You may have heard that the greyhound racing industry is in damage control after reports that many of its members have engaged in systematic animal cruelty, including physically abusing dogs and feeding live animals to them, which is known as “live baiting”.
The news has brought the issue of animal cruelty back into the spotlight and highlighted proposed new laws that are designed to make it compulsory to report incidents of animal cruelty.
Under the proposed laws, animal activists who take undercover photographs of animal cruelty and don’t share them with police immediately could face criminal charges.
The Criminal Code Amendment (Animal Protection) Bill 2015 had its first reading in federal parliament last week, and if it becomes law, there will be a number of measures to make it compulsory to report incidents of alleged animal cruelty to the police within a short timeframe.
The proposals have been controversial, as mandatory reporting is believed to have a number of implications for civil liberties and animal welfare organisations.
In the US and some other countries, for example, there is legislation in place to prevent animal activists releasing images of animal cruelty to the media to raise public awareness.
Under these laws, material that is obtained, whether video footage or images, must be handed over to police within 48 hours.
Debate over introducing similar laws in Australia has been ongoing since last year.
Why have these laws been suggested in Australia?
The bill has been put forward by WA senator Chris Back, who is also a veterinarian with an interest in animal welfare.
He says that he has introduced the bill to protect lawfully operating animal enterprises and prevent ongoing malicious cruelty to animals. He claims that by providing images and evidence of animal cruelty to authorities immediately, authorities can act on it sooner, prosecute the suspects, and prevent the cruelty continuing.
The bill is also intended to curb the activities of animal activists and thereby protect farmers from being ambushed or having their properties vandalised.
It is argued that by placing the responsibility for enforcing and investigating animal cruelty in the hands of the authorities, legitimate farmers will be safeguarded and animals will be better protected.
Under the new legislation, incidents of animal cruelty are more likely to be treated as criminal cases and not as a political issue.
What does the suggested legislation contain?
The legislation has two parts, the first of which deals with the reporting of malicious cruelty.
Under the suggested changes, it would be an offence for a person to make a visual record of an activity that they believe to be malicious cruelty to animals and not report it to the authorities within one business day.
If the visual record is created by a federally regulated entity, in a territory or Commonwealth place, or in constitutional trade or commerce, the time period increases to five business days.
Even if the activity is investigated and later found not to qualify as malicious cruelty, the law still applies if the person taking the image or video believed that is what they were recording.
The second part of the legislation is concerned with interfering in the carrying on of animal enterprises. This relates to the activities often undertaken by animal activists in an attempt to raise awareness of animal welfare issues.
Under the proposed amendments, it would be an offence to engage in conduct that destroys or damages property that is used in carrying on an animal enterprise, or that belongs to a person who carries on an animal enterprise, or that belongs to a person connected with or related to an animal enterprise.
There is also a section that deals with criminal trespass, making threats, property damage, harassment and vandalism to a person who is related to or carrying out an animal enterprise.
The defences listed in the amendments include peaceful picketing, industrial disputes, and publishing a report or commentary about a matter that is in the public interest.
The penalties range from fines to imprisonment depending on the circumstances, and the amount of damage or harm caused to the complainant.
Concerns with mandatory reporting of animal cruelty
Many of the concerns surrounding the proposed changes focus on the similarity of the suggested laws to “ag gag” laws in the US. These laws make it impossible for animal activists to expose widespread cruelty in the media, and therefore it is argued that they are set up to protect the perpetrators and ensure the continuance of mistreatment of animals by keeping it hidden.
Although there are differences to the proposed legislation in Australia and the laws that have been in effect in the US in recent years, civil libertarians have expressed concerns that the proposed changes may be a first step in the direction of censoring freedom of speech and concealing the reality of how animals are treated on Australian farms.
Undercover reporting forms a large part of how activist organisations operate and ensure that public attention is focused on the mistreatment of animals.
Limiting their ability to do this could potentially have a far-reaching impact while protecting the farmers who engage in illegal behaviour.
It looks likely that the bill will go through, as it has support from both the Federal and NSW ministers for agriculture.