Colliding views on inquiry focus

By Jeanette Severs

FARMERS NEED to ask trespassers if they are animal rights activists. That was the facetious view of Andy Meddick MLC, a member of the panel committee conducting a public inquiry into the impact of animal rights activism on Victorian agriculture.

Mr Meddick is also a member of the Animal Justice Party and told Dairy News Australia his mission is to put an end to livestock agriculture. During the public hearing and in an exclusive interview, Mr Meddick disputed that people who are illegally on farms or in meat processing facilities are there with the intent to break the law.

Mr Meddick believes the inquiry is investigating not only “the role of animal activism on animal agriculture in Victoria … and trespass, but is also an inquiry into Victoria’s animal welfare laws and their adequacy”.

It was obvious from the tone of questions from some members of the panel committee that, like Mr Meddick, there is confusion about what they are investigating — far too many questions were asking farmers and processors to justify their animal welfare practices.

Whereas farmers and processors were trying to keep the focus on the fear and economic and biosecurity challenges that animal rights activists engender by trespassing on private property.

Mr Meddick made it clear his intent is shaped by his belief that Victorian agriculture is rampant with poor animal welfare practices and outcomes.

Mr Meddick is pushing for CCTV throughout meat processing buildings, in livestock feedlots and similar intensive infrastructure, and on farms. He wants industry standards to be legislated and the establishment of an independent office of animal welfare.

He and his fellow inquiry panel members need farmers to inform them of the animal welfare codes and practices they have to follow in order to produce food for domestic and global markets. But the issue is bigger than that — it is inherent on the agriculture industry to inform urbanised Australians about how their food is produced. That will give animal rights activists less traction for their agenda, to close the dairy and livestock industries.

According to the submission made to the inquiry by Agriculture Victoria, Victoria is Australia’s largest agricultural producer — with 25 per cent ($15 billion) of the nation’s gross agricultural production in 2017–18. Victoria is home to 25 per cent of Australia’s farms.

More than 70 per cent of Victoria’s farms are livestock-based — producing 60 per cent of Australia’s milk, 44 per cent and 18 per cent respectively of the nation’s lamb and beef meat. Victorian farms produce 53 per cent of the nation’s animal fibre exports and 47 per cent of Australia’s skins and hides exports. Victoria’s livestock industries are major employers in rural areas, with 52 000 people employed on farms and in processing businesses.

There are 21 licensed domestic abattoirs and 18 licensed export abattoirs in Victoria. In Gippsland, in a 100 km radius, there are 10 meat processors, many of which employ 150 to 400 people; thereby being a key employer in the region, creating thousands of jobs within and without the meat industry. There are three regulatory organisations whose employees practice the right to arrive unannounced to audit those meat processors.

However, Mr Meddick believes there is not enough legislation in place for regulating animal agriculture on farms and trucks and in feedlots, saleyards and abattoirs.

He believes and supports the submission from PETA that CCTV should be compulsory in meat processing facilities and on farms — “in all facilities where animals are raised and killed” — and he asked each witness at the two public inquiries in Gippsland if they also supported installing CCTV cameras.

Ron Paynter, a dairy farmer at Ellinbank, has spent many decades hosting tours on his farm from school and university students, overseas and local trade delegations and general visitors.

He has always ensured strict biosecurity processes were followed, providing footbaths for visitors’ shoes and keeping visitors to laneways and outside the perimeters of calf-raising facilities.

His empathy for other people extended to following a vegetarian diet when he hosted an exchange farm worker for three months; the worker was a practising Hindi. He has also hosted a person who identified themself as vegan and wanted to tour his farm. Mr Paynter made a submission to the inquiry and also spoke to Dairy News Australia.

“We’ve had thousands of people visit Paynter Farms. My point in making a submission was to emphasise our open gate policy. We need to be informing the moderate middle Australia about what modern agriculture is and why respect for food is incredibly important along the food supply chain — how that animal lives and why and how it dies,” he said.

“People should be making ethical decisions about eating meat and dairy products and wearing animal fibre. Even a vegan diet has environmental stewardship responsibilities and challenges.

“It’s quite scary that because of the internet, people are given a false understanding about agricultural industries. The level of polarisation from animal rights activists is quite extreme and they won’t engage in a dialogue with farmers because they believe farmers are their enemy.

“Ellinbank (the government’s key dairy research facility and next door to Paynter Farms) has cranked up its security and all it needs is activists to spread their trespass across our property to violate our biosecurity.

“We don’t know where they’ve been before they’ve come onto our property and what pathogens they are carrying on their shoes and boots. Farmers have a responsibility to the general public and our export markets to follow strict biosecurity protocols around producing food.

“Activists can have salmonella on their shoes from walking around an urban pond that has ducks and other wildlife. We don’t want that disease in our herds. When you have radical ideologues running around, the deliberate introduction of pathogens is a risk of bioterrorism to Australian agriculture.”

Mr Paynter ensured his staff and his family were aware of police advice, disseminated by the UDV at its annual conference (which he attended), about how to deal with trespassers.

“We were told to be non-confrontational, gather evidence by taking photos and recording these people, phone the police and keep staff safe,” Mr Paynter said.

“But where we work is where we live — this has increased our mental stress and that of our employees. Even the risk of activists surveilling your farm from outside your property is confronting, provoking and mentally stressful.”

Mr Meddick told Dairy News Australia that farmers cannot assume people who were illegally on their farms were animal rights activists. It was a line he also followed in his questioning of witnesses at the two inquiries.

“You need to ask them if they are animal rights activists,” Mr Meddick said to Dairy News Australia.

His argument is that anyone has the right to enter private premises and take animals because they are concerned about the welfare and health of those animals — that act did not make them animal rights activists. Mr Meddick’s passion is to close down animal agriculture in Victoria, although he expressed doubt that will occur in his lifetime.

Even while supporting animal rights activism, PETA Australia’s Paula Hough (vice president and deputy general counsel, Asia-Pacific), admits that animal rights activists who trespass are breaking the law and that farmers have a right to be safe in their homes (which are also generally their workplaces).

Ms Hough is concerned the inquiry will convert an “unreasonable fear into a reasonable one by working to ensure the public comes to understand animal rights activists as a tangible physical threat”, requiring specific categories of criminal offences and increased penalties.

“During the ‘Gippy Goat Farm Café Protest’, a tag was removed from the ear of a stolen goat in violation of section 9A(2) of the LDC. Although the monetary penalty for breaching this section is 60 penalty units, capped at the time at $9671.40, the protester received a $1 fine. Whilst the information is not publicly stated as a motive of this particular activist, the issue of tagging livestock is portrayed as cruelty by some animal welfare organisations,” the LIV’s submission states.