Chris Back’s animal protection bill vital to protect against radical activism: Agribusiness lawyer

James Nason, April 20, 2015

A Brisbane agribusiness lawyer Australia says a notorious case of animal activism in 2003 provides a compelling reason why Liberal Senator Chris Back’s Animal Protection Bill should be enacted without amendment.

In 2003 South Australian animal activists entered a live export feedlot in the dead of night and fed shredded ham to sheep, making them unsuitable for export to Muslim markets in the Middle East and causing a reported $1.3 million in losses for the exporters who owned the sheep.

One of the activists, Ralph Hahnheuser, was charged with contaminating goods to cause economic loss and trespassing.

He admitted his role in the act, which was video-taped by his Animal Liberation group colleagues, telling the media at the time it was ‘a small price to pay for stopping the brutal trade’ and stating that he would do it again.

However, Mr Hahnheuser was acquitted when a Federal Court judge ruled that he did not intend to cause economic damage as his primary concern, and was acting in the interests of environmental protectionism, arguing that sheep are part of the environment.

Four years later, three Federal Court judges upheld an appeal by the exporters Rural Export & Trading (WA) and SAMEX involved, stating that protecting sheep from harm during a voyage overseas was not capable of being “environmental protection”, and ordered Mr Hahnheuser to pay the exporters court costs, believed to have been in the vicinity of $70,000.


Trent Thorne

Agribusiness lawyer Trent Thorne from McCullough Robertson in Brisbane says a Commonwealth prosecutor would encounter the same ‘intent’ problem if similar actions were taken by animal activists today and proceedings were commenced under the Criminal Code Act 1995 currently in place.

“This is clearly a gap in the legislation at present, but the Animal Protection Bill should address this issue,” Mr Thorne states in a submission to the senate inquiry into Senate Back’s Animal Protection Bill.

He argues that the case provides “cogent and compelling evidence of why the bill should be enacted without amendment”.

Mr Thorne’s submission is among more than 700 submissions that have now been published on the website of a Senate Committee which is conducting an examination into Senator Back’s legislation.

The vast majority of submissions are from individuals and groups urging senators to oppose the legislation.

Several animal rights groups launched a public campaign against the proposed legislation earlier this year, taking out a national newspaper advertisement to actively encourage their supporters to email MPs and Senators involved in the inquiry to voice their opposition to what they described as ‘dangerous ag gag’ laws.

In contrast to many submissions now published on the website, Mr Thorne says he wholeheartedly endorses the “simple aims” of the Animal Protection Bill, which he lists as “minimising delays in the reporting of malicious cruelty to animals” and “preventing interference with the conduct of lawful livestock production”.

Radical elements of animal rights activism

Until now, he says, Australia has been fortunate to avoid the “more radical elements” of animal rights activism that has been present in the United States and Europe for decades. He points to this article from the US National Animal Interest Alliance, which documents many of those examples.

In 2003, the same year that activists broke into the feedlot in South Australia, a radical animal activist in the US bombed two office buildings in the San Francisco area, becoming the first US domestic citizen to be named on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List.

The FBI has described eco-terrorists and animal rights extremists as “one of the most serious domestic terrorism threats in the US today”.

This was based on “several reasons” including the sheer volume of their crimes (over 2000 since 1979), the economic impact of their crimes (losses of more than $110 million since 1979), the wide range of victims (from international corporations to lumber companies to animal testing facilities to genetic research firms); and their “increasingly violent rhetoric and tactics”. For example, a communiqué sent to a California product testing company said: “You might be able to protect your buildings, but can you protect the homes of every employee?”

Mr Thorne said the US Government responded to the rising campaigns of reckless and wilful damage by enacting the far-reaching Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in 2006.

The penalties enshrined in the AETA are significant and include life imprisonment.

Mr Thorne said it would be naïve to suggest that such wanton acts of violence and criminal damage would be unlikely to happen to Australian livestock producers in the future, pointing to the 2003 SA feedlot intrusion as an existing precedent.

Mandatory reporting requirement not unusual or unique

He also argues that the scope of the mandatory reporting component of Senator Back’s Animal Protection Bill is not “unusual or unique” in the Australian legislative landscape.

If animal rights activists believe animals should be afforded the same rights as humans, he asks, should it not be mandatory to immediately report evidence of malicious cruelty to animals, just as it is mandatory under law to report cases of domestic violence and child abuse?

While societal expectations alone would support such evidence being delivered without delay to the relevant authorities to ensure that the perpetrators were brought to justice, the State of Victoria last year introduced a new criminal offence imposing a clear legal duty upon all adults to report child abuse information. The maximum penalty for failing to disclose the information to police is three years imprisonment.

“This needs to be compared to the position advocated for by the animal rights groups that are against the mandatory reporting obligations in the Animal Protection Bill,” he said, quoting a Voiceless press release which states that forcing individuals to present evidence as it is discovered means that incidents of cruelty will always be characterised as ‘one-offs’.

“Campaigners for victims of domestic violence and child abuse did not bemoan the fact that incidents are reported to authorities on a ‘one-off’ basis,” Mr Thorne said.

“On the contrary, the emphasis is on reporting each incident to stop the circle of violence and abuse.

“If we take a step back and follow the philosophy of the animal rights groups, they endorse an ideological construct that humans and animals should be afforded the same rights.

“In a society where humans and animals should be afforded the same rights, why would an animal rights group believe that is it acceptable for them to suppress and censor suffering to satisfy a media focused agenda, which has the clear potential to be detrimental to the health and well-being of the allegedly abused animals?

“There is no benefit derived from waiting to build a greater body of evidence for domestic violence and child abuse victims; if evidence exists it must be used to pursue prosecution of the perpetrator without delay.”

“If this is compared with the position of the animal rights activists, they operate on a self-imposed time schedule, are not ‘animal-centred’ and do tolerate abuse in circumstances where they acknowledge that it is a deliberate tactic to aggregate footage of alleged abuse, which causes delays in reporting cruelty to the relevant authorities.”

Conflicting views among animal groups

Mr Thorne says he also believes some groups have a clear conflict over this issue.

“I would submit that it seems perverse that the position being advanced by the RSPCA is that lawful agricultural operations performing lawful activities are mandatorily required to report incidents of alleged animal cruelty, but activists who enter these facilities unlawfully, and record alleged animal cruelty within these operations, are not to be subjected to the same mandatory reporting requirement.

“…Does this mean that the RSPCA believes that animal rights activists are in a separate class, and are not required to report animal cruelty on a mandatory basis?

“Where is the ‘morality’ in holding onto footage of alleged animal cruelty, in circumstances where the delay in providing the footage to the relevant authorities will potentially lead to further acts of cruelty.”

“In any event, it could be argued that the prosecution of offenders is an afterthought for the activists, because the main purpose of their media campaigns is to turn public opinion.

“How much abuse is ‘enough’ to show ‘systemic abuse’ and why do the animal rights activists get to be judge, jury and executioner in terms of the material that is disseminated to the Australian public?”

He said that, in his view, it could be argued that some advertising campaigns by animal rights groups bordered on misleading or deceptive conduct under Australian Consumer Law.

In many cases a livestock property is where producers also live, and breaking into their property is the equivalent of breaking into their home.

In Australia you are ordinarily deemed innocent until proven to the contrary. However, animal rights activists started from the other end of the spectrum and operated under a different paradigm, namely that businesses/individuals operating in livestock production are immoral and breaching animal rights on a daily basis, and are guilty on that basis.

This was despite it being clear that there was no incentive for producers to treat livestock in their care poorly, as they have a vested interest in getting the livestock to market in the best possible condition so that they an achieve the best possible return.

“It cannot under any circumstances be deemed acceptable that the participants in a lawful industry (and the employees working within that industry) can be subjected to intimidation, threats of violence and/or property damage; the people who are making these threats and/or carrying out property damage are aligned to a minority philosophical position (animal rights) i.e. there is no current societal endorsement that this type of conduct is acceptable in Australia.

“By way of conclusion, if an individual has sufficient conviction in their beliefs and are concerned with livestock production, they are free like every other citizen in this country to engage in political debate and attempt to change the way our society operates via our elected representatives, not undemocratic, vigilante action.”

“…There is absolutely nothing dignified or courageous about sneaking around on other peoples’ property after dark, often with nothing more than threadbare allegations from disgruntled former employees. The simple reality is that there are current avenues available to deal with alleged animal cruelty issues via complaints to the RSPCA or the police.”

Mr Thorne’s full submission can be viewed here



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