Scott Morrison has something in common with Chris Delforce, one of the creators of the Aussie Farms website that has been deemed responsible for the sharp rise in “farm invasions” in the past year.
They both want to increase the general public’s knowledge and understanding of modern farming practices and the reality of how we get our food.
It’s a lack of knowledge, Morrison told the audience at the Daily Telegraph bush summit in Dubbo last week, that allowed the protesters to gain traction.
Delforce agrees. He told Guardian Australia in the wake of protests in Melbourne in April,that the purpose of both the Aussie Farms website and subsequent protests was to educate the public about the reality of livestock production in Australia, a reality from which Australia’s increasingly urbanised population, as Morrison lamented with a different slant in Dubbo, had become distanced.
The difference lies in what they think a greater knowledge about agriculture will achieve. Morrison, and the National Farming Federation, believe that informed consumers will have sympathy and support for farmers.
The protesters believe that support is hard to maintain when squeamish consumers are confronted with video footage showing animals being killed, even if that footage shows legal, best practice methods of humane slaughter. They also know that attempts to shut down protests, like federal laws expected to pass the lower house this week, can aid their cause with an audience increasingly uncomfortable with eating meat.
Farmers may want nothing more than keeping protesters off their land and away from their livestock, but in shutting protesters down without addressing their core concerns both industry and government risk making it look like agricultural producers have something to hide.
“These laws that aim to curb this kind of protest activity, that aim to concern the gathering and dissemination of footage and photos that aims to show what is actually happening on farms and in slaughterhouses is stifling the ability of Australians to have informed conversations,” Delforce said.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019, before the lower house this week, creates a new crime of using a carriage service (the internet or a phone) to incite trespass on agricultural land, in a manner that “could cause detriment to a primary production business.” The maximum penalty is 12 months imprisonment. A second offence, with a penalty of five years, is using a carriage service to incite property damage or theft on agricultural land.
Both were already broadly covered under existing laws around using a carriage service to menace or harass; or counselling or procuring the commission of an offence.
The haziness around the meaning of “inciting” has raised some eyebrows in legal circles. Labor has flagged concerns about the strength of protections for journalists and whistleblowers. There are also constitutional issues similar to those that bought the Tasmanian anti-protest laws undone, and activists have said they would look to challenge these laws in the high court.
As effective deterrence, laws in New South Wales to introduce a $1,000 on-the-spot fines for trespass onto an agricultural property are likely to be more effective. Western Australia has proposed making the live-streaming of protests an aggravating factor in trespass cases, and introducing ongoing restraining orders for activists convicted of agricultural trespass. Morrison has asked that all states and territories look at their own trespass laws.
Recent cases of protesters being charged with trespass or theft has seen them get a discount on sentencing for their immediate plea of guilty and walk away with a fine, paid off through crowd-funding. The same narrative was at play during the forestry protests in Tasmania, and inspired the Liberal party to introduce the now-defunct industrial protest laws.
Trespass on, damage to, or theft of private property have always been illegal and it is appropriate to condemn such activities, particularly when they occur on the property where a person lives as well as works.
But as with forestry, a focus on the protests themselves has distracting the agriculture industry from what ought be its core focus. That is, maintaining trust with consumers through robust and transparent animal welfare processes.
If concerns about animal welfare had received prompt response, the current spate of protests would not have this much traction. Protesters and other individuals have repeatedly reported animal welfare concerns to the relevant authorities. State agriculture departments have received a steady stream of video footage from activists for years, to very little effect.
The process of investigating complaints against producers is not transparent and often results in the issuing of an infringement notice and no further action. Just as a slap on the hand against protesters infuriates the farming lobby, a slap on the hand against producers infuriates activists.
So they take the campaign public. Every significant victory in animal welfare in Autralia, from prosecutions against domestic abattoirs to the effective end to the live export of sheep during the Middle Eastern summer, has come as the result of a very public release of footage illustrating abuse about which regulators had, in many cases, already been made aware.
Even the recent announcement from Victoria that it will introduce mandatory pain relief for mulesing was the result of a long-running consumer campaign. A majority of farmers have already changed their practices in response, in order to maintain access to certain markets.
Some change, the Victorian Farmers Federation told the ABC, was necessary for farmers to maintain their social licence: “We don’t have a God-given right to be farmers anymore.”