By Mitchell Clarke
The state government is being called on to strengthen laws and protect farmers from vigilante style animal activists.
Gippsland farmers and agriculture producers gathered at public hearings in Warragul and Bairnsdale as part of a parliamentary inquiry into animal activism.
The inquiry is investigating the effectiveness of legislation and other measures to prevent and deter animal activism on Victorian farms and related industries.
National’s member for Eastern Victoria Melina Bath wants Victoria to follow in the footsteps of New South Wales by implementing harsher laws in a bid to ensure activists aren’t tempted to trespass onto private properties.
“Our farming community is vital to rural and regional Victoria and indeed Australia,” Ms Bath said.
The parliamentary inquiry into animal activism comes after the Gippy Goat Café in Yarragon was stormed by activists in December last year.
Gippy Goat and Caldermeade Farm owner John Gommans spoke at the Warragul hearing on Wednesday 21 August and recalled how the events led to the closure of his business.
“We’ve been subjected to trespass and theft of our property, so much so that it’s destroyed our business,” Mr Gommans said.
“It’s been severe, it’s had a big impact on us, our family, our staff and their families and obviously the wider community but really it shouldn’t be underestimated, the impact.
“I think when people commit a crime they should in fact be prosecuted. It was very disturbing to see $1 fines for bio security breaches and compensation in the order of 10% of the value of the animal stolen, so that was very disappointing to see.”
Ms Bath claimed farmers had been harassed, intimidated, yelled at and abused by activists for doing their job.
“They go about their business, they operate within the law, and they produce great food and fibre,” she said.
“We live in a civilised society, we have rules and laws and in order to keep those laws, people must obey them.
“It is unreasonable and totally unacceptable that people take their own agenda and laws into their own hands.”
Over 300 submissions were received in response to the inquiry, with many people crediting the work of activists by bringing public attention to cruel practices associated within the agricultural industry.
Ms Bath said agriculture was an incredibly important industry in Gippsland and across regional Victoria and it was essential it had better legal protections.
But in response to the inquiry, Animal Justice Party member for Western Victoria Andy Meddick said Victoria already had trespass laws in place, and creating stronger animal welfare laws should be the priority.
“Victoria’s animal welfare laws are woefully inadequate and it is ultimately the reason why whistle-blowers feel compelled to do the work they do,” Mr Meddick said.
“In fact, farm animals are exempt from the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.
“What needs to be realised is that when the law is reformed to truly protect animals, incidents of ‘trespass’ will lessen too.”
Outside the inquiry, Mr Gommans was asked by waiting media whether he supported the prospect of implementing CCTV footage on farms to monitor practices.
“I think that idea would require a bit of further consideration but I think it’s rather an immature and unsound proposition to be honest,” he said.
“I think that there’s already a lot of legislation and regulatory bodies overseeing us, there is six I can think of straight away and I think there is sufficient oversight of the farming community now without a vigilante group taking responsibility.”
But in light of an alleged illegal abattoir in Kooweerup being brought to light thanks to CCTV footage, Mr Meddick said introducing cameras would provide greater transparency within the industry.
“Time and time again, undercover footage has shown that farms and abattoirs can be havens for animal cruelty and whistle-blowers will continue to expose this if the industry is unwilling to be accountable for their problems,” Mr Meddick said.
“CCTV in slaughterhouses will ensure the integrity of an industry that farmers are desperate to protect and the only reason to oppose a measure would be if you had something to hide.”
The Gazette contacted Premier Daniel Andrews for comment and is still awaiting a response.
The inquiry hearings will continue over the next two months with the final report into farm trespass laws to be presented to State Parliament in February.