Back's bill battles perception problem

Back's bill battles perception problem

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Senator Chris Back is also a qualified veterinarian.

Senator Chris Back is also a qualified veterinarian.

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AN inquiry into Senator Chris Back’s Animal Protection Bill has been inundated with thousands of public submissions, both for and against.

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AN inquiry into Senator Chris Back’s Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill has been inundated with thousands of public submissions, including many opposing the move.

A Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee inquiry was set up into the proposed laws last month, which address activists trespassing on livestock facilities to gather covert video footage to use in anti-farming campaigns.

The inquiry is due to report by May 13 with 40 submissions published for public display, following the March 12 submissions deadline.

The Committee secretariat expects the volume of submissions to escalate significantly, with hundreds of emails and phone call inquiries still being made every day. However, not all of them will eventuate in final submissions being published; either due to a request they remain confidential or by failing to meet the required submission criteria.

The Western Australian Liberal Senator’s Bill seeks to amend the Criminal Code Act 1995 to add new offences regarding failure to report a visual recording of malicious cruelty to domestic animals, and interference with the conduct of lawful animal enterprises.

In February, his Private Senator’s Bill was tabled and then referred to a committee inquiry - however, that process has yet to schedule any public hearings or witnesses called to give evidence.

Farm groups have strongly supported the move and are expected to make a range of submissions backing the new laws.

Senator Back returned fire earlier this month at advertising in The Australian, which he claimed made misleading allegations about the Bill’s intent.

He said the term 'ag gag', “which I take to mean the willingness or legislation that would stop people from actually reporting”, did not apply to his Bill.

Senator Back said the Bill - far from gagging a person - required malicious cruelty to be reported to a responsible authority without unnecessary delay.

Many of the 40 submissions published online appear to respond to the activists’ advertising message.

A submission from Professor Philip Almond and Patricia Lee said while they had no connection to ad sponsors Voiceless, Animal Liberation, AWLA, or Compassion in World Farming, “we note their advertisement in The Australian this morning concerning the proposed ag-gag laws,” the submission said.

“I am bound to say that we are absolutely staggered by a piece of legislation, the clear intent of which is to protect industries practising animal cruelty from public exposure.

“It is clearly not intended to facilitate a reduction in animal cruelty but rather to gag those whose intent is to bring to the public attention gross abuses of animals through the accumulation of evidence of such practices over the longer or shorter term.

“In giving the appearance of animal welfare by enforcing the reporting of such practices within 24 hours, it is obvious to all that this is merely a cynical exercise intended to keep the public in ignorance.”

Submission number 20 from Casey Pool said, “How is it that the government want to keep the abuse thousands if not millions of animals suffering everyday a secret?!”

“Animal cruelty should not only be taken seriously, it should be punishable with stricter penalties and jail time,” the submission said.

“There is nothing worse in this world than preying on a defenceless creature.

“Whether it’s for enjoyment, to make a buck or to satisfy your sadistic tendencies, it’s wrong ... take a good look at yourselves and stop thinking about the money.”

The Animals Australia website is also promoting an online petition to oppose the Bill which as of Friday had about 37,500 signatures, including from the US and the Philippines.

The promotion for the petition says, “….in reality, the bill would criminalise in-depth investigations that are responsible for exposing industry-wide cruelty”.

But Senator Back said if people gathered evidence illegally, it would be inadmissible in a court of law and therefore unable to gain a proper conviction. He expected to receive thousands of submissions to the inquiry which would be considered “in the usual way”, including support from farm groups.

He said all submissions were welcome to the inquiry and “that’s all part of the democratic process”.

Senator Back said he introduced the Bill after recent examples of activist groups presenting visual images - taken sometimes up to 12 months prior to disclosure – having effectively prevented responsible authorities from accurately investigating animal cruelty allegations in a timely manner.

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has also supported a tougher legislative stance against animal rights activists who take the law into their own hands via trespassing on-farm, which can increase biosecurity risks.

The Bill has undergone a “rigorous” development process over the past year, Senator Back said, with its drafting subject to “a high degree of high level scrutiny”. He said it has been vigorously debated in the Coalition party room twice and he’s also spoken to relevant ministers in detail about the proposed laws during the drafting phase.

Senator Back said Attorney General George Brandis has given it his imprimatur, it has “very strong support” from Mr Joyce and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s best advice was to “keep it simple”.

The Voiceless submission however maintained its view of the Bill being “ag gag” laws repackaged as “animal protection”.

“If enacted, the Bill will likely generate similar scepticism of, and negative sentiment towards, Australian animal industries,” Voiceless said.

“There is already concern amongst the Australian public regarding the lack of transparency surrounding animal industries, which is fuelling the sort of activism targeted by the Bill.

“In our view, introducing ag gag laws will serve only to reinforce these concerns, and further legitimise the work of activist investigators in exposing animal cruelty.

“The Bill will operate to prevent long-term investigations into systemic, industry-wide animal cruelty and will disincentivise whistleblowers from reporting acts of malicious animal cruelty.

“The Bill creates a nebulous and unnecessary offence around inciting “reasonable fear”, which has the potential to target otherwise lawful advocacy efforts.”

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