NEW laws compelling the surrender of animal cruelty evidence to regulatory authorities without protracted delays would help quell public misunderstanding on animal welfare, says Western Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back.
Since April, the former veterinarian has been formulating draft regulations similar to those adopted in some US states, where animal cruelty evidence must be presented to relevant investigating authorities within 24 to 48 hours.
The Senator’s motivation has also been piqued by a recent spate of trespass incidents on piggeries by animal rights activists seeking to obtain potentially inflammatory video footage.
Some vision has appeared online and been pitched to a commercial television network as part of an ongoing campaign by animal rights groups to end intensive animal farming.
In repeated trespass incidents in April and May on Blantyre farms near Young in NSW, activists installed six small cameras through ceiling vents in a farrowing house, focused on sows and piglets.
US activists have dubbed the Bills “ag gag” laws - but Senator Back said that wasn’t an appropriate title because the laws, including those he’s considering for Australia, accommodate genuine whistleblowers.
In some US states the laws make it illegal for employees to covertly videotape livestock or apply for jobs at related farm businesses, without disclosing ties to animal rights groups.
But Senator Back said the management of any farms or livestock handling facilities here would need to determine appropriate employment conditions.
Senator Back has consulted with individual farmers and industry representatives on introducing new laws in Australia.
He said under the constitution, State governments are responsible for animal welfare regulations and would be charged with introducing any new laws, not the federal government.
He said his motivation was to sort out the difference between genuine animal welfare concerns and video footage used to fuel emotive public campaigns.
As an example, he cited the three-month delay before the footage taken in Indonesian abattoirs by Animals Australia appeared on ABC TV in May 2011, sparking the ALP’s subsequent cattle trade ban.
“Any person with a keen interest in animal welfare, if they came upon information or vision that appeared to be of undue cruelty to animals, there should be no motivation for them to do anything other than present that material to authorities as quickly as possible, to have the issue addressed,” he said.
Senator Back said his analogy for the proposed laws was comparable to anyone possessing footage of a child being molested.
“It would be unacceptable to the community that any person would withhold that footage for any length of time, for whatever that purpose, before they made it public,” he said.
Senator Back said regardless of whether State governments introduced such laws, the broader community’s modus operandi on animal cruelty vision should be the same.
He plans to start communicating with State and Territory Ministers urging those jurisdictions to adopt the new laws.
Senator Back said handing over footage to regulatory authorities immediately would allow the person responsible for taking the vision to demonstrate their “bona fides” in a legal and public context and allow authorities to investigate the evidence whilst it’s still fresh.
“You would want to ensure that there was no delay, you would want to ensure that the evidence was tested as close as possible to the time that the incident apparently occurred, you’d want to ensure there was a thorough investigation and you’d want to make sure it was investigated away from the emotive frenzy of a media circus.”
Senator Back said critics of his role in drafting the new laws needed to consider his 42-year career as a professional veterinarian prior to becoming a federal politician in 2009.
“My record on animal welfare stands up very much higher than anyone else whose criticised me or opposed me on any matter in this area,” he said.
Senator Back said activists trespassing to obtain video footage also ran the risk of introducing diseases - to the detriment of animal welfare.
“From an animal welfare point of view those people should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, quite part from trespassing,” he said.
The proposed laws have also been backed by WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle, WA Liberal MP Barry Haase, NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan and farm industry groups.
National Farmers Federation (NFF) chief Matt Linnegar said his group had no formal policy position on the proposed laws - but welcomed further debate and discussions on their potential implementation, to curtail the escalation of illegal activist activity and improve public debate.
“Certainly from my reading, these laws are a step in the right direction.
“NFF don’t have a policy view in this stage but I can’t see how it’s a bad thing in terms of resolving some of the issues we face, like illegal trespass and break-ins on different farms where hidden cameras are installed and video footage is taken.”