Biosecurity Bill 2015

9th September 2015

Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [5.03 p.m.]: In contributing to debate on the Biosecurity Bill 2015, I add my voice to those who have already expressed concern about this legislation being used as a means to silence animal activists. That is not to say there are not many important and very worthy elements within the bill. I commend those who have developed this bill over a long time for addressing such complex issues in legislation. I acknowledge their work and the importance of it. The member for Cessnock spoke about the need to pay careful consideration to the education of people within the industry because they are at grave risk of not understanding the complexities and their responsibilities under the legislation, notwithstanding the good-faith measures that are embedded within in.

I will refer to the areas where I think the bill perhaps over-reaches in pursuing potential risks, and point out other important considerations, such as animal welfare issues that are raised from time to time. In that sense, the timing of the bill is somewhat unfortunate, coming as it does just after the Joint Select Committee on Companion Animal Breeding Practices in New South Wales handed down its report into puppy farming and other mistreatment of companion animals. I served on the inquiry and I am aware that many instances of animal abuse in these situations have come to light only through the actions and investigations of committed animal advocates. The abuses that came to light at puppy mills recently, or the cruelty previously detected in some intensive piggery and poultry farming operations, have been almost universally condemned, as they would be by members of this House. Yet it has often taken activists to bring these concerns to public notice. Therefore, it does not sit well with me now to speak to a bill that proposes measures that threaten to curb the activities of such people.

The Government may argue these laws will be put in place as a deterrent, but activists who feel strongly enough about exposing animal cruelty and have the courage of their convictions will still choose to take action—and sometimes that action will lead to the exposure of shameful mistreatment of agricultural or domestic animals. Do we really want to jail the person who brings such activities to the attention of the public and authorities, or lumber them with a six- or seven-figure fine? Certainly such a penalty could be a major deterrent. Biosecurity is an important issue but these provisions should not be part of this bill. We would all likely agree on the need to refine the current legislation into a single Act that is consistent with those in other jurisdictions. But to include in it provisions that will criminalise the behaviour of animal activists is unnecessary and inconsistent with the primary intention of the bill.

Organisations including Voiceless, Animals Australia, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Animal Defenders Office and the RSPCA have expressed their concerns about this aspect of the legislation. These names do not represent what I consider to be a ratbag group of attention-seeking troublemakers; they are largely respected organisations that have been responsible for bringing many abuses to light. The issue is not whether activists, or anyone else for that matter, should have free access to private property. That issue is already dealt with in law through the offence of trespass. It can be addressed under common law and through the Inclosed Lands Protection Act and the Crimes Act. The use of covert surveillance devices is likewise addressed in existing legislation.

People who enter farms and factories for surveillance purposes know that there is a possibility of prosecution through these avenues and take a calculated risk. There is no need for extra protective legislation exclusive to the agricultural sector to be introduced under the thin veil of biosecurity. As contributors to debate in the upper House pointed out, there is no known instance of an animal welfare activist triggering a biosecurity incident. My concern with this bill is exacerbated by the inconsistency of the Government's stated intentions and its actions. The Minister said in the upper House that the bill was not about animal welfare. He said it was not aimed at those who act in good faith and genuinely believe they are doing the right thing in relation to biosecurity. But the provisions relating to the offence of failing to discharge a biosecurity duty, as they stand, have significant implications for animal welfare.

The issues cannot be separated because the Government has chosen to group them together in this bill. The Government opposed amendments by the Animal Justice Party and The Greens in the upper House that would have clarified the position of activists in regard to prosecution under this bill and ensured the provisions could not be used to unfairly target animal protection groups and media. The Government had an opportunity to make a clear delineation between the issues of biosecurity and 'ag gag', and chose not to take it.

I acknowledge that the Minister has indicated that prosecution is always the last resort and the longstanding compliance policy is to prosecute only people who continue to do the wrong thing or who are wilful or reckless. But those assurances are not enshrined in the legislation. A future Minister, government or agency head may interpret the legislation differently. That is always the risk when we draft legislation that relies on assumptions and past practices. I acknowledge too that many administrative and other concerns that Opposition and crossbench members raised in the Upper House have been dealt with, and overall the bill will be stronger for those amendments. However, I remain concerned about its potential to criminalise legitimate whistleblowers.

I note the interjections from the Parliamentary Secretary at the table. It would have been beneficial if there had been greater consultation with Opposition and crossbench members. It has been difficult for non-Government members who do not have speeches and briefing notes largely provided to them to come up to speed with a 200-page piece of legislation. I ask for some indulgence if there are any inaccuracies in my contribution. We do our best with the resources we are provided with. I believe we have adequate laws to deal with trespass and the additional provisions and penalties proposed in the bill are unnecessary. While I support the main objectives of the bill, I have grave concerns about that part of it.

Ms Katrina Hodgkinson: There is nothing in there about it.

Mr GREG PIPER: There is. I have great concerns about that aspect of the bill.

Website: Read full Parliamentary debate

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