Farmers urged to give voice to inquiry

By Jeanette Severs

FARMERS CAN still make submissions to the Inquiry into Impact of Animal Rights Activism on Victorian agriculture, which began hearing verbal evidence at the first panel sittings, held at Bairnsdale on Tuesday, August 20 and at Warragul the following day.

That was the message to Dairy News Australia’s readers from panel chairman Nazih Elasmar MLC, and secretary of the Economy and Infrastructure Committee Patrick O’Brien. Mr O’Brien encouraged people to contact him by email at to indicate they would like to be heard before the inquiry panel.

Mr Elasmar said although the formal date for submissions had passed (August 2), the panel would continue to accept written submissions and invited people to inquire about presenting their view verbally to the panel. There will be several public and some closed opportunities to provide verbal evidence, over the next couple of months. The inquiry panel is expected to report to government in February.

The inquiry is the result of a parliamentary representation from The Nationals Melina Bath, . Ms Bath questions why farmers need to be educated about dealing with activists when the question should be, how the wider community deals with activists so they do not impact on agriculture.

In a statement, the Victorian Farmers Federation has claimed animal rights activists and their supporters authored hundreds of submissions to the inquiry. Other submissions have been authored by farmers, meat processors, truck drivers, livestock saleyards agents, feedlot operators and representative bodies including Law Institute of Victoria, the VFF and UDV, Agriculture Victoria, Australian Meat Industry Council, Australian Dairy Famers and Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Among the invited spokespeople presenting evidence and talking about their personal experience at Bairnsdale and Warragul were farmers from across Gippsland and as far afield as Avoca. Themes already emerging were across biosecurity, personal fear of trespass and, strangely for an inquiry focused on investigating activism, farmers were being expected to justify their animal welfare practices.

Panel member and Animal Justice Party elected representative Andy Meddick, , disputed that animal rights activism and farm invasions were widespread and suggested farmers ask people who trespass on their properties if they are activists.

However, Agriculture Victoria has collated the number of recent instances reported to Victoria Police and submitted that information to the panel.

“In recent years, animal rights activists’ actions have included blockades, trespass, undercover employment and covert surveillance,” the AgVic submission states.

Of 1485 complaints about animal welfare practices on farms recorded in 2017–18 by AgVic, only two were prosecuted. From May 2018 to May 2019, 11 instances of protest and 11 instances of trespass related to animal rights activism were recorded by Victoria Police. These included blockades at several meat processor plants close by Melbourne in April this year, during a mass mobilisation of animal rights activists.

One meat processor that was targeted had to bring in police after animal rights activists chained themselves to parts of the manufacturing plant, causing the plant to close down and affecting biosecurity protocols as well as worker safety. Another meat processor, who asked for anonymity, was forewarned that animal rights activists would target his business. He phoned police and three vehicles with officers patrolled his plant for the full day. He also employed private security to allay employees concerns.

“There was a real risk of animal welfare and worker safety being affected,” he told Dairy News Australia.

“We have a unionised workforce and the union is very careful about protecting the workers. If we had to close down because of animal rights activism, our export orders would be affected — and consequently Australia’s reputation for safe food.”

The inquiry panel members will hear verbal submissions during the next two months at Warrnambool, Horsham, Wangaratta, Wodonga and Melbourne.

The inquiry panel was invited to Bairnsdale, in East Gippsland, by local member and National Party MP Tim Bull.

Nationals MP, Melina Bath, who instigated the inquiry in an effort to protect farmers and gauge the effectiveness of existing legislation, told Dairy News Australia she was concerned that some witnesses required closed presentations, in real fear of reprisals from animal rights activists.

That was evident in the verbal submissions heard by this journalist. Time and again witnesses stated their real fear of invasion by animal rights activists — their farms being their homes.

Meg Parkinson from Fish Creek described her disturbing encounter with two people who climbed a fence to invade her property and said they wanted to take animals away with them.

John Buxton, Stratford, who detailed his extensive animal welfare practices and property responsibilities to the inquiry panel, said “animal rights activists’ attacks on farms and meat processing plants affect everyone going about their peaceful lives — and the government should be reliable for protecting everyone. Animal rights activists invading the farm should be prosecuted to the full law.

“The legislative body has a responsibility to maintain a peaceful, harmonious society,” he said.

He said he used the best scientific advice and seeks input from animal nutritionists to ensure his “animals have the very best chance of a good life”.

Chris Nixon, a dairy farmer at Bete Bolong, described how animals, like humans, have people they like and dislike.

“Activist invasions on farms do not help animals. Invading farms frightens and alarms animals and rapidly escalates the risk of harm and injury to animals and people,” Mr Nixon said.

“Our animal welfare programs are based on their safety and health. When we muster our animals to do health checks, we then leave them alone for three days so they can settle down after the stress of that interaction.”

Mr Nixon detailed the impact of biosecurity contraventions and referred to government and industry investment in public surveillance and awareness campaigns to reduce the risk of diseases on farms. Every farmer contributes to that education and surveillance through the commodity levies they pay.

Mr Nixon referred to the impact of African Swine Fever already reducing global protein sources by 10 per cent and that it has been identified at airports because of the mobility of people who wilfully ignore biosecurity protocols and laws.

“People think they have a right to come onto farms without permission. At the moment we can only lock gates and put signs up,” he said.

“Our home is our workplace. Worksafe has the right to come into my house and workspace to check on things, with no notice. But someone setting up a camp on my farm is the same as me camping in their yard or coming into their home without invitation.”

Mark Gubb, Labor, asked witnesses how to change the practices of the small number of farmers who do not follow industry standards and guidelines. Invariably the response was education and market forces.

“Market forces have standards we need to meet to sell our product; I’m for letting the market provide the solutions,” Mr Nixon said.

Melina Bath spoke to Dairy News Australia after the two Gippsland hearings at Bairnsdale and Warragul.

“It’s obvious farmers go to considerable lengths to conduct a level of care — you can see the farmers’ passion for caring for their animals. But they are animals bred for meat,” Ms Bath said.

“The agricultural community takes their industry animal welfare standards seriously, from paddock to plate.

“It is vitally important we have these rural and regional hearings. We’re hearing the real experiences of people — the abuse they’ve copped from activists, the disrespect and lies are appalling.

“The story we heard over and over again was the activists are after media attention.”

Ms Bath and Mr Meddick referred to the law and how it was being interpreted by the judiciary, sometimes with ludicrous results, such as the alleged $1 fine to an animal rights activist who stole a goat and removed its NLIS tag — an offence that has jail time and a considerable fine attached to it.

In a judicial hearing at Sale’s courthouse last year, farmers were fined thousands of dollars and placed on good behaviour bonds when they were found guilty of offences related to NLIS tags.

Both parliamentarians said it was important the judiciary was educated about rural life and why laws were in place to protect farming.

Western Australia, NSW and Queensland governments have recently overhauled their legislation — including bringing in on-the-spot fines among the penalties that can be brought against activists.

“The judiciary system exists because of laws made by parliament. Parliament can set penalties around those laws,” Ms Bath said.

“We need to contemporise our laws in the face of unlawful trespass and activism.

“There are multiple avenues for members of the public to report their concerns and for those concerns to be investigated, without vigilante behaviour. We can shore up police resources, if we find from this inquiry that is what is needed.”

Ms Bath said activists did not have the right to ignore the importance of biosecurity protocols and walk across farm paddocks and into buildings.