Farm trespass bill welcomed

John Gommans and Melina Bath on the day he tendered his view of animal activism to the Victorian Parliament.

Farmers will be expected to have a biosecurity plan and appropriate signage in place, if the Livestock Management Amendment (Animal Activism) Bill 2021 is passed by the Victorian Parliament next year.

The bill was tabled for its first reading on December 1, just weeks after an intensive rabbit farm was investigated by Agriculture Victoria).

AgVic was tasked with investigating after animal activists illegally filmed animal production methods on the farm. AgVic has since indicated the farm’s owners complied with, or were working towards complying with, appropriate animal welfare standards.

The proposed legislation is in response to animal activism activities that peaked in 2018 and 2019 in Victoria, with illegal raids by activists on livestock businesses, and included a website identifying thousands of Australian farms and inciting people to invade them.

This eventually led to an official inquiry into the impact of animal rights activism on Victorian agriculture.

The inquiry heard from industry bodies, individual farmers, animal rights activists and organisations such as the RSPCA and Law Institute of Victoria.

The report from this inquiry was published in February 2020 and made a large number of recommendations about animal welfare standards.

The Livestock Management Amendment (Animal Activism) Bill 2021, currently before Victoria’s parliament, recommends deterring trespassing on farms in the name of animal activism and a scale of infringements that can be prosecuted.

The onus will be on farmers to implement biosecurity management plans (BMP), which can include measures such as requiring consent from farmers before entering a property covered by a BMP, according to Premier Daniel Andrews.

John Gommans, the man who became well-known in 2018 and early 2019 because animal activists stole livestock from his farm at Yarragon, is pleased to see harsher penalties proposed and hopes the final bill will include them. One animal activist was fined $1 for invading his property.

Harsher penalties were part of the recommendations in a proposal he presented to Victoria’s parliamentarians in August 2019.

“I think if this legislation was here a couple of years ago, we would have been protected,” Mr Gommans said.

He was surprised the bill had been presented to parliament.

“I thought the state government had neglected to follow through with the inquiry’s recommendations.”

Mr Gommans cautioned there was a long way to go before the second reading and the bill is presented to the upper house near the middle of 2022.

“There are various interested parties who are going to have their say. But the first reading of the bill is hopeful,” he said.

“We’re hopeful the legislation will have all the teeth that’s needed. The bill promises to include the bulk of the recommendations we made.

“We’ll take a conservative view, no doubt there’ll be a bit of politics and horse trading. There are other parties with vested interests.”

Mr Gommans continues to farm milking goats at Yarragon and Jersey cows on his dairy farm at Caldermeade, where he also operates a processing facility. In both businesses, his focus is on educating people about the paddock-to-plate experience of farming food.

He still feels victimised by animal activists and is aware there was recent footage published of his farm and business.

“There was some covert footage of our farming operations released to the mainstream media last year. I suspect animal activists used long-range cameras and drones to gather footage.

“The constant vilification is horrendous. It’s rather a brutal strategy. But we haven’t been beaten as a consequence of the actions of animal activists.

“The inquiry outcomes were unexpected. It was important to stand up for the fight. We didn’t realise how many other farmers were affected by animal activists.”

State Member for Eastern Victoria Melina Bath was a key driver of updating the Victorian legislation to protect livestock farmers.

“The key thing is that legislation is applicable to the circumstances,” the upper house Nationals MP said.

“In this case, livestock farmers need to have a biosecurity sign at the gate to identify biosecurity processes need to be complied with.

“That’s a very reasonable thing to do. Then the legislation applies.”

Ms Bath is concerned livestock farmers are feeling anxious about being victimised.

Her concerns are supported by research out of the University of New England, led by Dr Kyle Mulrooney, that concludes farmers are victimised repeatedly by trespassers.

“There’s been no real deterrent for animal activists trespassing on farms,” Ms Bath said.

“Farmers have been looking for protection and it’s overdue. The government should continue to condemn actions where animal activists go on farm and use cameras to record activities.”

The bill strengthens penalties. Mr Andrews said penalties included on-the-spot fines of $1272 for an individual or $8178 for an organisation; and further penalties of up to $10,904 for an individual and up to $54,522 for an organisation could apply for more serious offending.

In the United States, an animal activist who stole a baby goat from a farm was charged in December with burglary and larceny, carrying potentially more than three years in prison.

Ms Bath supports applicable penalties for the crime, but also cautions that judiciary are trained and familiar with the value of agriculture to a region.

Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick is not happy with the contents of the bill.

He feels two recommendations by the Animal Justice Party weren’t included in the bill, which protects livestock farmers rather than animal activists.

“We need laws to stop animal cruelty yet today the government introduced a bill to increase on-the-spot fines for exposing animal cruelty,” Mr Meddick said.

“We will obviously be fighting it at every turn.”