A Victorian Legislative Council committee has brought down its report into the Impact of Animal Rights Activism on Victorian agriculture, with its chair saying it was highly supportive of the farm sector.
Committee chair Northern Metropolitan Region Labor MP Nazih Elasmar said members had also criticised the illegal actions of animal rights activists.
"Our recommendations address the problems raised with us by people across the state and will help to build public confidence in an industry that is vital to Victoria and that has high standards of animal welfare," Mr Elasmar said.
"Public confidence is a key weapon against the misinformation spread by some activists.
"Those animal rights activists who are engaging in illegal behaviour must stop.
"They can make their point, but they must do so without harassing and frightening farmers and their families and staff."
But State opposition Agriculture spokesman Peter Walsh said instead of backing farmers, the government had sided with those who wanted to push an extreme anti-agriculture agenda on Victorians and end livestock farming.
The Coalition rejected the committee's recommendation to legislate stronger protections for animal activists caught trespassing on Victorian farms.
It also rejected recommendations it said threatened current practices in livestock industries that were compliant with the state's strict animal welfare standards.
"Labor can't claim to support our farmers while handing law-breaking activists a 'get out of jail free' card." Mr Walsh said.
"This inquiry was a genuine opportunity to deliver the change regional communities have been demanding."
Read more: 'Weak' laws fail to deter animal activists
The coalition committee members were unable to support the majority report.
Commitee members Eastern Victoria Nationals MP Melina Bath and Western Victoria Liberal MP Bev McArthur and Western Metropolitan Liberal MP Bernie Finn rejected the recommendation the government lookg at codifying "public interest exemptions" in the Surveillance Devices Act, for activists illegally installing survellance equipment on farms.
It was among the recommendations, put forward by the committee.
Other key recommendations included:
- The government instruct relevant regulatory bodies to collect data to distinguish between livestock theft, committed by activists, and theft committed by non-activists.
- Agriculture Victoria display online information about standard practices and related legislation
- Agriculture Victoria and PrimeSafe work with industry to collect examples of benchmark, high-quality animal welfare and biosecurity activities, to better inform the community.
- The Victorian government support the creation of an Australian Commission for Animal Welfare
Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said she would give due consideration to both the majority, and minority, reports, released by the committee.
"I am not dismissing those recommendations," Ms Symes said
"I like the way they've gone down the biosecurity angle, that's a really big concern for our farmers and is a big concern for me as Agriculture Minister.
The committee recommended proposed new biosecurity offences included an on-the-spot fine, similar to the NSW model, for non-compliance with biosecurity plans.
It also recommended the government consult with industry, unions and other relevant stakeholders and consider the implementation of closed-circuit television in Victorian abattoirs.
Ms Symes said the government had commenced work on improving biosecurity and the committee's recommendations would inform that.
She agreed that deterrents needed to strengthened.
"I have been very firm in my view of illegal activities on farm, trespass is unacceptable," Ms Symes said.
Farmers, their families and employees needed to go about their jobs in a peaceful manner, and without fear of people entering their properties.
"Further deterrance is neccesary, further messaging is neccesary," Ms Symes said.
During the recent bushfires, there had been clear evidence farmers were champions of protecting animal welfare.
She dismissed Mr Walsh's claims that the government was soft on activists.
"Mr Walsh does what Mr Walsh does," Ms Symes said.
"He gets the evidence before him, reads it a bit like a horoscope, and tries to work out how best he can position his day."
Ms Symes said she believed the report was very well balanced.
"I think Mr Walsh is underselling an independent parliamentary inquiry," she said.
Mr Elasmar said the committee made 15 recommendations, focused on building confidence in existing animal agriculture standards, modernising the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and ensuring reports of animal cruelty were addressed appropriately.
In the report, the Committee expressed concern about the level of misinformation spread by activists. regarding animal agriculture practices.
It considered Agriculture Victoria ideally placed to correct this misinformation, allowing Victorians to be better informed about those matters.
The report has also recommended strengthening Victoria's biosecurity laws to address the risk of animal rights activists spreading pests and diseases at agriculture businesses.
Mr Elasmar said the committee identified a weakness in current biosecurity legislation.
It recommended the creation of a new biosecurity offence requiring any person entering an animal agriculture business to adhere to the property's biosecurity management plan, with those who fail to comply receiving an on-the-spot fine.
"The committee has determined that animal rights activism poses a significant biosecurity risk to animal agriculture businesses and to our economy," Mr Elasmar said.
"Fortunately, we have avoided an outbreak of disease linked to activists entering Victorian farms.
"To avoid an outbreak in the future the committee has recommended all Victorian commercial farms and abattoirs have a biosecurity management plan in place and that visitors who fail to comply with those plans be penalised."
Fair and balanced
The committee received more than 500 written submissions and conducted seven public hearings in Melbourne and regional Victoria, with 57 witnesses giving evidence.
They included farmers, abattoir owners, transport operators, animal rights activists, regulators and Victoria Police.
"This inquiry gathered and considered evidence in a detailed and balanced way," Mr Elasmar said.
"This report is a clear statement to Parliament from our Committee that we must support farmers and others in the agricultural industry conducting their lawful business."
The inquiry was prompted by events, in 2018 and 2019, where animal rights activists intimidated farmers, stole livestock and disrupted businesses.
"These events caused a great amount of stress to the agriculture community and rural and regional Victorians in general," Mr Elasmar said..
The evidence is reflected in the 12 Findings and 15 Recommendations that appear throughout the report and which cover three key themes:
- . Support for the right of farmers and everyone in the animal agriculture industry to do their job without fear
- . Rejection of activists who break the law and intimidate farmers, their families and staff, and other workers in the sector
- . An awareness that public confidence in the industry and its animal welfare practices protects the sector from unfair and misleading criticism.
Mr Elasmar said Finding Four, 'for farmers and staff who reside on a farm, the whole property is their home,' formed the foundation of the investigations
The Committee held five public hearings across regional Victoria, to hear from farmers, transport operators and abattoir owners.
" We have quoted industry representatives over 90 times from these hearings as well as from the submissions the committee received," Mr Elasmar said.
"The report is a clear statement that the committee respects these workers and business owners, who overwhelmingly do the right thing.
"They have our full support in running their legal businesses."
The committee was firm in its belief that there were strong maximum penalties, contained in legislation, such as the Summary Offences Act and Crimes Act.
"These penalties are waiting for the judiciary to use should these activists not heed this warning," Mr Elasmar said.
Mr Elasmar said the committee was concerned to learn that there was a great deal of misinformation in the community regarding modern animal welfare practices and legislation.
"Some activists exploit this to gain public support for their illegal actions," he said.
"So while it may seem that many of the recommendations focus on animal welfare, they actually provide extra protection for the animal agriculture industry by ensuring well-informed consumers maintain confidence in the sector."
While industry must do most of the "heavy lifting" to inform the public of animal welfare standards, governments and regulators could also help the public better understand the truth.
"That's why the report recommends that the regulators, in particular Agriculture Victoria, do more to inform the public about the standards farmers meet and the legislation that they abide by, such as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986," Mr Elasmar said.
Mr Walsh said instead of backing farmers, Labor MP's were moving to tie producers up in more red tape and run a protection racket for the law-breaking activists attempting to destroy farm industries.
"The Committee heard harrowing stories of the emotional and financial toll illegal farm invasions are taking on Victorian farming families," Mr Walsh said.
"Despite clear evidence the response from our courts to farm trespass and theft is not meeting community expectations, the report is silent on ways to improve protections for farmers against activists who break the law,"Mr Walsh said.
"Our farmers and agriculture sector are the backbone of regional Victoria.
"They deserve our full support."
The government has six months to respond to any recommendations made by the committee.