In light of recent disturbances, the Queensland government's Department of Agriculture and Fisheries set up an Animal Industries Security Taskforce. Made up of representatives from the department, The Queensland Police Service and national and state primary industry groups, the taskforce is designed to help protect the rights of farmers and other livestock industries targeted by animal activists.
Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Minister Mark Furner's commitment to harsher penalties for animal activists who break the law was one outcome from the taskforce's first meeting. The rapid response to recent events shows the Queensland government's determination to keep our farmers, their families, workers and livestock safe and is to be commended.
However, there is still a lot of criticism from farmers of the current laws surrounding trespass, break and enter and wilful damage to property and of the ability and willingness of the police to prosecute. Much of this criticism comes from a lack of understanding of the police's powers to act and the process required to prosecute.
The government's announcement of greater fines (of more than $600) and potentially jail time for those considered to be a threat to biosecurity and animal and worker welfare, is good news for the livestock industry, but the question remains as to whether harsher penalties will deter these individuals.
The animal activist groups responsible for the recent disruptions are highly coordinated and tiptoe very closely on the right side of the law.
In statements prior to events, activist organisers are clear that demonstrations are to be peaceful and that violence will not be tolerated. They have also been instructed to leave once formally asked to do so by property owners and police.
So, it is unusual that these demonstrators break the current laws for which they could be penalised.
The fact remains that the onus is unfortunately on the victim to ensure that these people are prosecuted. For the police and courts to do their jobs, a formal process must be followed. Firstly, the property or business owner must report the incident to the police (via their local police, PoliceLink or in case of an emergency 000). Secondly, they must make a complaint as to the law which has potentially been broken. It is only after that point that the police can begin the arduous task of prosecution.
Certainly, the law is not black and white. Trespass relates to entering land whereas break and enter relates to entering a dwelling or place (calf sheds for example). Contrary to popular belief, trespassing, regardless of city or rural location is not an indictable offence whereas break and enter is in most instances.
It seems that a legal degree is required to even determine whether someone is committing an offence or not!
We can sympathise with the DAF and QPS officers sent out to these disturbances. As much as they want to crack down on demonstrators who intimidate and terrorise people who simply want to go about their business, they are bound by the limitations of the law.
Animal activists will continue to walk the fine line between legal and illegal activities. While we hope that harsher penalties will deter demonstrators we may need to make the laws surrounding trespass and break and enter more clear cut and simpler to prosecute.