Win for animal activists and media but ag-gag fight goes on
The following article is by Elise Burgess, head of communications at animal protection institute Voiceless.
The animal protection movement has recorded a significant victory, with the defeat of “ag-gag” legislation in South Australia.
On Tuesday, South Australian legislators voted against the Surveillance Devices Bill, which sought to criminalise the public release of information collected through the use of surveillance devices, with a maximum penalty of $75,000 for a corporation and $15,000 or imprisonment for three years for individuals.
This bill would have had a significant impact on how the media reports on matters of public interest, including the treatment of animals in factory farms.
Its reintroduction in the Legislative Council by Labor Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister Gail Gago on June 5 this year attracted fierce opposition from media outlets, workers’ unions and animal protection groups, which use such footage to expose cruelty within Australia’s animal industries.
Thankfully, on this occasion, cooler heads have prevailed with The Greens, Dignity for Disability, the Xenophon Group and the Liberal Party all voting the bill down. This is a win for consumer advocacy, workers’ rights, freedom of the press and, of course, animal protection.
Opposition to the bill was celebrated by Greens MLC Tammy Franks, who said that “the upper house ensured it won’t just be those with the deepest pockets who will be able to broadcast footage that is in the public interest. Those who expose corruption or cruelty will be supported, not thwarted, in our state”.
Yet, while it is heartening to see South Australian legislators respond to an immense public outcry and to vote against ag-gag, the debate is far from over.
NSW Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson and Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh have called for legislation to target animal activists in their respective states, a move supported by Federal Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce.
Western Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back, a former vet and long-time advocate for tough laws targeting animal activists, has also announced plans to put forward ag-gag laws at a federal level.
Given the secrecy within which animal industries operate, these moves represent a co-ordinated attack on the public’s right to question the status quo and to ask questions about how millions of sentient creatures are treated in Australia every day.
In July this year, PETA USA revealed a shocking video filmed within Australian shearing sheds, giving the public an unprecedented view of the wool industry.
What they saw was horrific abuse: sheep being violently body slammed, repeatedly punched in the face, beaten and their bloody wounds sewn roughly with needle and thread and without pain relief.
The images depicted large-scale brutality.
Even though the footage was collected across 19 locations, the industry claimed the pictures are not representative of its work.
Either way, the images show that cruelty is occurring and that the industry is failing to regulate itself.
Greater transparency in animal production is needed, as increased public awareness has the potential to bring about real change and industry improvement.
Under ag-gag, it would be illegal for activists to document animal cruelty and illegal for the media to report on it.
In practice, these laws could lead to journalists or advocates being jailed for doing their jobs, and consumers being left in the dark.
Shutting down the free flow of information, stifling debate and protecting industry from public scrutiny is not the way forward.
Instead, open dialogue and transparency is needed.
That is the future of this debate, not closed doors.