activists. Bands of men roving around, with guns, killing animals seeking shelter on their property, by shooting or by setting packs of dogs on them, and unresponsive, or worse, belligerent and threatening when the property owner seeks to intervene. 


This would NOT be covered by this legislation, this is apparently a normal, non-aggravated trespass. Nothing to see here.


But he wishes to pass a bill that would provide minimum mandatory jail time for somebody who, concerned with the well-being of an animal, or seeing cruelty inflicted, photographs it and sends it to the authorities?


The second reading for this bill specifically mentions the theft of “a couple of goats from a country cafe” as sparking his intervention. Indeed, the proprietor of this business has become the “poster-boy” for the inquiry. 


This is the same guy, owner of the largest dairy farm in Australia who also runs a huge dairy herd in New Zealand, whose property had dead and dying goats strewn around; whose previous staff testify they are still traumatised by their experiences there. This is the same facility where footage recently emerged of workers killing baby goats by the trailer load and casually throwing their dead bodies in the bin. The same guy that when footage emerged in September of sick and dying goats on his property, lied about it to the Weekly Times and suggested it was something that happened 6 years ago and was associated with a disease outbreak. It wasn’t. It was footage taken this year. 


This is the same guy who, when asked at the inquiry into animal activism about the slaughter of baby animals, deflected and dissembled, and finally now says it was “according to best practice”.


In the inquiry into animal activism ongoing, a number of key themes emerged, with support across the board, including some activists, farmers, businesses, community and industry groups.


These include the radical notion that we should try and systematically reduce animal suffering, rather than trying to punish whistleblowers who expose it. 


I want to thank Ms Bath for giving us the opportunity to have this inquiry, which has thrown open to us all the evidence of the cruelty at the heart of this industry.


For example, the CEO of the Australian Meat Industry Council spoke against animal activists but acknowledged “…we need to be very clear and transparent on how we manage livestock”. “We are going to be the number one supporter of bringing in “, “a national animal welfare strategy”.  “If we fail our social licence as an industry…then that is on us”.


So here we have the industry itself, certainly experts on their own concerns, suggesting greater transparency and improved animal welfare…something that my colleague seems unwilling to countenance.


We had farmers explaining their problem with animal activists but conceding that “I do not deny that within the animal industry there are people who are cruel to their animals, and they are not very hard to find. You know, there are lots of reports. But that cruelty, and the administration of the regulations to overcome that cruelty people seem to turn a blind eye to. So I think the regulations are there but they are not being administered.”


So we see farmers acknowledging that cruelty is going unstopped. 


I say that going to the heart of the matter, addressing that underlying problem is surely the first option. 


Everybody in this chamber knows what I think: So let me tell you what experts are saying.


In 2016, a Productivity Commission report suggested that the current process for setting standards for farm animal welfare does not adequately value the benefits of animal welfare to the community. It suggested the process for setting standards would be improved through the creation of a statutory agency responsible for developing national farm animal welfare standards using rigorous science and evidence of community values for farm animal welfare. It warned that instances of animal activism will continue to rise unless something is done in the industry to reflect community values and restore trust. But instead of listening to this advice – there are people in this chamber who would prefer to silence those who blow the whistle on animal cruelty.


A report from this year from the federal government’s own department titled Australia’s Shifting Mindset on Animal Welfare suggests it’s the majority of Australians who care about animal welfare. The report found that 95% of respondents viewed farm animal welfare with concern and 91% wanted reform to address it.


In the same way that conservative politicians ignore climate science, I shouldn’t be surprised that they are not taking the advice from experts on this topic too. There is, once again, a refusal to make evidence-based decisions, instead resorting to dog-whistle politics. Shame on them.


And have you ever stopped to wonder what these activists are actually protesting? You could be forgiven for not knowing, because the industry has worked so hard to hide it – and are now, pushing back against those who have caused them to come undone.


Our very own parliamentary inquiry sat through footage of day old chicks being macerated in what is essentially, a large blender. Pigs being slowly and painfully gassed – thrashing in pain so badly that some even pull their own hooves off in the struggle. Ducks being put through electric baths, bobby calves taken from their mothers and killed so that humans can have the milk that was produced for them. And as said above, we’ve seen trailer-loads of baby goats, only hours old, killed by a blow or a bolt to the head on the very farm owned by the poster-boy of this movement.


NONE of this illegal. ALL of it is routine, legal practice in Australian farming. And at the height of hypocrisy – it would be illegal if we did it to our cats and dogs.


I, and everybody else here I am sure, are concerned to provide livelihoods to people on the land. I know my ideal scenario won’t be achieved any time soon. I am pragmatic and realistic and I am confident that the full process of parliament and the inquiry currently underway will recommend approaches that take the interests of all stakeholders into account, including of course, the animals themselves.


The tide is turning, whether my colleagues in this chamber like it or not. 2.5 million Australians now identify as vegan or vegetarian. This is up from 2.1 million last year and 1.7 million in 2012. 1 person in Australia decides to eat less meat or go meat-free every 5 minutes.


The writing is on the wall in relation to how Australians feel about animal cruelty. Those inflicting it can choose to adapt, in which, I have said before, I would be more than happy to help them do. Or they can be left behind. But the veil has well and truly been lifted on the everyday, routine violence that animals endure to end up on our plates.


Farmers and shooters can threaten, and actually carry out, violence against whistleblowers, and in some less-enlightened parliaments, pass draconian ag-gag laws, but brutality and unjust laws will not defeat us.