A proposed law that would have introduced US-style ag-gag legislation into Australia has been defeated.
Members of the South Australian Legislative Council voted down the Surveillance Devices Bill 2014, which would have brought in tough legislation against animal activists, including increased penalties for trespass.
The Bill would have banned the installation and use of surveillance devices and made it illegal to use, communicate, or publicise any information or images gathered through surveillance.
While it did not specifically mention agricultural facilities or factory farming, the proposed Bill was similar to ag-gag laws in place in the US.
Those gathering undercover footage of cruelty on factory farms could have been imprisoned for three years.
The proposed Bill would have criminalised the release of information derived from unlawful surveillance to the public. Any individual activist, journalist, or whistle-blower who gathered footage undercover on a factory farm would have faced a 15,000 AUD fine or three years in jail. Corporations violating the bill’s provisions would have faced a maximum fine of 75,000 AUD.
Journalist Will Potter, who is author of the book Green is the New Red, said: “The defeat of this proposal in South Australia is a major victory. But more ag-gag proposals are being proposed at state and federal level.
“Ag-gag has been a growing debate in Australia within the last year. I recently completed a month-long tour about ag-gag laws there, and the media and public response to the bills was overwhelmingly against them.”
The South Australia Bill was strongly opposed by Voiceless, an independent and not-for-profit think-tank that works to alleviate the suffering caused by factory farming and the commercial hunting of kangaroos.
Emmanuel Giuffre from Voiceless said that, while the organisation did not endorse unlawful behaviour, it acknowledged the benefit of surveillance in the areas of animal and consumer protection.
“Images like these are the only window we have into the treatment of animals on factory farms and it should not be a crime to publicise them.”
Surveillance footage, which is often graphic and confronting, promotes public awareness and this leads to open dialogue, which is essential in shaping public opinion and encouraging law reform, Giuffre says.
Greens party MPs, media organisations, and labour unions also came out against the proposal.
Farmers and the pork industry have been calling for harsher penalties for activists who illegally enter farms, and they have some powerful political allies.
Australia’s Federal Agriculture Minister, Senator Barnaby Joyce, recently announced a co-ordinated national effort to crack down on animal activists gathering and publicising footage collected on factory farms.
Joyce said farmers needed to be protected from camera-wielding “vigilantes”.
Senator Chris Back in West Australia has proposed ag-gag legislation, and the New South Wales Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, has labelled certain animal protection activities as akin to terrorism.
The NSW state is proposing new “biosecurity” legislation that includes much heavier penalties for trespass.
In Victoria, the agriculture minister Peter Walsh confirmed that tough new legislation targeting animal activists would be introduced before the next Victorian state election to better “protect” farmers.
Robert Brown, from the Shooters and Fishers Party, gave a speech in the New South Wales Legislative Council denouncing the work of animal activists, and referring specifically to their surveillance activities. He called for tougher laws to regulate the use of drones, which are used by activists to monitor agricultural facilities, check on the welfare of cattle in feedlots, and verify the animal welfare claims of “free-range” farms.
The West Australian Labour Senator Glenn Sterle also backs the introduction of ag-gag laws. He said he wanted to see evidence of deliberate animal cruelty to be handed over to “proper regulators” without extended delays to avoid sensitive issues becoming overtly politicised.
“Shutting down the free flow of information, stifling debate and protecting industry from public scrutiny is not the way forward,” said the head of communications at Voiceless, Elise Burgess. “Open dialogue and transparency is what is needed.”
See earlier article: Australian legislators aim to gag animal rights activists