In a disappointing, though perhaps unsurprising move, the three Coalition members of the six-member Senate Committee tasked with reviewing WA Liberal Senator Chris Back’s ag-gag bill, paradoxically named the Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015, have tabled a report recommending the passage of the bill into legislation with one minor amendment. The Greens Committee member and two ALP members have authored separate dissenting reports.
All reports were tabled in Parliament out of session on 12 June 2015.
The Senate Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation is chaired by Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan (NSW), who appears to have cast the deciding vote. The Committee also includes Liberal Senator Sean Edwards (SA), Nationals Senator John Williams (NSW), ALP Senators Glenn Sterle (WA; Deputy Chair) and Joe Bullock (WA), and Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon (NSW). Also participating in the review of the bill were it’s proponent, Liberal Senator Chris Back (WA), and Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm (NSW) and independent Senator Nick Xenophon (SA).
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon authored a comprehensive dissenting report opposing the bill on several grounds, and the ALP members put forward a one-page dissenting report calling for an “open and transparent consultative process” to fully address the issues raised in submissions received by the Committee before the bill be considered by Parliament.
The Committee report, therefore, was exclusively authored by the Liberal and National parties, and endorses the bill for enactment subject to the recommendation that the offence of failing to report animal cruelty to authorities within one business day be amended to a requirement to report “as soon as practicable”. The more significant criminal offences contained in the bill, some of which carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment, are endorsed by the Coalition parties without amendment. Those provisions impose significant criminal liability on people who trespass on animal enterprise premises, damage animal enterprise property or property “connected with” an animal enterprise, or cause fear to animal enterprise operators, employees or persons “connected with” an animal enterprise (including family members and contractors), with the purpose of “interfering with” the animal enterprise. The bill also includes aggravating circumstances that result in harsher penalties, including where the alleged interference results in economic damage, which includes lost profits, to the animal enterprise of $10,000 or more.
The Coalition report also endorses the reversal of the onus of proof under the offence of failing to report instances of animal cruelty, which requires defendants, rather than prosecutors, to prove they reported animal cruelty within the required timeframe, and the absolute liability provisions which mean that a criminal intention need not be proved and remove the defence of mistake of fact.
The Greens’ dissenting report rejects the bill in its entirety on that basis that it “seeks to deter and punish those who would expose to the public visual evidence of animal cruelty in commercial animal industries. It would do this by effectively criminalising investigators while turning a blind eye to the perpetrators of that cruelty.” Correctly, the Greens report notes that the bill does not require eye-witnesses to animal cruelty, such as animal enterprise employees, to report animal cruelty, but only those who make a “visual recording” of instances of animal cruelty, and that the bill does not contain a single provision dealing with the perpetrators of any animal cruelty that is reported. The Greens’ report also includes a number of recommendations to strengthen the national animal welfare regulatory framework, including the establishment of an Independent Office for Animal Welfare.
Under the Senate Committee review process, a Government response to the Committee reports is due by 12 September 2015.
A copy of the Committee’s report (which includes the Greens’ dissenting report) and Labor’s separate dissenting report can be found here.