The past, present and future of our campaign against the Australian pig farming industry.
AUSTRALIAN lawmakers and livestock industry groups are trying to disguise “ag-gag” laws to assist their introduction in Australia, says animal rights activist Chris Delforce.
The man behind the Aussie Farms website says proponents of the new laws want to adopt an alternative title, other than “ag-gag” laws, because he believes they have backfired in the US and prompted people to ask, what are the farmers trying to hide?
“In Australia they’re trying as best as they can to disguise it in other ways,” he said.
“In NSW it’s about biosecurity (and) in South Australia it’s about personal surveillance in homes.”
Mr Delforce believes surveillance legislation that’s currently under consideration in SA would also apply to farms and “slaughterhouses”.
He accused those regulators of trying to introduce the new laws “in ways that are sneaky”.
However, SA Attorney General John Rau told ABC radio earlier this month his State was looking to introduce legislation by the year’s end that focused on an individual’s right to privacy.
He said the proposed SA laws would make it a criminal offence to use video or audio material obtained through covert means, unless a court agreed it was in the public interest.
“This conversation is being hijacked into an animal protection point, it is more about whether you, in your backyard, can be imposed upon by somebody outside your property, by either them covertly, or in other words secretly bugging your backyard by filming you, and then they can publish that whether it's in the public interest or not,” he said.
Mr Rau said the legislation said “explicitly” that if recordings are handed onto law enforcement authorities for the purposes of prosecution they’re “totally protected”.
“So the suggestion that people who are engaged in animal cruelty will not be prosecuted is completely wrong,” he said.
Debate on the potential advent of “ag-gag” laws in Australia has escalated in recent weeks after Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce expressed support to harmonise legislation with his State counterparts, to crackdown on increasing on-farm trespass by “vigilante groups” to gather covert video footage.
Last week, WA Liberal senator Chris Back revealed his Private Senators Bill aimed at addressing escalating on-farm trespass by animal rights activists campaigning to end livestock industries.
Senator Back said he’d been falsely quoted in “every second newspaper around the countryside” as trying to introduce US style “ag-gag” laws.
But he said his proposal was the “exact opposite” of those laws because it seeks to strengthen genuine animal welfare protections and safeguards for farmers.
He said his draft bill proposed to amend the criminal code, relating directly to animal protection, in two parts.
The first change seeks to ensure anyone with visual images or recordings of suspected malicious cruelty towards animals are obliged to submit a formal report to relevant authorities within 24 hours.
He said they’d also be required to produce those images to authorities within 48 hours so they can act as quickly as possible to stop the cruelty, prevent it from occurring again and prosecute those responsible.
AT an animal law lecture at the Australian National University (ANU) in May, Voiceless hosted visiting US animal rights campaigner Will Potter who warned against introducing “ag-gag” laws into Australia.
Mr Potter said “ag-gag” laws were spreading in the US and globally, due to increased activity by animal rights activists targeting legal and illegal industry practices.
He said “ag-gag” laws had already passed in the US States of Iowa, Utah, Missouri and Idaho.
Some States already had the laws in place - dating back to 1990s - but there’d been a recent resurgence of activity, he said, because today’s technology meant investigators can purchase undercover equipment like button-hole and pin-hole cameras for a couple of hundred dollars on the internet.
He said they can then publish video footage on YouTube for free and use social media to broadcast images to followers and achieve tens of millions of views, followed by national media coverage when videos “go viral”.
“It’s a much different climate for activists and industry is fighting back (and) they’re doing that with three types of ‘ag-gag’ laws,” he said.
“The first is the straight forward criminalisation of photography and video.
“But as awareness of these attempts grows, the industry is responding to the backlash by evolving ‘ag-gag’.
“Now there’s a second type out called ‘misrepresentation’ which means if you apply for a job at a farm, and don’t reveal you’re a member of Voiceless or the RSPCA, you can not only be fired but prosecuted and sent to jail.”
Mr Potter said the third variation of “ag-gag” laws was called “mandatory reporting”.
He said these laws were “a particularly savvy attempt by industry” which said, “hey we want to stop this animal abuse, we had no idea it’s happening every single day on our farms so to help you do that, we think investigators should just be required to turn over video footage in 24 hours or a couple of days”.
“Sounds great right, because if you see something that horrible why shouldn’t you notify us?” he said.
“(But) it’s an attempt by the industry to present all these investigations as just a one off isolated instance (and) it’s just the work of a couple of bad workers, it’s not systematic.”
Mr Potter said Tennessee had also sought to amend existing laws in response to activists who recently exposed an incident of animal cruelty.
He said Arizona was also considering a mandatory reporting bill and Kentucky was attempting to modify existing animal welfare laws to introduce an “ag-gag” type regime.
But he said the increasing number of proposed laws had also brought together different groups, including lawyers and animal rights or vegetarian groups, to address growing concerns about restrictions of freedom of speech and other civil liberties.
“That collective effort is saying, ‘If we allow one industry to single out their critics and to silence them because they’re being affective at showing what that industry does, who’s going to be next?’,” he said.
ALSO at the ANU lecture, Voiceless legal counsel Emmanuel Giuffre said under common law, animals are categorised as property, and as property they’re permitted to be bought sold and destroyed “at the will of their legal owners”.
He said State and Territory laws have sought, to an extent, to give animals better protections from “gross acts of cruelty and neglect, but these laws are inadequate”.
“Voiceless believes as laws keep animals in this mess only the law can get them out,” he said.
“There is a growing army of animal advocates fighting for animal justice in this country.”
Mr Giuffre said “ag-gag” laws also were a potential obstacle that could threaten the momentum of the animal rights movement.
He said “ag-gag” laws are a little-known issue to most Australians but “could become more significant in months and years to come”.
Mr Giuffre said Voiceless was concerned about ag-gag laws because they would “stifle transparency, inhibiting law reform and suppressing the public’s right to question the status quo”.
At the same event, ACT Government Animal Welfare Advisory Committee member and University of NSW animal law lecturer Tara Ward gave a detailed synopsis of the activist-driven Aussie Pigs or ‘bringing to the light’ campaign.
She said the campaign started in 2012 and its modus operandi was to investigate after hours, take photos and videos, and install hidden video cameras to “expose the lawful cruelty inherent in all of these places”.
The campaign’s first target was Wally’s Piggery about 20 minutes from Canberra, given there are no intensive facilities in the ACT.
She said the activists took photos and videos inside Wally’s property which showed “shocking” and “horrific” conditions.
That material then “found its way” to the media and was broadcast on the ABC and SBS, sparking widespread public outrage and protest.
Ms Ward said the video footage was also given to the RSPCA NSW, the NSW Food Authority and the police.
She said those authorities inspected the premises in question, just before the statutory time limit of one year expired, and laid charges of animal cruelty and related offences.
Ms Ward said during the “media storm” industry groups tried to portray Wally’s Piggery as “a rogue operator and just a bad apple” and say the industry cared for its animals.
“The campaign’s response to this type of industry spin was to focus instead on what’s known as the institutionalised suffering of factory farmed animals - that is the routine and lawful cruelty that is inherent in the intensive pig farming industry,” she said.
“What followed was a sustained expose of horrendous yet lawful conditions in Australian piggeries.”
Ms Ward said at the time, the campaign had targeted 17 piggeries in central NSW and Queensland gathering video footage of various acts of animal cruelty.
Her presentation also focussed intently on an eight minute video clip taken by an activist at a piggery in Young NSW, saying it was one of the most “powerful” and “damning” videos ever captured from an intensive piggery.
“The video doesn’t depict egregious or one off acts of cruelty,” she said.
“Rather its power lies in the fact that everything in this extremely disturbing video is totally lawful – but that’s the point.”
Ms Ward said the video exemplified the campaign’s new direction.
“Rather than exposing so-called rogue operators and prosecuting seemingly isolated acts of extreme cruelty, the campaign highlights the everyday suffering the animals in this industry endure, and shows why authorities are keen for measures such as ‘ag-gag’ laws in Australia,” she said.
“Now thanks to these campaigns we have at our disposal endless footage of conditions in Australian factory farms, which clearly demonstrates how widespread this lawful cruelty is and how pressing the need for law reform is because it does happen here in Australia and it really is that bad.”
Ms Ward also highlighted Australian Pork Limited’s response to the campaign and the industry group’s efforts to prevent the video being published and attempts to shut the website down.
That response included establishing an industry website detailing a “promotional video” and also claiming the activists had ‘terrorised’ the animals.
SPEAKING at the ANU event, Mr Delforce said he’d been involved in a number of investigations in Australian “slaughterhouses and factory farms” over recent years.
He said, “The fact is, that every time we get this footage we hand it straight to the police or the RSPCA or other authorities”.
“The industry wants us to stop there and that’s what our game is about,” he said.
“But we want other people, we want the public to see what’s going on and unless we give the footage to the media, unless we release it ourselves, no-one’s going to have an idea of what’s happening inside these places.
“As soon as it gets to the industry, they’re not going to put out a press release about it; they’re going to stay silent about it because that’s in their best interests.”
In an extensive interview with Fairfax Agricultural Media last week, Mr Delforce denied he was personally involved in taking any of the video footage underpinning the Aussie Farms campaign.
“I don’t take the footage,” he said.
He said the trespassing and filming activities were not the work of a lone individual or even a small group of people.
“I think it’s a growing movement of people who are going and getting this footage because they believe that people have the right to see it,” he said.
“That footage is going to be gathered regardless - but if I can help to get it out there, to as many people as possible, then that’s what I’m going to do.”