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Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Page: 1873


Senator WATT (Queensland) (09:52): I rise to deliver a contribution from the opposition on the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019. This bill has obviously attracted a great deal of media attention since the government first flagged it some time ago.

At the outset I want to put down some basic principles that have guided Labor's position on this bill. In one respect this bill deals with some competing tensions about rights within our community. On the one hand, Labor has always had a fine tradition of upholding the right to protest about political, philosophical and ideological matters. I point anyone who is interested in this to look at the legacy of previous Labor governments, state and federal, in ensuring that people do have a legitimate right to protest, particularly over civil rights matters. However, there is another right that is at play in the context of this bill, and that is the right of people involved in the agriculture industry, whether it be farmers, meatworkers or others, to go about their lawful business without illegal interruption by extremist protesters. So let there be no doubt that Labor respects and supports the right to protest but it does not support the extremist protesters who have repeatedly now—to use their words—invaded agricultural properties and other businesses involved in the agriculture sector in an illegal fashion, putting lives in danger.

I can already hear mutterings from Senator McKim, a supporter of extremist protesting. I'm interested to hear his and the Greens' contribution on this debate, to hear whether they have any respect whatsoever for the lives and businesses of people involved in the agriculture industry who have, quite literally, been threatened by some of these extremist protesters. I have no qualms whatsoever about saying that I support the right to protest on political matters. It is something I have done personally over many decades and continue to do. But what I don't do is threaten the lives and businesses of people who are going about their lawful business, and that is what we are seeing from some extremist protester elements. Senator McKim and his colleagues may wish to reflect on that as they are making up their mind about which way they will land on this bill.

As I said, our starting position is that Labor acknowledge that farmers and those in agricultural businesses should not be subjected to intimidating and unlawful actions by extreme activists trespassing on their land and that, if there are gaps in the criminal law that permit such behaviour to go unpunished, it is appropriate for the government to ensure legislation fills those gaps. That is why Labor supported the passage of this bill through the House of Representatives and that is why we are supporting the passage of this bill here today.

However, from the time this bill was rushed into the parliament—and let's be honest, the genesis of this bill was another political stunt from this government—without consultation or the proper time needed for careful drafting, concerns have been raised that this bill, like so much that this government does, is a kind of virtue-signalling which doesn't take account of legitimate concerns about where this bill might go and unintended consequences that might arise, rather than being a serious attempt to protect farmers. Repeated failures in lawmaking by this government have demonstrated that the power to make laws for our nation, which is a power entrusted to the federal government by the Australian people, is a power that should be exercised with great care.

Instead, as the many potentially significant unintended consequences of this sloppily drafted law show, the Morrison government continues to see its power to make laws for our nation as a marketing opportunity simply to build the Liberal Party and National Party brands. This is concerning in the case of criminal laws because of the severe impact that such laws can have on individuals that fall foul of them. But let me say that we will be supporting this bill because Labor are prepared to support laws to better protect farmers and others involved in the agriculture sector from unlawful protests by extremist protesters on their land and on their premises. Again, if anyone has any doubt about the seriousness of the events that have been going on and the need to take action, you need only talk to some of the farm businesses who have been the subject of this illegal form of extremist protesting. We're not talking about genuine civil disobedience—

Senator McKim: Yes, you are.

Senator Faruqi: Yes, you are.

Senator WATT: I'll take the interjection from the Greens. The extremist Greens, by saying that we are talking about genuine protesting, are defending the threats to people's lives, which have actually occurred, from these extremist protesters. You really should question whether you want to align yourselves with people who are making death threats and other threats to destroy the livelihoods of people around the country. I understand that the Greens also support civil disobedience—I have no issue with that; Labor supports civil disobedience—but I will not have any truck with people who issue death threats against farming families, against children, and against businesses. Labor is not up for that. We will not support that kind of protesting. If the Greens want to stand side by side with extremist protesters who issue death threats, who issue threats against children, who publicise the street addresses, premises and locations of families and children, and encourage people to take action against those individuals, well, that's a matter for the Greens. But that is not something that Labor supports—while we do of course support the right to legitimate civil disobedience and protest.

This bill has now been examined by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee. The evidence given to that committee from 86 submitters highlighted a range of very significant problems with this bill as currently drafted. The government members of this committee then basically ignored every concern raised and recommended that this bill be passed without a single amendment.

Labor members of the committee took a more responsible approach to the task of legislative review that was entrusted to them and a more respectful approach to the people and organisations who took the time to analyse this bill and provide evidence to the committee about what they found. The fact that they were effectively doing the work of the Morrison government for it by closely examining a bill before it became law didn't seem to make any difference.

At the outset, the Labor members of the committee agreed with the claimed purpose of this legislation, which is to protect Australian farmers and primary production businesses from those who incite trespass or other property offences on agricultural land. Of course we acknowledge that the food and fibre industries add significant value to the economy and contribute to the health and wellbeing of Australians. I take this opportunity to again make clear that Labor believes that Australians operating these businesses have a right to do so in peace and that there is no place for actions, no matter the cause, that endanger or threaten workers, create biosecurity risks or intimidate farmers on their own property. That is what this bill is trying to do.

This bill is not about restricting people's genuine right to undertake civil disobedience. This is a bill that is designed to prevent extremist protesters from endangering or threatening workers, creating biosecurity risks and intimidating farmers on their own property. However, I note that Labor members of the committee recommend that this bill be substantially amended to deal with the numerous significant unintended consequences that have been identified by submitters and outlined in the report.

Labor's concern about the bill in its current form is that the poor drafting has created the risk of a range of unintended consequences. These were addressed in evidence to the committee and include: overlap with existing state and territory laws; a lack of proportionality in comparison to existing offences; impacts on the implied constitutional right to freedom of political communication; impacts on public interest journalism; impacts on whistleblowers; impacts on farmers involved in legitimate rural protests; and, finally, impacts on legitimate industrial activities by workers and unions. For that reason, I foreshadow that Labor will be moving a number of amendments to this bill.

Supporters of this bill argue that legislative action by the Commonwealth parliament is needed to fill gaps in state and territory legislation and a perceived lack of action by state authorities. However, the Attorney-General's Department has identified 31 laws that already deal with trespass, property damage and relevant incitement offences in state and territory laws. The offences created by this bill appear to substantially overlap with existing state and territory laws that already criminalise trespass, damage to property and theft and could already form the basis of criminal liability for those who incite those offences. To this extent, the bill may therefore do little but complicate the law with superfluous additional offences that will not improve existing legal protections for farmers.

It is also important to note that the government has already taken a significant and targeted action against Aussie Farms, one of the main protest groups, by listing it as a prescribed organisation under the Privacy Act 1988. According to the Attorney-General, this exposes Aussie Farms to potential penalties of up to $2.1 million if it is found to breach the Privacy Act.

Let me now turn to the unintended consequences that this bill may have. Australia has a robust democracy founded on freedom of political communication. We, in Labor, believe in defending the right of our citizens to conduct protests, and that includes the right of farmers to protest. No laws should unduly restrict those basic rights shared by all Australians.

The Law Council and some other witnesses before the committee raised concerns that the bill may impinge upon the implied freedom of political communication, because conduct captured by the proposed offences 'may overreach what is necessary for the effective operation of a system of representative and responsible government'. This concern is linked to the concern that whistleblowers and public interest journalism are not adequately protected by the bill, which could lead a court to strike the bill down as unconstitutional.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights scrutiny report also raised a number of concerns about the impact of the bill on human rights and the adequacy of the safeguards it purports to provide.

From the outset, Labor has also been concerned by evidence that this bill may have the effect of criminalising the actions of whistleblowers and journalists who are seeking to expose and prevent illegal cruelty to animals. Evidence to the committee from numerous submitters, including the Law Council of Australia and Australia's Right to Know, was that, as presently drafted, the protections in this bill are inadequate to protect public interest journalism. Once again, these problems could be fixed with fairly simple amendments, consistent with protections for journalists and whistleblowers in other laws, but the Morrison government has chosen to ignore this reality and to place Liberal Party marketing objectives before press freedom and the basic rights of all Australians, including their right to know.

While the government continues to claim that the bill will provide adequate protection for journalists and whistleblowers, over recent months Australians have seen the Morrison government's lack of respect for the public's right to know about unlawful activities and its willingness to use the criminal law and the police to seek to intimidate independent journalists and whistleblowers who seek to expose wrongdoing.

We in Labor are concerned to ensure that this bill will not add to the threats to journalists who are trying to do their job in the public interest, and we will be moving an amendment to ensure that journalists and whistleblowers will be fully protected.

Another possible unintended consequence of this bill is that its poorly drafted provisions could also be directed against farmers, the very people it is said this bill will protect. Labor members of the committee pointed out that protests on agricultural land are not only carried out by animal rights activists. In recent years there have been many cases of protests and other activist activities, including trespass, on agricultural land by people involved in rural groups such as the Lock the Gate Alliance and those involved in water pipeline protests in Victoria's Yarra Valley. While the government claims that the bill is aimed at animal rights protesters, it is clear that the offences in this bill could also be used against farmers engaged in protest actions against mining exploration or other developments on agricultural land. And, as the Prime Minister has recently declared, he is never troubled to see the law enforced.

In their additional comments, Labor members of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee concluded:

There may well be a case for stronger laws or penalties in some states, and more rigorous enforcement of existing laws, in order to protect farmers, workers and their families from the harms and potential harms of activist trespass. Labor is not convinced, however, that this bill as currently drafted is the right vehicle to achieve those aims.

They also said:

Labor's long term position has been to support moves to achieve better animal welfare and consistent application and enforcement of animal protection statutes by harmonising relevant federal, state and territory laws and codes. Labor has supported the establishment of an independent office of animal welfare; phasing out cosmetic testing on animals or on products used in the production of cosmetics; and; has opposed any 'ag-gag' legislation.

The Commonwealth parliament is no place for virtue signalling, especially when there are broader consequences. The lack of rigour applied to the drafting and evidence from the relevant departments on this bill has led to concerns that this is a problem looking for a solution.

I commend those comments of the Labor members of the committee.

In conclusion, when this bill was introduced Labor made clear that our concerns are not with the stated purpose of the bill but with the many potential unintended consequences that could flow should this poorly drafted bill become law. For these reasons, Labor did not oppose the bill's passage through the House and said that we would announce our position following consultation with farmers and legal experts and following review of the recommendations of the report on the bill by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

Labor understands that the vast majority of Australian farmers respect the law and care for the animals that are their livelihood and would agree with us that laws passed to protect farmers from unlawful actions on their land should not have the unintended consequences of criminalising legitimate journalism and whistleblowing on matters of public interest or stifling legitimate protest actions, including those taken by farmers themselves.

If the government really wanted to deal with the problem of protests by Australians against animal cruelty, it would be better off by showing that it is responding to their concerns by trying to better deal with the problem of animal cruelty. As the government majority of the committee itself declared, there is little doubt that activists who trespass to collect footage or release farm animals do so because they are motivated by a genuine personal commitment to animal welfare. However, Labor is prepared to support laws to better protect farmers from unlawful extremist protest activities on their land, and for that reason we will be supporting this bill.