Love Animals? Hate Climate Change? You’re The New Australian Terrorist

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With the Turnbull Government poised to push forward on the Abbott Government’s threats to hide mining projects from legal challenge, Jordan Sosnowski notes it’s not just environmentalists being branded terrorists and vigilantes.

Aussies have a knack for calling a spade a spade but our politicians have gotten into the bad habit recently of calling a spade a pitchfork.

It seems my enthusiastic tree-hugging is inadvertently risking thousands of jobs, keeping hundreds of millions of people in energy poverty and my animal loving ways are posing a biosafety hazard of epic proportions.

I’m basically King Midas, except everyone I touch gets sacked and then contracts foot and mouth disease.

These dire proclamations would be almost laughable, were they not so dangerous.

By labeling those who seek to protect the environment and animals as “vigilantes” and “terrorists”, politicians are effectively demonising legitimate activism.

Perhaps what is most scary, is this Abigail Williams’ approach is working remarkably well.

You see, spades have a rather wholesome aura. They’re solid and dig up dirt. But pitchforks have a “lift and pitch” angry mob quality, and it doesn’t help that they’re the devil’s tool of choice.

As US journalist Will Potter points out, activists used to be viewed as heroes, but are now labeled as terrorists in order to incite fear and discredit their cause.

Take the recent attack on the Mackay Conservation Group as an example.

In order to challenge Greg Hunt’s approval of the Adani coal mine, the group used legitimate environmental law mechanisms, put in place to ensure that decision makers are kept in check.

Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.
Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt.

And, they were right to do so, because Hunt did get it wrong.

Thanks to the group’s challenge, the federal court found Hunt had failed to take into account two threatened species when he approved the mine, which will produce up to 60 million tonnes of coal per year (creating an estimated 128 million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide).

But Hunt didn’t see a major problem and simply labelled the error as a “technical administrative matter”. Australia’s chief legal officer described the legal challenge “vigilante litigation” and the court decision “appalling”.

A little over two months later, the project was re-approved and our Attorney-General is now trying to amend the law so environmental groups are barred from mounting exactly these sort of court actions in the future.

In a similar move to curb activists, the NSW parliament recently passed the Biosecurity Act.

Despite its name, the new legislation isn’t just about stopping footrot and controlling invasive plants. It’s about stopping animal rights activists and controlling the release of undercover footage.

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When the legislation was first introduced last year, then Minister for the Department of Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson likened undercover investigators to terrorists.

In a speech to NSW farmers, Hodgkinson also said, “We have to keep putting it up to city people that don’t, may not necessarily understand our farming practices and how important they are, that they cannot support these groups such as Animals Australia and cannot support what they’re doing.”

So when we see undercover footage of workers kicking piglets and beating sows with a sledgehammer and feel outraged, it’s our queasy city sensibilities that get in the way of our understanding.

Under the new legislation, anyone who enters a NSW farm without permission becomes a “carrier” of “biosecurity matter”. This includes any of the person’s possessions, say for example, a video camera. Individuals can be fined over a million dollars and jailed for up to three years.

While this legislation isn’t likely to come into effect until 2017, there are already plenty of laws to protect farmers against trespass.

(IMAGE: United Soybean Board, Flickr)
(IMAGE: United Soybean Board, Flickr)

In a 2011 case, animal activists entered a farm at night to take photos and video of cramped conditions. The investigators were found guilty of trespass and ordered to pay damages of more than $16,000. Two activists were just recently charged with 22 offences under the Surveillance Devices Act for breaking and entering into a piggery.

These (and many more) cases demonstrate there is sufficient legislation dealing with farm trespass and illegal surveillance. Despite this, Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce has backed the NSW legislation and is also supporting the introduction of a similar national Bill. The proposed federal legislation has been couched as an “animal protection” Bill, yet specifically targets animal welfare activists.

Of course farmers should be legally protected against unlawful trespass. But when the law is used to protect people who abuse animals and punish those who expose cruelty, all is not well in the hen house. Or the piggery. Or any Aussie farm for that matter.

When activists go undercover or challenge decision makers, they’re not digging up dirt merely to be troublesome – they’re calling out harmful coal deals and revealing systematic animal cruelty because they genuinely care about climate change and animal suffering.

Activists certainly have an agenda, but it isn’t a hidden one. And when abuses of power are brought to light, more often than not, we’re glad there was a “vigilante” who bothered to go digging.

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Jordan Sosnowski

Jordan is the Advocacy Director at Melbourne-based organisation Australia for Dolphins. She graduated from Monash University with a Master of Laws, Juris Doctor. Jordan was admitted as a lawyer in NSW in 2013 and is an Associate Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.

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