Both sides have their say in fight over farm safety

By Vanessa Wiltshire

THE actions of illegal farm trespassers and a meagre fine was the subject of intense public scrutiny between December 2018 and April 2019.

This was compounded by public outcry over activist group Aussie Farms, which runs a website showing the location of hundreds of farms and abattoirs. It encourages people to upload photos or videos of animal exploitation in a bid to influence consumer choices.

Gippy Goat Café in Yarragon was forced to close on April 7 due to ongoing bullying and harassment issues, following an illegal break-in during December 2018.

Up to 70 activists stormed the property; six were charged with livestock theft.

In March 24-year-old Cara Garrett was fined just $2 by the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court for her involvement. She received a $1 fine for housing livestock without a property identification code. A second $1 fine was handed down for breaking biosecurity laws.

Leader of the Victorian National Party Peter Walsh said farmers deserve to feel safe at work and in their homes. “That’s not been the case while lawbreaking activists feel they can break in and steal livestock, only to get a $1 fine,” he said.

In May 2019 a Victorian parliamentary inquiry was announced, calling for a review of farm trespass laws. It followed ongoing pressure from regional communities and calls from Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Melina Bath.

Submissions to the inquiry closed last Friday.

Minister for Agriculture Jaclyn Symes condemned all illegal activities "in the name of animal activism".

“They put hardworking farming families, biosecurity and, frankly, the animals that they purport to want to protect at risk,’’ Ms Symes told parliament in May.

‘‘Our farmers feed us, they clothe us. Whether you are a vegan, a vegetarian, a pescetarian, you are on a keto diet or you want to have a carnivorous diet, it is our farmers and producers who allow you to have that choice,’’ she said.

Ms Symes added that animal activists flagrantly disregard current laws, which are "antiquated in the face of this new forceful form of trespass".

Mr Walsh, the shadow minister for agriculture, said the parliamentary inquiry is "hopefully a catalyst for change".

“The federal Liberal Nationals government has taken positive steps to strengthen privacy law by moving to impose hefty penalties on anyone found guilty of using a carriage service to incite farm trespass.

“The changes signal a strong message that anyone encouraging others to break onto family farms and steal livestock is risking jail time.”

He added the illegal and intimidating actions of law-breaking activists are closing farm businesses and forcing hardworking farm families off the land.

“The inquiry is the first step to better protecting our farmers, their family and the biosecurity of our farm businesses," he said.

As of 6pm Friday, August 2, the closing date for submissions, 120 responses were available online.

Their content was broad and detailed, featuring emotive and sometimes graphic testimony.

What the submissions said:

“Farmers should have the right to farm without fear of invasions to their property and the potential risks that unwanted visitors bring. The biosecurity risk from bringing in material or disease that could compromise their entire operation is huge.

“In the event that animals are taken, people who do not follow the correct traceability process should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Another person contributed from the Victorian dairy farming perspective:

“We generally have a great global reputation for producing safe and high-quality produce.

“We also take fantastic care of our farmland and our animals. We don’t need the reputation of our produce tarnished or our markets put at risk by the false assertions of radical minority groups, or their unlawful trespass threat to our biosecurity.”

A pork producer from North Central Victoria said the health and welfare of their pigs "is their number one concern".

“As an industry, we are world leaders when it comes to animal welfare, for example Australia was the first to volunteer the removal of sow stalls.

“Our quality-assurance program is world class. The threat animal activists pose to the biosecurity of my farm is immense.

“Our farm alone directly employs 10 full-time staff. I am legally operating, and I just want the ability to grow food and contribute to the economy.”

From an animal rights perspective:

“I have many times over many years ’trespassed’," one person admitted. “This was an attempt to assist animals which were emaciated and suffering from severe malnutrition often leading to considerable numbers of deaths.

"I have always reported my concerns either to the RSPCA or Agriculture Victoria but unfortunately have learnt that I cannot have any confidence that animals will be quickly assisted, and their owners brought to account.

"These cases are often quite large and involve owners who are unreasonable and difficult to deal with. There are more of these types of cases than many people would think."

Another said: “The public has a right to know of the cruelty being committed in its name. I am grateful to those filming such breaches of the law.

“Without these investigators we would have no way of knowing what is going on since the government has abrogated its responsibility to apply the existing weak laws and to introduce stronger animal protections that the public expect.

And finally: “Without a regulating body responsible for and invested in the welfare of agricultural animals, the Australian government only has a regulating body responsible for and invested in the profit of agricultural animals.

“With the meagre power of the RSPCA, often the only avenue for exploitation, torture, and illegal practices to be exposed is through direct action activism.”