I rise late today to make my contribution on behalf of the Liberals and The Nationals as lead speaker on the Livestock Management Amendment (Animal Activism) Bill 2021. This bill started three years ago. Victorian farmers have waited for two years for this legislation to come into the house, and it appears to me that they are going to have to wait longer if the government shuts down debate on this bill this evening—a further delay in having vital protections for our law-abiding farmers in terms of their property, their stock, their farms and their families. The Nationals and the Liberals will not be opposing this bill. However, we feel that there could be far greater strengthening in it, and I will be circulating amendments to that effect in the coming few moments. Before I start, put your hands up if you have had some breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea today. A farmer was the one, or multiple farmers were the ones, who created your nourishment. If you are wearing clothes of cotton or wool, a farmer was the one who developed that, processed that and created that for us. I pay tribute to our Victorian farmers, to Australian farmers. Food, fibre—they clothe, they feed, they shelter us, paddock to plate. Primary producers deserve our respect, and this bill is part of a long road to gain more of that respect and value them. The value that the Victorian agricultural industry as a whole contributed to Australia’s wealth was 30 per cent of Australia’s gross value in the year 2019–20, around the $18 billion mark—a significant amount. There is the livestock component—beef, sheep, wool, goats, turkeys, rabbits, chickens, eggs, the whole range.
These people do enormous amounts of work every day to feed and clothe us. But they have been subject to animal activism—invasion of their homes, invasion of their privacy, fear for their safety and fear for their animals—as we discovered in an inquiry that I established back in 2019. The government has had two years to look at those recommendations from that inquiry, and it has been very, very tardy in not treating those farmers with respect. It has been three years since I sat at the table of Penny and John Gommans with their manager, Paul, to discuss and go through those harrowing experiences that they and their staff experienced on the early morning just before Christmas when 70 activists stormed onto their property at daylight, created havoc, created fear, stole animals and subsequently over time harassed and intimidated their Gippy Goat Cafe and in effect through a targeted campaign harassed also via social media families who visited that fantastic establishment, to the point where their business with a turnover of $800 000 a year was closed. This was a targeted, exacting, army-style invasion, and it has had shocking repercussions ever since. Now, how did this happen? Was it unplanned? Did it just randomly occur? No, it was a highly planned strategy. Aussie Farms was Chris Delforce’s baby, in effect. It was the animal activist’s guide to farm invasion, the how-to of unlawful activism. You could go online and see thousands upon thousands of farms, which were also people’s homes. Thousands of people were able to be assessed and to be targeted by activists. Now, very clearly and thankfully, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission removed Aussie Farms from registered charity status in 2019.
After speaking with John Gommans, it was amazing that other people came out. Other people brought forward their information, their concerns and their cases of harassment, and so I moved a motion in this house. The government tinkered with the words, but the inquiry was born. Many people contributed to that. We had 500 submissions, hearing from the department, community members, animal activists themselves, and importantly also the ag sector, the Victorian Farmers Federation, Meat and Livestock Australia and farmers. We went east into Gippsland, to Warrnambool, to Horsham and to Wangaratta, and we provided a forum for people to speak the truth and for us to learn. I am pleased to see that this bill incorporates recommendations 4 and 5 of that inquiry report. However, the report was largely taken over by Labor and Labor-aligned members, who dragged it—rather than an important look at animal welfare and the response of activists on farms, biosecurity issues and the way people were and were not fined—over to the corner, which gave a platform for animal activists to sing in the committee. There will be people here who will be patting themselves on the back in that case, but the farmers lose out in this case. Let me also be very clear. I support law-abiding, registered farms. No-one should support the back-market black market, where people do not do the right thing. That is very clear. But the people I speak with, the people that presented to us, are law-abiding citizens who want to make a buck and want to contribute to the community. Our minority report—and I thank the Liberals, who along with me contributed to this report—says:
The Committee Report is biased in that it gives undue attention to the motivations of animal activists, conveying an impression of support towards the illegal actions of animal activists; The Committee Report does not acknowledge that the ultimate goal of most animal activist … is not about improving animal welfare outcomes in livestock farming but to end livestock farming altogether … These are some of the concerns that we had that were our motivation for writing a minority report. I go to Mr Gommans and his story. I have said often the farm is the home and a farm invasion represents a home invasion. We see in John Gommans’s case a $1 fine for breaking a biosecurity law. We see that three people were arrested for the theft of three goats and a lamb. Facing court in March of that year one of the activists received a $1 fine for removing an eartag stolen from a goat and another fine for housing livestock without a property identification code—a PIC. Both offences actually carry up to a $10 000 penalty under the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994, but they got a $1 fine. The other issue was the person who was charged was asked to pay, on theft charges, $250 in compensation, despite the owner clearly stating that the stock was worth up to $2000 an animal. To date Mr Gommans has not received anything in terms of compensation, and as I have said, he lost his cafe and stopped jobs in our region because of this targeted campaign. Mr Gommans reiterated to us in our inquiry the need for stronger penalties. I am going to read some of the words of the farmers into Hansard, because their voices are important. They feel that they have been overlooked for a long time. Let me put some of their words in: On biosecurity, those laws are there for good reason. In 2019 our farms spent—across the goat farms—$115 000 on animal health costs, and the majority of that was on vaccinations, prevention and blood testing for disease. So we have an elimination strategy for disease. He said: Disease control is a key part of animal husbandry, and it is done to protect the welfare of the animals and humans and the security of our nation’s food. One of the really shocking events that I heard about and we in the committee heard about was from a Mornington Peninsula and Tyabb chicken farmer. This really goes to the heart of why this legislation is so important and why it should
be going further. The chicken farmer said that in the early hours on the morning: These people had dark clothes. They had hoodies on. They did not want to be easily recognised. I did not know who they were. To all intents and purposes they were terrorists. They presented like terrorists. They could have had baseball bats, they could have had knives, they could have had guns. I do not know. All I know is that there were 70 people in one of our sheds, which is a horrifying thing to confront. In their manner they are confrontational, they are abusive, and they wanted us to engage them to cause a scene, which we did not. So we were frightened. The image was one of terrorism, and we were very fearful for our safety. They called us killers, they called us animal abusers and they called us criminals. They said that they would return and they did, one week later. That is when they spray-painted the side of one of our sheds with the graffiti. The Tyabb farmer went on: … lack of sleep, the fear, the anxiety, the depression and the constant surveillance just took its toll on us, and we decided that we just had to sell up and get the hell out—so we did. And on he went about the blatant disregard for biosecurity: On approaching one of the protesters before the police asked us to return to the house— their house was on the site— I asked them why they were there and what they hoped to achieve, and I said to the policeman who was beside me, ‘I hope you’re going to arrest these people’. And this gentleman said to me, ‘I’ve been arrested 17 times. I’ve never been charged’—and excuse my language— and I will not repeat it, but he was quoting this person, who said— … go … yourself’. And that was the attitude. We manage our farm under strict biosecurity. Our farm is biosecure, with locks on all gates and appropriate legal signage. We have footbaths to sanitise all footwear. We have a visitors declaration for contact with any avian species or pigs before they are allowed to enter our farm, and that is for disease control … and on he went.
He finished: So to have 70 people in our sheds was an enormous risk to the biosecurity of our farm. Et cetera. This person, this farmer, also went on to inform the committee that as a result of those people rushing into the sheds, in effect there was the suffocation of those 300 birds. So for people who purport to be able to support and nurture life, they ended up killing these birds through suffocation. They also ruptured a water system, and the costs were borne by the farmer. Luv-a-Duck also contributed. Luv-a-Duck we know is a really positive example of bringing people into our community and into regional communities, and creating income and creating a positive life for people. Daryl Bussell, CEO of Luv-a-Duck, said: I think the most disturbing thing is the mental state of the people that witnessed it— He went on to explain about an invasion— and that have this ongoing fear that it is going to come back again. As CEO I have been asked, ‘What are you doing to stop it happening again?’. We have got a number of things that we can do. We have improved our defensive fences, we have done a number of things, but I have no ability to guarantee that these people will not use wire-cutters to get through the fence, that they will not still come in the middle of the night et cetera. These are the genuine experiences of farmers who are registered and law-abiding and going about their business—providing food, employing people and paying taxes. These are the targets of animal activists. Finally I will read from Leonard Vallance, who is from the livestock group at the Victorian Farmers Federation. Currently, Victorian farmers are offered little protection against deliberate acts of lawbreaking; trespassing and livestock theft during a farm invasion are not covered appropriately under Victoria’s trespass and biosecurity laws. Both New South Wales and Queensland State Governments have introduced stronger penalties for trespassing, strengthening their state’s biosecurity defence and security for their farmers.
Our amendments—those of The Nationals and the Liberals—today will bring this legislation in line with New South Wales, and we think that is most appropriate. The last one I would like to cover off on is Mr Timothy Kingma. He impressed very much on us the fact that he felt that the family could not leave their home altogether—that they had to leave someone home on every occasion to safeguard their own property, their own legal property. He said: … I just want the ability to grow food and contribute to the economy. The Greens in the other house were I just think ludicrous in their comments. We heard the member for Melbourne say, and this is hard to swallow in itself: Labor, Liberal and The Nationals, in lockstep on this and supporting big industry and big business over animal welfare … Well, where did they come down from, because Victorian farms are family farms. There are 20 000 family-owned farms in Victoria. Mr Finn: Ultimate in small business. Ms BATH: They are absolutely the ultimate in small business. She also said: I think also one of the concerns that we have is that it could be a step down a pretty slippery slope towards criminalising very specific forms of activism. Now, if you want to be an activist in this country, you are free to protest and to complain. There is a multitude of actions that you can take: on the steps of Parliament, putting in a petition, writing to members of Parliament—and we frequently get letters from many and varied people—or standing for Parliament. But invading a farm, breaking biosecurity protocols, harassing farmers’ families and staff and stealing and sabotaging is not on. It is not acceptable in any form. Mr Meddick will be making some comments, I am sure, on this bill in the future. It was really distressing a little while ago when we had the pandemic bill. People in our community were quite outraged by various opinions and various stances, and he was targeted in his home. I find that an abomination. Everybody’s home should be safe from anybody coming in and attacking or vilifying. He said in the Age on 14 November: It shouldn’t come to this, it just shouldn’t … I understand why people disagree. People disagree in a vibrant democracy. But you don’t have the right to come to someone’s house and make their family feel physically in danger.
I agree 100 per cent with Mr Meddick. I also agree that what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. Activists are not whistleblowers; they should not come onto farms and intimidate and harass and steal. This bill goes part way to addressing that. I go back to Mr Hiller from Tyabb. He felt totally, completely vulnerable, and that is not fair. So what does this bill propose? It amends the Livestock Management Act 2010, it provides biosecurity management plans, it provides for offences relating to the contravening of a prescribed biosecurity measure and certain other measures in response to growing animal activism and it makes other miscellaneous consequential amendments. It creates on-the-spot fines of $1272 for an individual and $18 178 for an organisation, and that is what members of that community, the farming community, called for in our hearings and throughout the inquiry. So the government has come forth—two years too late. But it is on the table tonight, and we should be finishing this debate on it. However, The Nationals and the Liberals do not agree with parts of this bill. We want to strengthen penalties for the individual and we want to include licensed river frontages in biosecurity plans. I thank Mr Peter Walsh, the member for Murray Plains and Shadow Minister for Agriculture. He has always been a strong advocate for the entire agricultural sector—he has worked it and lived it—and he moved the same amendments in the lower house, but they were blocked by the government. So the issues with the current bill: as per clause 6, properties that have licensed water frontages will be carved out from protections from breaches to biosecurity. Even in the most serious of breaches the water frontages, the licensed water frontages, will be carved out. In clause 10 of the bill the maximum fine for breaching a management plan will be around the $11 000 mark—half that of other jurisdictions. If I might be able to circulate the amendments. The Nationals amendments circulated by Ms BATH pursuant to standing orders. Ms BATH: There are two amendments that The Nationals and the Liberals are putting forward. Clause 6, page 7, lines 3 to 13 will be omitted. Why? Because we believe that if a farmer takes on licensed river frontage, holds that licence, they should have protections equal to if they own their freehold land or if they have leased land from their next-door neighbour. Creating this division—I understand the politics of it, but it actually does not make sense as it is a biosecurity risk to the farmer. Riverfront properties must be included and afforded the same protections as other farms and parts of the farms.
The second part is in relation to harsher penalties. If we look to clause 10, page 9, what I want to do is omit 60 penalty units and double that to 120. Just finishing off on the waterfront: we had steps full of people concerned about the biosecurity risks when the government in its wisdom or otherwise opened up camping on river frontages. There are thousands of kilometres of land on licensed river frontages that are used by farmers or landholders. But farms are contiguous, so very often it is impossible to know where the farm finishes and that waterfront starts. Will we be having to put fences up across all of those? Will farmers be paying for that? Will the government be subsidising farmers to do that? How are they going to ensure that their biosecurity is safe on the freehold land if the government is not going to uphold this part? So that is why we are including this in our amendments. In terms of the harsher fines, we just want to bring in fines for the individual for serious offences in line with Queensland and New South Wales. We want to make sure that this is a deterrent. This is not about ‘You cannot activate, you cannot protest’. This is for going onto somebody’s land. And when they have a biosecurity plan, this is saying, ‘This is unacceptable’. So maximum on-the-spot fines, yes, but also increase those penalty units so that they are up around the $22 000-mark, so that this will be much more of a deterrent. If you do not have cause and effect, people will just ignore you and act with impunity. I may just circle around and finish my contribution there. It is really important that farmers have the right to conduct their business in a lawful manner. If people feel that there are issues relating to animal welfare, there are channels wide open for people to make those comments. Agriculture Victoria has a channel that people can go to and make a complaint, and those complaints are followed up. Police can follow up and local councils can. We know that the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 is being reviewed and updated. There are avenues for people who have concerns. Overwhelmingly farmers absolutely care for their stock, and they care because it makes good economic sense—it makes good sense because a healthy animal presents and produces at its maximum—but also they are not going to do this type of work unless they have an affinity with, an enjoyment of and a respect for animals. I know; my father was a dairy farmer all his life. He started when he was a boy and worked till basically the day he died. He would be out in the middle of the night looking after those animals, making sure that they were given whatever they needed in calving season. Their welfare was his paramount concern.
So with those few words, this government has delayed. The bill is two years too late. I call on the government to support our amendments. I call on the crossbench to support our amendments—and indeed earlier on this week I provided those amendments with the rationale behind them. And with that contribution, The Nationals and the Liberals will not be opposing this bill, but we seek to have those amendments passed through this house