MOTION – Establishment of Inquiry into farm trespass and animal activism

Opening Debate

Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (09:54:21): My Liberal and National colleagues and I are very seriously concerned about the escalating nature of vigilante-style trespass, theft and crime occurring in our rural and regional communities. The PRESIDENT: I apologise, Ms Bath. Could you move your motion first and then speak to it. Ms BATH: Yes, that is fine. I move: That this house requires the Economy and Infrastructure Committee to inquire into, consider and report by Thursday, 28 November 2019, on the effectiveness of Victoria’s current legislation in terms of deterrent, penalty and remedy for illegal on farm animal activist activity, and in particular the committee should: (1) consider: (a) the illegal activity of animal activists on Victorian farms; (b) illegal farm activists’ compliance with Victoria’s stringent animal welfare laws; (c) the appropriateness of Victoria’s trespass, biosecurity, surveillance, privacy and nuisance laws; (2) analyse the approach of other jurisdictions in Australia and internationally; (3) consult with relevant stakeholders; and (4) provide recommendations on how Victoria’s laws could be improved to protect farmers’ privacy, businesses and the integrity of Victoria’s biosecurity regime. As I said, we are very concerned about the escalation of animal activism in our rural communities. Today, motion 61 is a tangible method of dealing with the diabolical rise of on farm activism plaguing our hardworking farming families and agricultural businesses. Animal activists are flagrantly disregarding our current laws, which are antiquated in the face of this new forceful form of trespass. Lenient penalties and sentences are frustrating hardworking police, who take a long time to compile documentation, they are greatly distressing victims—and I will relate some of those instances this morning—and they make re-offending the modus operandi of this group of people. Aided by the Aussie Farms dossier, animal activists and individuals are continuing to disrupt the operations of law-abiding farming businesses. Incorporating the Aussie Farms repository, the organisation publishes details of thousands of Australian farms, including photographic and video footage. Indeed some of the most harmless farsms are on that site. It is incredible to know that a local beekeeper is on that site. The aim of the repository purports to be around increased transparency surrounding modern farming practices. However, it is clear that this transparency is agenda driven. It is a case of never letting the truth get in the way of ideology. Photos put up by the public are removed if they do not serve the purpose of this group. So today, through the mechanism of the Victorian Parliament, let us initiate an inquiry where true transparency can be reviewed. Thirty and 40 years ago, when I grew up on a dairy farm in Gippsland, people came on farm. Those people were friends and family, they were the milk tanker driver, they were the vet and they were hitchhikers on the way to Wilsons Promontory. However, sadly, shockingly and distressingly we are seeing a new type of unwelcome on farm visitation. Farmers and their staff are experiencing threats like never before. Very often, as was the case in my family, a farm invasion equates to a home invasion. Vigilante-style groups are having an incredible impact on the mental and financial stress and strain of our farmers. We know that farmers are patrolling fences at night, patrolling their livestock, camping out in their sheds and suffering a heightened state of distress. This harassment and intimidation is unacceptable. Farming families of recent times have continued to endure great hardship, with spiraling costs of production, electricity costs continuing to spiral upwards, disproportionate farm rates and in recent times drought, and we now see another overlay of concern in this form of trespass and activism. I have had many conversations with leaders, including the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF), and with a broad range of people in the industry. One gentleman said, ‘This form of activism could just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Indeed this is what the activists want, but we need to push back, and an inquiry is a sincere way of doing that. I have listened to farmers, particularly at field days, who say that now they are not sure who is coming down their driveways. They are not sure what is going to happen. Targeted farms and businesses are experiencing an increased number of incidents of trespass and unlawful activity, including threats and intimidation, theft and property damage, and biosecurity and animal welfare risks. The fear among farming communities if action is not taken to strengthen legislation and deter activists is that someone may actually get hurt. In terms of biosecurity, we know that severe pest and disease outbreaks are a considerable threat to our agricultural industry. They can decimate herds and decimate livestock and create a huge financial impact on our economy. The potential of activists to spread disease and pests is real and has been borne out, and I will show you an example of that a little bit later on. Mr Leonard Vallance of the VFF has expressed that one of the most critical issues with people entering the primary production workplace without permission is the threat of biosecurity. He has told me that people just do not understand that they are exposing themselves and the animals to various diseases. Bacterial infections like Q fever can spread from animals to animals. Cross-contamination of viruses between humans and animals, especially pigs, can decimate livestock. In February of this year the VFF issued guidelines to protect farmers and their staff, suggesting procedures to follow. This documentation shows the stark reality of what farmers are now facing, with their lead group, the VFF, asking, ‘What do you need to do to be safe from intruders on your private property on your farm?’. It documents information such as how to capture farm vehicles and a whole range of information that they can provide to police. This is a sad indictment of where we are heading in terms of the concern that farmers have. One of the VFF documents also relates to putting up signs around biosecurity risks at the front of farms, saying, ‘If you trespass, it will considerably compromise our biosecurity’. Again, the VFF is considerably concerned and it supports this motion before the house today. Harassment occurs on a variety of farming operations, and I have spoken with a number of farming groups and individuals who have experienced this form of harassment. Poultry and chicken meat, dairy, beef, duck and domestic rabbit and livestock transporters are concerned, as are abattoirs that have been broken into and that have suffered considerable harm. Case study after case study exists. One farm that typifies why this house must support an inquiry into Victoria’s current laws and strengthen them is the Gippy Goat Cafe and dairy. I have visited the Gippy Goat Cafe and dairy and spoken with John and Penny Gommans, the owners, and their staff numerous times since January. I thank them for the time that they have been able to provide to me and for showing the clarity of their situation. There are many situations, but this typifies what is going on in our world. In December 2018 the Gippy Goat farm in Yarragon was stormed by 70 activists in the early hours of the morning. The vet was there and there were staff there ready to start the early milking. Police arrived on the scene and asked the activists to leave, but they refused to do so. The Gommans have security footage of the farm showing that animals were being pushed into the back of vehicles. Animals were stolen, and one goat, subsequently named Angel, was found, returned and then taken again by activists on 31 January. She was removed from her pen where she was under biosecurity watch arising from the previous theft. To date we do not know where Angel is. With six individuals, each charged separately with theft, one accused was fined, and it has been well reported that it was just a $1 fine for removing an ear identification tag. There was a further $1 fine for housing livestock without a PIC number, which is a property identification code. Both of these offences have maximum penalties of $9671 under the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994. Incidentally, agriculture operates under a number of acts designed and created in this Parliament: the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986, the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 and the Livestock Management Act 2010, to name a few. Under those measures authorised inspectors investigate complaints and regularly make unannounced on-Previous HitfarmNext Hit orders to assist with welfare compliance and issue appropriate action for non-compliance. This is necessary and this is just, and all farmers need to be most mindful of animal welfare. For those that I spoke to regularly, and indeed friends of mine, the key point about their whole operation is making sure that animal welfare is at the top of their priority for a raft of reasons: one, because it is right and proper; two, because they enjoy their animals and looking after them; and three, because maximum production can occur when your animals are fit and healthy. Despite the Gippy Goat suffering an estimated loss of $2500 on the stock alone, let alone the improvements to security, the accused was fined just $254 for their role. Another two offenders were placed on six-month good behaviour bonds, escaping conviction. It is safe to say that the community outrage has been significant. I would like to read you some of John Gommans’s words, because in fact he feels very much the victim in this scenario, and the victims in this place need to be heard. John’s words—and I thank him for sharing them with me—were: The events of 22nd December at the Gippy Goat certainly made us feel violated and it made the staff feel violated. When it went to court we had a level of confidence because the evidence was extremely clear—it was a blatant theft and trespass, and a refusal to leave when asked to do so, when the police asked them to do so, and clear breaches of the livestock act in terms of traceability of animal movements and also breaches of the safe transport of animals. We were hopeful that justice would be served. As well we were hopeful that there would be an order for compensation that was representative of the value of the animals stolen. It is clear that there were no issues around animal cruelty on this farm. There were none. There was no evidence of cruelty. John spoke again: The three plaintiffs pleaded guilty and were given an opportunity to speak, and after they had spoken the magistrate said— and these are John’s words— ‘No-one likes animal cruelty. Keep doing what you are doing, but don’t get caught by the police’. John said: The magistrate then said, ‘I should have said don’t get in trouble with the police’. This is his best recollection of what the magistrate said. John continued: The activists were given an opportunity to speak, but Penny, myself and our farm manager were all there and none of us got the opportunity to speak. We were not asked to speak, and it was very clear that there was no mechanism for us to have the opportunity … to speak. We were left feeling violated, outraged and cheated. … As a consequence of this we have had numerous visits from the authorities and we have come up clean every time, as we would expect. We are realistic that this is not the most serious crime out there, but we deserved justice. So this result has fed the problem. The followers of this group, the extremists, have learnt that they can get away scot-free. … We took the view that 70 people came there and six have gone to court and the penalties have been nil, so that the other 64 have learnt that they can act with impunity. My commentary around this is that Parliament makes the laws, the legal framework, under which the judiciary system operates. So that judge was totally within their entitlement of presenting that penalty. They were working within the law. But many others and John and I agree that the legal framework is failing him and other farmers. It is time to review this in a comprehensive way. Concluding the story on the Gippy Goat farm, after months of harassment John and Penny decided, in April, to close their doors on the cafe, and they considered that the safety of their staff, their family and the people who attended the coffee house and their customers deserved that safety. John finally said: We have personally been subjected to an appalling stream of threats of extreme violence against ourselves, our family, our staff and even their families. It gives me no joy to relate this to the house, but I think for transparency it is important to. He also raised the issue around the Victorian state government: I am disappointed that the Andrews Labor government has not stood up for farmers, and this is not me trying to be political, because I think they have done some things well, but I am disappointed that they haven’t stood up for farmers in this regard—very disappointed. The government today has suggested that it is making some amendments to my motion, standing in the Liberal and National parties’ name. It is interesting that the minister took the time, I think it was on Monday night, to send a message to Peter Walsh, who is shadow Minister for Agriculture. In the message she stated: While legislation is an important tool in the prevention of illegal animal activism, there are other complimentary measures such as education and awareness raising which protect and support our farmers. If the minister or I went to the Koonwarra saleyards, or any saleyards in Victoria, and said, ‘We’re keen to show you around the education and awareness-raising measures which will protect and support you’, I can only imagine what the response from our beautiful farming community would be. The minister is here, and she intends to rework the terms of reference and tinker with the words of the motion. That is her right and it is the government’s right, but at the end of the day it is important that this house recognises and the Andrews Labor government recognises that the key issue is to address the trespass and law and order issues that are occurring on our farms and wider agricultural businesses. I can also only imagine what the thousands of people who have signed John and Penny’s petition—which I am sponsoring, it is about 5000, including e-petitions and handwritten ones at present, and counting—would say. Through this petition, Victorians are sending a clear message to Daniel Andrews stating that it is time for action to create proper penalties and deter offenders. Recently we saw how the government’s repeal of our Liberal-National move-on laws back in 2015 cost Melburnians time, frustration and money. Melbourne’s CBD was brought to a standstill as activists blocked the city streets and created havoc, which was their design. However, in this motion that I am looking at today we want to really focus on what is happening within the legislation and on farms. I want to raise just two more points that bring home the issue of how people are experiencing these shocking targeted raids. In September 2018 a chicken farm on the Mornington Peninsula was targeted, and it happened illegally over two nights. One hundred activists stormed onto the property in the wee hours of the morning. In the back of a hire truck there were dozens of people illegally transported onto the farm. The issue is that this has distressed this farmer and his wife exceedingly. They have got three sheds. Each shed is around 140 metres. Seventy activists went into one of the sheds, and what happened to the chickens in that shed was that they moved down to one end. Basically, suffocation occurred. The animals certainly did not have enough oxygen. They crowded on top of each other. Over the course of a number of hours the health of those animals was compromised and around 300 of them died as a result. If you purport to save animals but end up killing them, this is not a great outcome at all. Mr Finn interjected. Ms BATH: This totally defeats the purpose and goes against the theme of why they are doing this. Also, there was damage and loss. The other issue that was raised is that graffiti went all over the walls of the sheds. One activist told the lady farmer that they had been arrested 70 times and never been charged. He swore expletives at her in defiance. This is unacceptable. The emotional toll on that family is considerable. Also relating to pig farming, an anonymous central Victorian pig farmer has been targeted, but he has expressed fear about coming out and communicating this out of fear he will be retargeted. This is the shadow under which our farmers are operating. This family-run business was invaded. Fences were cut and doors were broken in an attempt to free the pigs. Following this was a biosecurity breach, which resulted in an illness called mycoplasma. Ever since that break-in there have been additional costs to implement a vaccine program that formerly did not have to happen. Police have never been able to solve this crime, and no-one has claimed responsibility. It would appear that in other jurisdictions different states are coming to the conclusion that this is a concern for them. In New South Wales in 2017 they introduced, via the Bradshaw report, legislation that includes a new form of trespass: aggravated trespass. This is one of the other jurisdictions that we need to look at. It is time for transparency. It is time for a fulsome, multiparty inquiry. It is time for all stakeholders to be able to have their say. And it is time for recommendations back to this house and this government so that there can be a clear direction around improving biosecurity, improving trespass laws and stopping this new threat to our farming operations. It is time to back our farmers and support this inquiry.