Oppose Right to Farm Bill

(Debate, 25 September 2019, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

The Right to Farm Bill attempts to deal with government claims that neighbours are instigating nuisance complaints against, and animal activists are wreaking havoc on, farms across the state.

The agricultural industry is vital to the health and wellbeing of all residents. I have long supported retaining a food belt in and adjacent to Sydney to provide Sydneysiders access to fresh food. A local food industry provides us with secure and safe produce without the “food mile” greenhouse gas emissions of imported food.

But I am concerned that this bill puts the property rights of the agricultural industry ahead of other important and competing outcomes including the right to live in one’s home free from environmental pollution and the right for animals used in farming to be treated as live sentient beings.

Urban sprawl has moved residential communities closer to food producing regions and it is vital that this process doesn’t result in the loss of our food belt. But removing neighbours’ protections against disturbing environmental impacts caused by adjacent farms is not going to solve what is a strategic planning challenge. Furthermore, it is not clear whether access to nuisance claims poses any real threat to farming operations.

Living adjacent to a farm has the potential to create serious impacts to the enjoyment of one’s home including from noise, dust, water pollution or chemical drift. Neighbours should not have their option to have the courts address these impacts removed and it is unfair for the government to take away this protection while it actively pushes communities closer to the fringes of the city.

I am especially appalled by the attempt in the bill to stop animal protection groups uncovering cruel operations on agricultural facilities. The bill more than doubles the penalties, introduces massive new jail terms of up to three years and creates new offences and aggravating factors for trespassing offences aimed at animal welfare operations.

The changes are clearly not about safety for farmers and their families given the penalty is higher for someone who trespasses in a small group of three than someone who trespasses with a gun.

I am concerned this bill will silence the whistle-blowers we rely on to uncover cruel practices on agricultural facilities.

In many cases we have no idea what actually happens to animals on farms because it happens out of the public eye. What we do know – the footage we have seen and the reports we have read – mostly comes from covert operations by animal protection groups. This transparency detects concealed cruel practices and helps inform consumers about the choices they make on their food. Indeed such exposés provide an important public benefit.

Staff on animal farming facilities who witness cruelty will have few options to get action under the bill. The not-for-profit organisations authorised to monitor animal welfare on farms are under-resourced and they, like the police, need evidence before they can instigate an investigation. I know of situations where would-be whistle-blowers who worked on facilities and saw serious animal welfare breaches, could not get the authorities to act and who either entered the property at night to install cameras to get evidence or who reported what they saw to animal protection groups. Under the bill they will be at risk of serious penalties including jail time for trespassing or inciting others to trespass.

Indeed the proposed new offences around inciting someone to trespass create a very grey area in the law that requires clarity from the minister. We must not put at risk political engagement about animal welfare. If general statements about animal cruelty – whether in general or related to a specific facility – could be considered an aggravating factor for trespassing and incur a prison sentence it would create serious perverse community outcomes. Much of what animal protection groups do is raising community awareness about cruelty in farming practices and on specific facilities and this role is in the public interest. It is not even clear if there is a risk to media outlets who report stories about cruelty, or who report on comments from someone who incites or directs others to take action against cruelty. The minister must provide clarity in his response and ensure that reporting of cruelty by animal welfare groups and the media can continue without the threat of a breach.

Animal protection groups trespass and undertake covert surveillance because existing oversight and accountability measures are inadequate. Animal husbandry includes significant responsibility towards animals in recognition of their ability to feel physical and psychological pain, but sometimes profit or just sheer cruelty put animals at risk of suffering – suffering that can include torture and that the community does not accept. This problem will not go away by criminalising and hindering the very important work of animal protection groups – it will just go undetected! It would be more effective and in line with community values and expectations if the government instead focussed on improving transparency and accountability on farms and commercial animal facilities.

The organisations tasked to oversee the industry need better resources to undertake regular unannounced inspections and investigate complaints. Compulsory closed circuit television cameras in all commercial animal facilities, farms and slaughterhouses would encourage compliance with animal welfare laws and codes.

This bill fails to get the balance right between private property rights, environmental impacts and animal welfare.

I do not support the bill.