Dr Chris Back - Liberal Senator for Western Australia

Animal Welfare

March 3, 2015

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (20:52): I rise this evening to speak on the scourge of animal cruelty and its increase in this community, the efforts that I am making through a bill presented in this place on 11 February, and the vitriolic, not surprising attack on me and this legislation by animal activists. The bill, very briefly, undertakes two areas. The first is that, if a person sees what they believe to be malicious cruelty to an animal or animals, they would report that in the least possible time and they would provide a visual image, if they have taken an image, of that cruelty so that, if indeed it is happening, it can be inspected and examined and, if there are other animals at risk of suffering the same fate, it can be stopped. Indeed, if there is the capacity for prosecution of the perpetrators then that is what would flow from it. The second element of the legislation goes to the actions of a person who would, for whatever reason, intimidate, threaten or attack a person or persons associated with an animal enterprise or would invade that property to place animals and, indeed, humans at risk from an occupational health and safety, animal welfare or biosecurity point of view.

Let me make the point strongly: nothing in this bill prevents a person acting legally in any way at all. Once a person has presented that material, together with the evidence, they can go to the media and continue to collect more evidence. In fact, nothing at all under this bill prevents a person from carrying on in a legal, lawful way to gather more information, to go to the press or to do whatever they want to do—contrary, unfortunately, to the vitriol and the stupidity which have been visited upon me.

What is the scope of this particular issue? Let me go to the annual reports of the RSPCA going back the last few years. In 2008-09, there were 50,700 complaints, resulting in 200 successful convictions. Go forward to 2011-12: 52,000 complaints, with 300 convictions. Last financial year, in 2013-14, there were 59,000 complaints, with a measly 230 convictions. I am trying to do something about improving prosecutions. Nationally, there are 1,100 complaints a week. In my own state of Western Australia, there were 3,664 cases in 2011-12, doubling to 6,100 the following year. And the level of convictions? A measly 0.35 per cent of those complaints. I am bringing legislation into this place so that the visual images of that particular cruelty would be made available to authorities so that they might be able to get on top of the issue.

I go to an article in yesterday's Conversation by two people, a Jed Goodfellow and a Professor Peter Radan. Goodfellow, from his bio, is a policy officer for the RSPCA and has been a prosecutor for RSPCA South Australia and an inspector for RSPCA Queensland. If I go and have a look at some recent South Australian and Queensland figures for complaints and convictions, I see that the conviction rate is 0.6 per cent in South Australia—a mere 30 out of 4,700 complaints—and in Queensland 0.12 per cent—222 convictions out of nearly 19,000 complaints. But this is what the two of them wrote in yesterday's Conversation about my program. First of all, they have said my bill 'has nothing to do with animal protection'. What an amazing statement from two people of supposedly superior legal capacity. They say:

By inhibiting those inconvenient investigations that have been so successful in exposing animal cruelty …

Nothing in my bill prevents a person from continuing investigations. They make the amazing statement:

The bill requires all persons who record malicious animal cruelty to report it—

and then go on to say:

Notably, the bill is not concerned with those who may witness cruelty firsthand …

How can anybody record it without witnessing it firsthand? They make the case—or try to make the case—that in some way I am trying to protect people who are 'in a position of responsibility within an industry or business that involves animals'. Nothing in my legislation comments at all on the actions or inactions of such a person, whether they work for an industry or work as an employee of an animal enterprise—absolutely and utterly nothing. They make the point:

The reporting requirement will effectively stop private investigations in their tracks.

I have not read that in the bill, I have not read it in the explanatory memorandum, it is not in the second reading speech, and I say this evening that it is not in the legislation. So what are their motives in coming out with these statements? I do not know. This is the gentleman who tells us that he has been associated with the RSPCA in two states where their success rate for prosecutions has been abysmal. What I am trying to do—as, indeed, is the role of CCTV in hot-spot areas in different locations around Australia—is to provide visual imagery so that responsible authorities actually have something with which to prosecute people.

I go secondly to an advertisement in today's mainstream media, an open letter to the Australian public—a half-page ad. I do not know what a half-page ad in The Oz costs. These animal activist groups must be very, very well resourced. What they are saying in this is that 'the bill reduces the capacity to gather evidence and build a case'. How does it do that? What it does is require someone who comes upon evidence of what they believe to be malicious cruelty to report it and to provide supporting evidence.

The ad then goes on to say, 'The recent expose of animal cruelty within the greyhound racing industry would likely have been a criminal act.' Let me make this point, if I may. I think I am right in the quote; I have made it several times in the media, and I have not yet been corrected. The footage that we saw on the Four Corners program in mid-February—it is an amazing coincidence that I brought the bill in on Wednesday, 11 February and the Four Corners program was on the following Monday evening. I will not reflect on that anymore. It is the case, as I understand it, that the footage in Victoria—at that training track for greyhounds—was commenced in November 2014.

I believe I am right when I say that the RSPCA were given that footage on Wednesday 11 February. They closed the training track the same day or the next day. It then becomes incumbent to ask the question: if the motivation was indeed animal protection and animal welfare, upon what premise would people have held that footage for a three-month period, allowing the cruelty of those animals to continue when the RSPCA, as I understand it, was able to close up that training track and cease that cruelty literally within hours of being presented with the information?

In this particular advertisement, in today's newspaper, they go on about the term 'ag gag', which I take to mean the willingness or legislation that would stop people from actually reporting. That is what I understand 'gag' to mean. How can you apply that to a bill that far from gagging a person it requires them, if they see what they believe to be malicious cruelty, to go to a responsible authority and present that information?

With regard to people who might be trying to covertly obtain information, I only make this point: nothing in my bill prevents or precludes any person from acting legally. If they wish to protest, if they wish to gather outside a facility, all of that is legal. Any person in this country can act legally. But we must not take the law into our own hands. The legislation provides that a person would report that.

This is either about cruelty or it is not. It is about a moral obligation to act. It is, in my view, the concern of the welfare and the wellbeing and the protection of animals. I am at a loss to know how holding that footage for three months works. Where is the test of human decency in an action that fails to protect the wellbeing of animals?



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