‘Ag-gag’ Laws Backed To Hide Animal Cruelty

Published in New Matilda on June 3 2014.

Out of sight and out of mind, the Australian meat industry benefits from keeping consumers in the dark about what happens behind the closed doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

It is unsurprising then that agricultural lobby groups, including Australian Pork Limited, are currently advocating the introduction of a new set of legislation, termed ‘ag-gag’ laws, that will essentially censor investigations that expose animal welfare abuses in Australian agriculture. It is worrying, however, that several politicians are now adding the laws to their agenda on Capital Hill.

The laws are inspired by legislation already enacted in several states of the US that, under the guise of protecting the welfare of livestock, primarily seek to prohibit evidence of animal cruelty and malpractice being brought to the attention of the media and the general public.

In Australia, undercover footage of animal abuse in factory farms is the main modus operandi of activists, such as Animal Liberation, who have exposed the horrific conditions of 15 piggeries and led to the closure of two, including the controversial Wally’s Piggery that sparked public outrage in 2012.

Wally's Piggery in Murrumbateman, NSW... the subject of a major scandal in 2012.

Wally’s Piggery in Murrumbateman, NSW… the subject of a major scandal in 2012.

But although these tactics are illegal, publishing the material is entirely aboveboard. UNSW law academic Tara Ward points to a case in 2011 where the High Court ruled that the ABC be permitted to broadcast undercover footage obtained from inside the slaughtering facility of a possum abattoir.

Meanwhile, Emma Davies of the Animal Defenders Office ACT explained that the footage, even if illegally obtained, can also be accepted as evidence in a criminal trial.

“Trespassing is an offence in itself, which means entering private property without permission to record activities may attract criminal and civil liability,” Davies said. “The use and/or installation of audio or visual surveillance devices may, however, amount to an offence in itself in some jurisdictions, such as NSW, even if it does not involve trespass.

“It is also important to note that courts may permit surveillance materials to be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings, even if it was obtained by unlawful means.”

As such, a key feature of the ‘ag-gag’ laws being considered in Australia is the requirement that all footage of animal abuse in factory farms be turned over to police and relevant authorities within, at most, 48-hours. All evidence must be turned over, none of which can be given to the media or published by any other means.

Western Australia Senator Chris Back is an outspoken supporter of ‘ag-gag’ laws and argues that the provisions allow appropriate authorities to immediately investigate breaches of conduct, instead of footage being exploited to misinform the public and fuel inflammatory campaigns. In particular, he compares activists’ tactics to withholding evidence of child molestation.

“Any person with a keen interest in animal welfare, if they came upon information or vision that appeared to be of undue cruelty to animals, there should be no motivation for them to do anything other than present that material to authorities as quickly as possible, to have the issue addressed,” Back told The Australian Dairyfarmer last July.

“It would be unacceptable to the community that any person would withhold that footage for any length of time, for whatever the purpose, before they made it public.”

But opponents to ‘ag-gag’ laws see things differently. US journalist and author Will Potter specialises in animal rights and environmental movements, and presented a lecture series around Australia throughout May to raise awareness of the danger of ‘ag-gag’ laws, using the experience of the US as a dire warning.

“By eliminating that release to the media, it prevents the public and consumers from knowing what’s happening, which is the point of these ‘ag-gag’ laws,” Potter explained.

“But also turning over that footage so quickly is an attempt by the industry to say an incident is just an isolated case, rather than allowing an investigation to be built over a period of weeks or months. This way, they can pretend that it’s just a few bad apples, a few bad workers, rather than taking proper responsibility.”

Animal Liberation fights for the right of the Australian public to make up its own mind regarding the treatment and welfare of livestock.

“The public has a right to know what is happening to animals raised in factory farms. The industry knows as well as we do that if the general public become aware of their practices… they would be condemned by much of the Australian public,” Clare Atkinson of Animal Liberation ACT said.

“In regards to these matters being resolved by the police, much of the cruelty and abuse shown in footage is completely legal and considered standard industry practice. However when incidents occur that are illegal Animal Liberation ACT will refer footage on to the authorities, as was done in the case of Wally’s Piggery in 2012.”

The Australian public has a fundamental right to know how the food we consume ends up on our plate, a right that is being threatened by the proposed ‘ag-gag’ laws that purposefully keep consumers unaware, while strangling open and transparent debate and discussion.

While pressure from consumers and retailers can force much needed change within the industry, such as the phasing out of sow stalls, as long as footage is withheld, the public is kept clueless and it is ‘business as usual and as brutal’ for the meat industry, profits unharmed.

Maules Creek: Country and city folk join forces against big coal

Published in the District Bulletin on May 4 2014.

For most Australians Good Friday is a day of peace and rest. But for a team of determined protestors, the day signalled the beginning of an eleven-day mass convergence at Maules Creek to oppose a proposed open-cut coalmine in Leard State Forest, near Boggabri in northwest NSW.

 The proposal by Whitehaven Coal was given the green light by the federal government in February last year.  Construction, planned to begin in January, has since been delayed by multiple protests and blockades led by the Leard Forest alliance.

This campaign has developed a spirit seldom seen in recent years. Concerned individuals are coming together to form an inspiring coalition between traditional land owners, farmers of the local community, environmentalists, religious leaders, and just plain citizens from across the country.

Canberra university students and professors alike have gotten involved. Environmental organisations seen on the frontline include Greenpeace, the National Conservation Council, Lock the Gate, and 350.org.

350.org is an international movement aimed, domestically, at mobilising individuals from across Australia to fight against fossil fuel expansion.  350.org Campaign Director Charlotte Wood explained why the proposed Maules Creek coalmine is a major environmental concern.

“Concerns include destruction of endangered habitat in the Leard State Forest, a questionable offsets program, impacts on the already constrained local water supply and desecration of indigenous sacred sites,” Wood explained.

For Wood and the team at 350.org, the final goal of the protests is not solely to prevent the mine from being constructed, but also to communicate the public’s growing concern about fossil fuels to the government and any other vested companies.

“This mine should never have been approved in the first place and the ultimate goal is to stop it from being built. But the goal is also to send a message to the general community that it is no longer socially acceptable to profit from destruction of our climate. Companies thinking of investing in new fossil fuel projects should be aware of the financial and reputation risks involved in digging up new fossil fuels,” said Wood.

Mass arrests not deterring protesters

During the mass blockade at Maules Creek in late March, 82 protestors were arrested while others received severe fines. Among those arrested was recent ANU graduate Benjamin Huttner-Koros, who was inspired to take action by other successful acts of civil disobedience both domestically and around the world.

“I’ve been active in different environmental groups, mostly on climate change issues, for the past three and a half years, but had been thinking recently about the use of civil disobedience in activism.

“New methods to achieve social and political change have to be attempted to make a real difference to reducing the severity of climate change this century. This campaign has city and country people all involved and working together to prevent the construction of this mine. It’s incredibly exciting and inspiring.”

Huttner-Koros’ arrest in March means his role in further civil disobedience is in doubt, but his commitment to fighting the cause is only more determined.

“My motivation to protect natural places and prevent new fossil fuel projects is just as strong. There’s a lot of ways to be involved without being arrested! Taking part in civil disobedience was worthwhile and I’m happy I did. I will definitely be going back to the protest camp for further protests at some point,” Huttner-Koros said.

 Keeping the planet habitable is for true conservatives

In early March four religious leaders were detained by police after holding a prayer vigil and joining local protestors at the site’s entrance. One of them was Thea Ormerod, head of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, who, in an op-ed in The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote about the relevance of faith to the cause.

“You may ask how such a group could endorse anything so radical, but this is a well-worn path for people of faith….The movement to wind down coal-mining in Australia may be counter-cultural but it is the truly conservative one.

Its aim is to keep the Earth’s ecosystems more or less intact for those who suffer the impact of climate change in developing countries, for our own young people here and for future generations. Not a radical position at all.”

Dredging through the Great Barrier Reef debate

Published in Hijacked on March 15 2014.

The Great Barrier Reef has been a hot topic in the media due to a dredging saga that some claim is the beginning of the end for one of our greatest national treasures and tourist attractions. Depending on who you listen to, this claim is bang on the money or a merely unfounded exaggeration.

This divisive issue is the result of nine mega coalmines planned for the Galilee Basin in western Queensland which, if approved, would single-handedly double Australia’s coal output. Mining magnates Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer – surprise surprise! – both have a stake. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’s money to be mined there’s probably Gina and Clive (coming soon toNetflix).

Just as important as mining the coal, however, is the infrastructure required to export it, which includes ports. And guess which coastline is closest to the Galilee Basin? This is where the Great Barrier Reef comes in. It’s unfortunately geographically caught between Australia’s next mining venture and the ravenous global resource market.

The major port of interest is at Abbot Point, which is right next to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. There’s already one terminal at Abbot Point but in December federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved the addition of three extra terminals. This will increase the number of ship berths from two to eight to accommodate all the extra coal output from the Galilee Basin.

The most obvious environmental impact of the port’s expansion is the increased shipping traffic that it will lead to through this world heritage area. Yet an even more controversial side-effect is the dredging required to construct the new terminals.

What even is dredging?

It’s hard to deny the negative and emotive connotations of the word ‘dredging’. At first glance, it’s an ugly word that jumps out from headlines and conjures up thoughts of the industrial and the dirty. The word dredging is hardly an activity that many want associated with one of the seven natural wonders of the world. But what exactly does it mean?

Dredging is the removal of sediment from the bottom of bodies of water to maintain or increase the depth of channels or berthing areas for ships. In the Great Barrier Reef, dredging will remove debris from the seabed to create a suitable depth for coal ships to approach the shore and berth at the Abbot Point port, so they can pick up their precious cargo.

Removing the sediment isn’t really the issue: the debate really centres on where it should be disposed. As a major shock to many environmentalists in January, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) approved the dumping of this dredge soil in the boundaries of the protected marine park.

This approval is contingent on 47 strict conditions, including confining the disposal to an area free of coral and seagrass beds around 40km from the nearest offshore reef. Disposal will also be restricted to a four-month window outside of any coral spawning and seagrass growth periods, and can be halted at any time if unexpected oceanic conditions cause adverse effects.

GBRMPA Chairman Russell Reichelt recently defended the authority’s decision in The Conversation and tried to act all Mythbusters on comments that it will lead to toxic sludge or slag waste. “The reality is that disposal of dredge material of this type in the Marine Park is not new. It has occurred off nearly all major regional centres along the reef’s coastline before now,” says Reichelt.

“The material itself in Abbot Bay is about 60 per cent sand and 40 per cent silt and clay, which is similar to what you would see if you dug up the site where the material is to be relocated. In addition, testing by accredited laboratories shows the material is not toxic, and is therefore suitable for ocean disposal,” he says.

Unsurprisingly, Reichelt and the GBRMPA’s decision is still sparking outrage from environmentalists both domestically and abroad. In late January, 233 scientists lobbied the GBRMPA to reject the proposal by co-writing a letter to Riechelt that clearly stated their objection to threatening the reef with dredge disposal.

“The best available science makes it very clear that expansion of the port at Abbot Point will have detrimental effects on the Great Barrier Reef. Sediment from dredging can smother corals and seagrasses and expose them to poisons and elevated nutrients,” reads the letter.

One of the letter’s signatories, University of Queensland scientist Selina Ward, told 3AW that 3D modelling and recent research of Gladstone Harbour show that dredging soil is a threat to ecosystems outside of its immediate vicinity. “When you place a large amount of sediment in the water like this, it’s not going to sit still. It’s very likely that it will move considerable distances,” she said. According to Greenpeace spokeswoman Loiuse Matthieson, these “muddy plumes” can spread as far as 80km from the original dumping site.

Remarkably, this was the same concern raised by the GBRMPA last year in documents obtained by an FOI request by Greenpeace. The uncovered executive draft assessment indicates substantial internal concern that dredging disposal would be a major threat to the fragile reef.

“The GBRMPA believes that the proposal in its current form should be refused a Great Barrier Reef Marine Park permit…The proposal to dredge and dispose of up to 1.6 million cubic metres of sediment per year…has the potential to cause long-term, irreversible harm,” reads the draft assessment.

In particular, the GBRMPA highlighted the “sub-standard and possibly under representative modelling” used to predict the area affected by suspended sediments. In their eyes (at least at the time) there was a gross underestimate on the dredging’s effects that failed to take into account the degree to which suspended sediment might disperse. According to Reichelt, these views were only a working draft that did not take into the “strictest conditions that we have ever imposed on such a project”, without which the project would have most likely been declined.

Interestingly, the draft assessment also proposed an alternative to dredging: lengthening the port’s trestles. This would basically make the pier longer so ships can berth further out to sea, where the water level is already naturally deeper and thus the reef requires minimal dredging or none at all.

Jon Brodie, a Senior Principal Research Officer at James Cook University, supports disposing the sediment behind a retaining barrier called a ‘bund wall’. Even Greg Hunt, in his initial announcement of the Abbot Point expansion, highlighted the importance of using the material not for dumping but land infill and land reclamation disposal although, following the GBRMPA’s approval, the government jumped on board.

The disposal of dredging soil in the GBR may damage the ecosystem or it may have no effect at all. The science is, at best, debatable. What is outrageous is that an authority would experiment with risky industrial processes with unforeseeable impacts that may irreparably damage a reef that it’s supposed to protect… especially when there are known alternatives available.

Until the science is clear, a line needs to be drawn on the sands of the coral sea in Queensland. Don’t mess with our reef.

Activism changing, not dying

Published in The Australian on February 21 2014.

The National Union of Students held a Day of Action last week, championing demonstrations and marches in every major city to protest against proposed $2.3 billion cuts to federal funding of tertiary education.

It sounds impressive, but there’s a reason the rallies went mostly ­ignored; nationwide, only 1500 students turned up.

The pouring rain obviously played a part, but to put that ­figure in perspective, there are more than one million university ­students studying in Australia.

Indeed, last week’s effort pales in comparison to the demonstrations in eras gone by where ­students realised the effects of government decisions on their education and readily took to the streets to communicate their ­dissent.

So is student activism dead in Australia?

NUS Canberra branch president Tom Nock doesn’t think so. He reckons students are still ­politically engaged but take to alternative mediums to voice their views and concerns.

“Students have always been known for having strong opinions without the fear to express them. But I think the change is that you’re more likely to find their opinions in a Facebook comment than on a placard.”

Students may be just as engaged in and educated about politics today, but there is certainly a pervading sense of cynicism and defeatism surrounding the merits of protesting. When a Labor government proposes steep cuts that are supported as soon as a Liberal government takes office, it’s not surprising that students are not too sure where to turn.

In 2012 more than 1000 students at the Australian National University attended a march against major cuts to their school of music. Today, students are largely ­ignored and their opinions ­dismissed, so what’s the point? NUS education officer Sarah Garnham says it comes down to the fact if university students don’t protest cuts to their education, who will? Although universities are a vital investment in Australia’s future, it is up to students to take up the fight against cuts because no one else is going to do it for them.

“Students need to stand up for themselves. If students are going to have any chance of defending the principle of quality education (as opposed to education for the sake of profits) they have to be prepared to stand on their own two feet and try to build public support around our right to ­education.”

Regardless, half the battle for student activists these days seems to be dealing with their apathetic and cynical peers to inspire some kind of passion and fight that is ultimately in their best interests.

Does student activism need a different direction, because whatever is being done now is obviously not working. At ANU, only 50 students turned up to the Day of Action.

“The days of effective marching, shouting student demonstrations are long over; protests, petitions and posters are no longer the best methods to protect students’ educational rights — in fact, they weaken the cause when poorly executed,” says ANU graduate Yasmin Masri.

Masri points to alternative means of engaging the wider community, and this is where social media comes in. Social media has become the key method of mobilising students through events and pages shared via Facebook. Yet, as evidenced last week, its effectiveness in getting students to the streets is underwhelming.

The one-dimensional approach of using social media only for advertising is under-using a valuable resource while even being detrimental to the cause.

A significant hindrance is a recent phenomenon known as “slacktivism”, where political activity becomes simply the act of liking a post or sharing a video withoutever having to leave your computer screen or think more deeply about the issues.

A classic example is Kony 2012 by Invisible Children, a campaign embraced on social media.

The video it centred on became the most viral in history, hitting 100 million YouTube views in six days. But when it came to spurring action the campaign fell flat; 18,700 people clicked attending an Invisible Children Facebook event based in Sydney, but only 25 people showed up. In a similar vein, only one-fifth of Facebook attendees to the ANU National Day of ­Action turned out.

The use of social media in student activism needs to expand far beyond the simple advertisement of protests. It needs to be used innovatively and creatively to capture the attention of students, to inspire change by educating and raising awareness rather than driving people on to the streets with placards. That said, the days of demonstrations aren’t necessarily over, they just have to be considered one element of a campaign, the success of which is not measured by protester numbers ­

“Talking to people face to face about why a campaign is relevant to them is much more compelling than the impersonal reach that ­social media has and most people that get involved in activism ­attribute it to the fact that they were convinced by someone who they spoke to in person,” says Garnham.

Student activism in Australia is not dead, it is merely in a period of adjustment, exploring the ­potential of social media and technology as a new means to the same ends that have been fought for by students for generations.

Whale Hunting Isn’t Necessarily Evil

Published in Hijacked on February 3 2014.

We’ve all heard the slogan “save the whales”. The majority of Australians (and media outlets) take it for granted that hunting a whale is a natural evil. We automatically think of Free Willy or Greenpeace fighting the good fight, but there’s a bit more to the debate.

Technically there are only two nations that whale illegally for commercial purposes. Norway and Iceland both hunt these large mammals in direct defiance of the International Whaling Commission, which banned commercial whaling in 1982. Then there’s Japan, which whales under a permit for scientific research that’s pretty flimsy at the best of times and is about as elementary as that potato clock you might have made back in primary school.

Japan also commits an added no-no of whaling within the protected Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary situated practically in Australia’s backyard. This is the act that Sea Shepherd Australia protests and disrupts each whaling season, including via its Operation Relentless which was launched in December.

Comparing juicy steaks

Australians proudly eat around 190,000 tonnes of meat each year. Most of this is beef, pork, and chicken, but in recent years we’re even started to consider the kangaroo (that animal on our coat of arms) as fair game. Shouldn’t whales also be treated as a commodity to be consumed? Unless you’re a vegetarian, it’s a little hypocritical to call Willy sacred but chow down on a juicy steak.

I posed this question to Jeff Hansen, Managing Director of Sea Shepherd Australia. He says whales were “taken to the brink of extinction” and therefore should be protected from eating. “Whale numbers have still not recovered. If we cannot protect whales in a whale sanctuary, what can we protect?” (Hansen added that the entire Sea Shepherd fleet is vegan, and no animal products are consumed on board.)

Threatening any animal with extinction simply for human subsistence is no doubt deplorable. Yet the species most commonly fished to by pro-whaling nations is the common minke whale, which is rated as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is this species that is exclusively hunted by Norway, and makes up the bulk of Iceland’s and Japan’s whaling quotas. So if the whaling of non-threatened species can be sustainable, shouldn’t it be allowed?

This is the line of thought taken by Tim Flannery, 2007 Australian of the Year and head of the Climate Council, who for the past decade has been a surprising supporter of whaling. His bottom line is sustainability, as he told News Corp Australia back in 2007. “In terms of sustainability, you can’t be sure that the Japanese whaling is entirely unsustainable. It’s hard to imagine that the whaling would lead to a new decline in population,” he said. In 2003, Flannery also wrote aQuarterly Essay titled Beautiful Lies, in which he said: “if these animals are closer in intelligence to the sheep than the dog, is it morally wrong to eat them if they can be harvested sustainably?”

Whales are relatively small-brained, but many would disagree with Flannery, including Hansen. He describes them as “highly intelligent (more than us) and socially complex creatures.” The documentary Blackfish, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, also makes a compelling case for the under-appreciated emotional intelligence of orcas.

It is an exceedingly tricky task to definitively compare one animal brain with another. In doubt, I turned to the wisdom of Run Burgundy and his ‘Chart of Human Positionality’, as presented on Conan. Although the list was by no means exhaustive, the closest thing to a whale was a narwhal, which was placed on equal footing with homo sapiens – pretty impressive stuff, huh?

I did also consult “science”. Whales are indeed intelligent creatures but, on the other hand, pigs are also pretty smart cookies and are commonly thought to be smarter than dogs. Despite this, Australians have no problem with putting some pork on their fork, but cry foul at the thought of whale in their entrails (big shout out to rhymezone for that one).

There are some admittedly uncomfortable differences in the killing methods of a pig, cow and whale. Says Hansen: “there is no humane way whatsoever to kill a whale; some take up to an hour to die”. Harpoons are still the most common killing method despite this being shown to inflict an immense amount of pain and suffering on the animal. That said, calves raised for veal hardly have a whale of a time either.

Killing whales also has a detrimental run-on effect to the rest of the ecosystem. “The reality is that whales are far more valuable to us alive in our oceans as they play a vital role in the health of our oceans,” says Hansen. He says they create “abundant fisheries and ensuring a healthy marine ecosystem”. But pro-whaler Flannery says there are far bigger issues than whaling that are affecting our oceans, including the declining numbers of krill and small crustaceans due to overfishing and rising sea temperatures. These tiny creatures aren’t as cute, huge or intelligent as orcas or dolphins, but they’re entirely essential to our food chain… and most whales’ diets.

Beef with whale sashimi

Another big factor is the whaling debate is cold hard cash. If you listen to the headlines, whaling is supposedly an industry fuelled primarily by greed and a national taste for a delicacy. Whaling is worth more than $2 billion a year, and is subsidized by governments in Norway and Japan. These subsidies aren’t exactly trillions though: Japan only receives an annual sum of $10 million. Whaling is obviously not as profitable as it seems at first glance. So what else is going on?

Gif: giphy.com

Enter politics. Australia leads the charge against Japan’s whaling on an international stage. We took an ongoing case to the International Court of Justice last year, which won our government countless political points in the process. Our media erupts each whaling season, and our news feeds fills with anti-Japanese rhetoric. What will surprise most outraged Australians is that Norway kills five times the number of whales than Japan does each year. Norway even sets a higher catch quota. And while Norway and Japan almost exclusively hunt the unthreatened minke whale, Iceland also kills large numbers of the extremely endangered blue, humpback and fin whales.

Australia utters barely a word against the actions of Norway and Iceland. So, why do we have more of a beef with whale sashimi than a European whale steak? The issue for Sea Shepherd Australia is obviously an issue of proximity. Greenpeace Australia doesn’t have enough resources to send a fleet to European waters, where the US arm of the environmental organisation has already got the issue covered anyways.

I assumed the issue for our Federal Government must be an issue of national sovereignty or a breach of our territorial waters or something. My mate Tara, who is studying law at the Australian National University, has a different take on the issue. “International law is all politics,” she says. “[Norway and Iceland] are European countries, and we want to look good in Europe.”

It’s worth considering if our government should open a dialogue around whaling with Japan considering our closer diplomatic ties with Asia than Europe. It’s also worth wondering if there’s perhaps a racial element to our vocal opposition as well. At the very least, it’s irresponsible and incongruent to not bat an eyelid over what’s going on in Norway and Iceland. Unlike Free Willy, whaling is an issue that’s far from black and white.