Questions over PM's call for class action against vegan activism

Animal rights protesters block the intersections of Flinders and Swanston Street during early morning traffic in Melbourne on Monday. Photo David Crosling.
Animal rights protesters block the intersections of Flinders and Swanston Street during early morning traffic in Melbourne on Monday. Photo David Crosling.

The Prime Minister is throwing the weight of the federal government behind farmers, offering Commonwealth support for a civil court action as a test case against militant vegan activism as a day of anti-farm protest unfolds across the country.

But an expert has warned that a test case would overlook the urgent need for state and federal laws reforms to address the growing threat that animal activists pose to the farm sector.

PM Scott Morrison said on Monday the government would support civil legal test case against "green-collared criminals" after a series of coordinated protests marked the one-year anniversary of the animal rights documentary Dominion.

We'll use every single means of action we can, including legal avenues, civil and criminal.

National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar

"If there are pastoralists, and farmers or graziers or groups that are in a position to actually bring a civil action against these groups, these green-collared criminals who are looking to undermine their livelihood, and the economy of the' Australian people, then the Commonwealth is totally open to supporting them in a test case," Mr Morrison said.

It is understood federal government will make further announcements about animal activism soon.

National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar welcomed the PM's comments and said farmers and industry have struggled to land a legal punch against militant activists when they've broken into farm properties and livestock facilities.

"We absolutely support the PM's suggestion of Commonwealth support for civil cases. We'll use every single means of action we can, including legal avenues, civil and criminal," Mr Mahar said.

"We want to look at all options regarding this illegal activity, whether that be for obtaining footage, break and enter, or stealing. All these things have occurred to farmers but we are having trouble prosecuting," Mr Mahar said.

Covert trespass incidents are notoriously seldom lead to prosecution under state laws, as police lack resources to investigate and identify individual offenders if they have concealed their identity.

And in other recent trespass cases, committed in the open to gain media attention, prosecutions for trespass on farms have resulted in minimal fines and suspended sentences.

"We're supremely disappointed at the fines being handed out. It's clearly not a deterrent, and these people see it as a badge of honour that they got a $1 or $200 fine," Mr Mahar said.

Cooper Grace Ward special counsel Leanne O'Neill said while a civil case a suggested by the PM would be "technically feasible", any proposed changes to national and state laws must allow flexibility for civil and criminal actions by both governments and farmers to protect agricultural industries.

"It's a public benefit that our agricultural sector isn't disrupted," said Ms O'Neil, who has 20 years' experience representing the agribusiness and government sectors.

The federal government could potentially take civil or criminal action against activists under Commonwealth biosecurity legislation, or torts of trespass.

But Ms O'Neill suggested "broad reforms are the better option".

The new wave of animal activism should prompt new bio-terrorism laws, which are consistent at state and federal level.

"Bio-terrorism such as the strawberry crisis includes anything that amounts to militant activism which threatens the agricultural industry, and the laws should reflect the impact on people's livelihoods and the Australian economy," she said.

"If activists walk onto a property without washdown, for example, there's a risk not just of infecting the livestock there, it's the broader livestock industry and the entire value chain.

"If a biosecurity incident occurs due to these trespasses there is a ripple effect beyond the farm gate which could threaten the entire industry with huge socio-economic impacts."

The PM's call for Commonwealth legal support followed the announcement last week that the Aussie Farms name-and-shame animal activist map had been listed under the Privacy Act.

Organisations with less than $3 million annual turnover are exempt, but Attorney General Christian Porter said the risk posed by the website, which targets family farms and processors, justified more onerous regulation.

The Privacy Act requires organisations responsible for ensuring personal information it handles is kept secure, not misused, that people can correct information personal information the organisation has collected and that it destroys information it doesn't need.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said it was now up to the states and police forces to enforce trespass laws.

"Federally, we've done our bit - we've brought Aussie Farms and it's attack map for activists under the Privacy Act so that misuse of personal information results in enormous fines," Mr Littleproud said.

"Now the states must beef up trespass laws so serious penalties apply for invading farms."

Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said his party "stands by our farmers" and blamed the Coalition's stance on animal welfare for increasing activism.

Consumers should remain free to make their own decisions about what food they eat and where it comes from as long as animal welfare standards have been met in the production process," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

"The rise and rise of animal welfare activism has been fuelled in part by Morrison Government inaction and its record of turning a blind eye to bad practices in the live export industry.

"But Labor does not condone illegal or irresponsible activism which threatens the livelihood of our farming businesses which overwhelmingly do the right thing on the animal welfare front. Labor stands by our farmers."

Mr Fitzgibbon deemed the PM's call for a test case "vague and unexplained" and said he would pursue tougher reforms around trespass in co-operation with the states.

"Dealing with issues like trespass is mainly a matter for state governments and the best way to deal with extreme animal welfare activism is through the CoAG (Council of Australian Governments) process, a process the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments have undermined," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

"One of the Abbott Government's first acts was to abolish the CoAG Committee in the agriculture space and to also abolish the Inspector General for Animal Welfare."