Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I just inform the Senate that I plan to speak quite briefly on this bill, the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019. Unlike, it seems, many of those opposite and on the crossbench, I am keen to see this bill get to a vote as soon as possible. Obviously it now looks unlikely that it's going to be this evening, but I'm certainly not going to be the one to hold it up, even though I would like to make a contribution. So I will keep it fairly brief.
In listening to the contributions of others in this place, there is one thing that stands out for me. When we hear words thrown around like this being about 'quashing dissent', 'cracking down on legitimate protest' and 'cracking down on civil disobedience' and that it's 'instilling fear in the hearts of animal activists everywhere', I think the people of Australia, particularly those of rural and regional Australia and those who work in agricultural industries, would just have to laugh at those sorts of comments. There is fear in the community. It is fear of the interference of radical animal activists in people's lives and people's businesses. Unlike, I suspect, the vast majority of those opposite and on the crossbench, I have actually spoken to farmers who have been directly affected by the matter that this legislation seeks to address. I've spoken to farmers whose farms have been listed on the Aussie Farms website in particular but also on other websites. This bill seeks to create an offence of inciting another person to trespass on agricultural land through the use of a carriage service—in this case, most obviously, the internet—to distribute material, and it seeks to create a second, more serious offence of incitement to cause property damage on agricultural land.
As I say, I have spoken to farmers who have been affected by these kinds of websites, who have been listed, and they are genuinely worried. They are worried about the impact on their lives, on their families and on their businesses. They often live in relatively remote areas, and they often live in very, very small communities—often just one family on a farm by themselves. In this day and age, unfortunately, we have an ageing population in our rural and regional areas. That means that it could be a relatively elderly husband and wife on a property a long way from anywhere—a long way from any support services, a long way from the police—and they are genuinely worried about what these radical animal activists will do.
We've seen the impacts. Those opposite and those on the crossbench said, 'Oh, well, this is covered by state trespass laws,' but the sheer and manifest inadequacy of those state trespass laws is demonstrated nowhere more clearly than in the case of the Gippy Goat Cafe. The penalties that were imposed on those who were found guilty—yes, they were found guilty!—were a fine of $1 each for breaching biosecurity and $250, which they were given six months to pay, to compensate for the theft of around $2,000 worth of livestock. At an inquiry into that, the owners of that now-closed cafe talked about what happened at the hearing into that particular case. Mr Gommans stated:
At the sentencing, the magistrate said [to the activists] 'no one likes animal cruelty, keep doing what you are doing but don't get caught,' …
This was Mr Gommans evidence to an inquiry into this matter. That to me is an absolutely sickening approach to take, and the penalties that were applied there were absolutely, manifestly inadequate.
People do care about this issue. They do care about protecting people who work in agricultural enterprises, who work in farms and who work in related industries. In fact, a petition of more than 6½ thousand signatures from that region was presented to the Victorian parliament calling for these types of radical animal activist groups to be stripped of their charitable status and for the strengthening of farm trespass laws in the state of Victoria.
I absolutely agree that farm trespass laws need to be strengthened right around Australia, not just to protect people and businesses but because biosecurity is actually extraordinarily serious. To not take it with a huge degree of seriousness is to let down our entire agricultural community. Just recently, I think this was reported this week, a Tasmanian farmer has actually been jailed for 11 months for illegally importing garlic. That shows how seriously we do actually take this in our laws, in some cases. But a $1 fine for breaching biosecurity! My goodness me, that just shows how out of touch some parts of our judiciary and our community are about the seriousness of this.
Biosecurity threats to our nation, and our agricultural producers in particular, are extraordinarily real and are something that farmers over the last 20 years have become increasingly concerned about and proactive about presenting. There are many farms now where you need to do wash downs on vehicles and you need to clean yourself, your boots and your own equipment; they'll check every vehicle that comes onto a particular property. They do not do this for fun or to try to keep the cameras away from their businesses; they do it to protect their livelihoods and to protect the livelihoods of every other Australian farmer.
Stopping people from inciting others to trespass on agricultural land, to disrupt agricultural businesses or to threaten the livelihoods of Australian farmers and related farm businesses is absolutely essential. That's why this bill is very important and essential, and I commend it to the Senate.