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Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee

ROSALKY, Mr Mike, Volunteer Lawyer, Animal Defenders Office

WARD, Ms Tara, Volunteer Lawyer, Animal Defenders Office


CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to give evidence today. Information about parliamentary privilege has been provided to you and is available from the secretariat. The committee has received your submission as submission No. 51. Do you wish to make any corrections to your submission?

Mr Rosalky : No, we don't.

CHAIR: Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Rosalky : I am a director of the Animal Defenders Office.

Ms Ward : I am also the executive director of the Animal Defenders Office.

CHAIR: Would you like to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Rosalky : We would, thank you. We represent the Animal Defenders Office, which is a nationally accredited community legal centre that specialises in animal law and is 100 per cent volunteer based. We oppose the bill for a number of reasons as we have set out in our written submissions, and we note that the bill is in the class of legislation known as ag-gag, which seeks to criminalise those who expose legal acts of animal violence and cruelty.

First, we submit that the bill will fail to deliver on its claimed objectives, which in part are to stop agricultural trespass, theft and property damage, and may well have the opposite effect. Existing state, territory and federal laws already cover these behaviours. What we need instead is legislation that addresses the underlying cause of animal activism—that is, a lack of transparency in animal agriculture that erodes consumer and public trust in industries that exploit and commit acts of extreme violence and cruelty to animals. A legislative response to this lack of transparency, such as requiring CCTV cameras in all animal-use facilities, would eliminate the desire of activists to enter farms and would empower consumers by enabling them to see how their food is actually produced rather than relying on the often deceptive images and statements of animal exploitation industries attempting to sell animal products.

Second, we submit that the proposed offences could capture situations beyond the intended scope of the bill. For example, if a carriage service were used to rally animal rescuers to a situation where animals were suffering in a neglected farm and where authorities chose not to attend due to a lack of resources or the remoteness of the location, under the proposed offence provisions, it would be a crime to organise the rescue of those animals.

Third, we submit that, under the proposed offences, citizens will not be equal before the law. Only those who can be labelled as having associations with animal activism will be exposed to criminal sanctions. This is because the bill punishes the publication or sharing of innocuous content which need not actually lead to the commission of a primary offence but which, because of a person's associations, could somehow create an inference that they intended to incite unlawful trespass or property damage on agricultural land.

Finally, we submit that this bill significantly and unjustifiably undermines freedom of expression and will further divide the community. The Australian public is overwhelmingly concerned about the mistreatment of farmed animals. And, if passed, this bill may well incite many more people to take up the fight for animals as a backlash against state-sponsored censorship of legal and extreme animal violence and cruelty. Thank you.

Senator KIM CARR: You have made some rather bold claims that activists' activity has resulted in no breaches of privacy or biosecurity. I'm wondering if you could back up that claim.

Mr Rosalky : I'm not sure: did we allude to privacy? We certainly may have alluded to biosecurity. As far as we're aware, there have been no incidents of biosecurity linked to illegal trespass on farms.

Senator KIM CARR: That's your contention?

Mr Rosalky : That is.

Senator KIM CARR: You're basically suggesting that animal production needs to be shut down. Is that correct?

Mr Rosalky : No, that's not correct. We are asserting that there needs to be transparency in animal agriculture.

Senator KIM CARR: So you do actually support the slaughter of animals for food?

Mr Rosalky : We make no contention about that claim, but what we do say is that the current laws that facilitate animal use in this country allow horrific treatment of animals, and consumers are unaware of this, and it's because legislation does not allow transparency in animal agriculture.

Senator KIM CARR: I just want to be clear about this. You do support the existence of abattoirs in Australia?

Mr Rosalky : I make no statement about that. I'm saying that the law is deficient when it comes to animal agriculture.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm just interested to know. Do you support the existence of abattoirs, however well regulated, in Australia?

Mr Rosalky : I'm not sure how that is relevant to our submissions.

Senator KIM CARR: It's very relevant, very relevant. I'm just wanting to know: is it your organisation's contention that the production of animals for food is improper or should cease?

Mr Rosalky : In its current state, absolutely, and the law should turn its attention to the ways in which animals are subjected to extreme violence and cruelty.

Senator KIM CARR: So, if you had your capacities delivered, you would close all abattoirs in Australia?

Mr Rosalky : Look, that's not realistic. What is realistic, though, is transparency in these industries. Consumers have a right to know what is happening in factory farms and in slaughterhouses and on transport trucks and on live animal export ships, and they currently do not have that transparency.

Senator KIM CARR: Put aside that. Clearly, I strongly disagree with that proposition. We turn to the operations of this bill should it be enacted. How would it affect your capacity to do the work that you're doing?

Mr Rosalky : It wouldn't. It would probably create more work for us.

Ms Ward : If I can also add that, in terms of the scope of the bill, it does create a situation where, in targeting a certain sector of the community—for example, we are a community legal centre that deals with animal activists; they've been our clients. We also raise issues about animal welfare and animal protection. If we were then to make a general post on social media about, for example, a map that collates information about the location of primary production businesses, it could be, under this bill, that we would be caught within the scope because we would be making a statement about a map, say, that locates animal production businesses, and we are an animal protection organisation.

Senator KIM CARR: How do you, in your view, balance the rights of primary producers, workers in food production facilities and members of unions against the rights of transparency of whistleblowers and journalism and animal rights? How do you balance those things?

Mr Rosalky : It's a really good question. It's very hard, sometimes, to balance opposing rights. What we are saying is that the rights or the interests of animals are being completely overlooked with this legislation. If passed, it's going to make it much more difficult for animals to be given the light of day, for their suffering to be exposed to the general public. That is a terrible thing for the animals that are suffering horrendously in these facilities and also for consumers who have no idea where their food is coming from.

Senator McKIM: Thanks to you both for coming in and thanks for the really good work that the Animal Defenders Office does. I want to take you back to your original comment, Mr Rosalky, that this falls into what you describe as ag-gag. I know what ag-gag is. For the committee, could you outline a bit more the history of that term.

Mr Rosalky : Sure. Ag-gag stands for agricultural gag laws. As far as I'm aware, they have been gaining prominence in the US in a number of states, and it's in direct response to social media. Social media is allowing the public to see these horrific conditions that animals are subjected to in agricultural facilities, and the public are sick to death of animal cruelty and they are speaking out against it, as we've seen with organisations like Aussie Farms et cetera. In a lot of states legislators who represent farming communities have legislated to prevent people exposing legal acts of extreme cruelty and violence to animals. A number of the states in the US have passed those laws, and a number of those laws have been struck down as unconstitutional. There have been a few attempts in Australia to introduce ag-gag laws. There was one at the federal level back in 2014, I believe, which has now lapsed. There have been other, failed attempts in states and territories to do the same as we're currently seeing. This is clearly a form of ag-gag.

Senator McKIM: Would you agree that currently there's a veil of secrecy draped over industrial farming operations in Australia?

Mr Rosalky : Without doubt that's the case.

Senator McKIM: Do you think that that veil of secrecy allows for animal cruelty to remain undetected and therefore not publicly known?

Mr Rosalky : That is without doubt the case. It's exposes such as the documentary Dominion which are showing the public what actually occurs. We have heard the stories from industries about how well they look after animals and how they are treating animals above and beyond what they are required to do under legislation, and the footage—that in many cases has been obtained illegally—is showing the true case of what is happening to animals. The animals deserve to have their stories told.

Senator McKIM: You mentioned in your opening statement that you thought CCTV cameras should be installed. Could you go through that in a little bit more detail. Would they be live streaming, in your view? Would footage be sent to a statutory authority for assessment? How would that work, in your view?

Mr Rosalky : It's a really good question. Obviously the details of that would need to be determined by the relevant statutory body that was administering the process. In an ideal world, there would be high-definition CCTV cameras that were placed in all animal use facilities and were available to the public—for example, live streaming on the internet. You might say that we wouldn't expect that of any other business, and that is true, because there are very few businesses in Australia that commit horrific acts of animal violence and cruelty, or violence to any type of sentient being. So we do require it of animal exploitation industries.

Senator McMAHON: I want to talk more about the CCTV cameras. You want them on all properties where animals are farmed. How is that going to work? And don't say, 'It's not for me to work out,' because you're calling for it. You need to know how it's going to work if you're going to call for it. How does that work on remote, extensive properties where there's no internet, there's no mobile phone coverage and you might have 1,000 square kilometres to cover?

Mr Rosalky : It's a very good question. Obviously the legislative regime would need to make exemptions for certain situations like that. I will note that in 2016 the Productivity Commission recommended the establishment of an independent statutory body—essentially an office of animal welfare—which would be responsible for these types of issues. We wholly support that recommendation.

Senator McMAHON: How would you feel about the image of piglets, baby pigs, drowning to death in effluent ponds? What do you think about that?

Mr Rosalky : I think that is disgusting. I think I may know where you're going with that question, if it relates to some statements that were made earlier today about animal activists being responsible for—

Senator McMAHON: It does, because this is the type of activity that your activists promote. You talk about extreme violence and cruelty on farms. What about the extreme violence and cruelty that's caused by your activists going on there, causing morbidity, mortality, criminal damage, biosecurity breaches—and don't say there haven't been any, because there have. These are the things, extreme violence and cruelty, that your activists—that you're supporting—are themselves causing. How do you feel about that?

Mr Rosalky : It's a very good question. Firstly, they're not my activists. We disagree with animal cruelty. We are opposed to animal cruelty, and the footage that has been obtained, primarily from animal activists, shows horrific mistreatment of animals—conditions to which we would not subject the most heinous criminals in our society. I condemn any type of animal cruelty, whether it's committed by people who exploit animals for money or whether it's committed by people with the intention of exposing animal cruelty.

Senator McMAHON: Yet you defend these people.

Mr Rosalky : I defend the animals that these people have an interest in.

Senator McMAHON: No. You defend the activists.

Mr Rosalky : It depends on the situations. If an activist came to us and said, 'We've committed acts of animal cruelty because we've gone onto these farms trying to show animal cruelty,' we would have to consider whether we would take that matter on.

Senator McMAHON: You might have heard the term 'No farmers, no food.' You may be perfectly happy to eat tofu and lentils, but do you accept that the vast majority of Australians support humane farming and use of animals?

Mr Rosalky : Absolutely—and I would love for you to show me the humane farming examples. If people actually knew the conditions which you are claiming are humane, if they actually saw it for themselves, I think many, many people would be disgusted by what is claimed to be humane.

Senator VAN: I support my colleague Senator McMahon, who is a veterinarian by profession. I believe she could show you hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of humane farming. So I would like you to withdraw that comment.

Mr Rosalky : I would love to see that evidence.

Senator McMAHON: I'll happily take you.

Mr Rosalky : I'd love to see that.

Senator VAN: We'll make that happen.

Mr Rosalky : I must say that that is a subjective notion. There are these claims—

Senator VAN: But it's your subjective notion.

Mr Rosalky : Absolutely. And it's your subjective notion that certain practices are humane—for example, the 'humane' slaughter of an animal that wishes to live. It is really difficult to say that that is an objective statement of what humane treatment is.

Senator VAN: There are plenty of laws that show that it is. There are plenty of animal protection laws that already exist. You said there were no examples of biosecurity breaches from these activists going onto these properties. We heard evidence this morning that there is. How do you reconcile your views?

Mr Rosalky : We have not seen that evidence.

Senator VAN: You were here today; you were in the room; you heard that evidence. Are you disagreeing with those people?

Mr Rosalky : No—

Senator VAN: Thank you.

Mr Rosalky : I'd love to see the evidence.

Senator VAN: You are both lawyers, you said.

Mr Rosalky : Yes.

Senator VAN: Have you ever gone onto a farm or other facility without being invited?

Mr Rosalky : No. We do not condone illegal activity. You mentioned before—

Senator VAN: So you never have—either of you? That was a very simple question.

Mr Rosalky : We never have. We do not condone illegal activity.

Senator VAN: That's okay. I only wanted a yes or no answer on that. These laws are not about the trespass et cetera; they are about the incitement. You say you advise activists. As lawyers, can you not give them the proper guidance as to what breaches it or not? Ms Ward gave the example of publishing a map. Are you not capable of taking your own legal advice and publishing a map that falls within this law?

Ms Ward : The example I cited would be a completely lawful, non-defamatory, objective post about the existence of the map, collating publicly available information.

Senator VAN: So you have no problem, then, staying within the bounds of this law?

Ms Ward : No. That's the point of the unintended consequences of this bill given—

Senator VAN: The map is within the law—as a lawyer, either you know where those boundaries are or you don't.

Ms Ward : Exactly. But if we make a post about the existence of that map, given the profiling or the nature of our organisation—we deal with animal activists and we raise issues of animal protection concern—it is conceivable that that would bring us within the scope of this law.

Senator VAN: If you had that intent it would. As lawyers, you know what 'intent' means and you know what the law means. So you should not fall outside that law.

Ms Ward : It's exactly in building the evidence for the case of intent that these other circumstances—I think it's one of the explanatory materials—

Senator VAN: No. I'm referring to your comment about you putting up a map from your office. Are you agreeing with me that you are capable of staying within the law?

Ms Ward : That is always our intent.

Senator VAN: Great, thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your evidence today. The committee appreciates the time you have put into your submission.

Proceedings suspended from 12:04 to 13:00