Government Plans to Challenge Animal Charities Revealed
8 December 2016 at 6:07 pm
Major animal protection charity, Voiceless has expressed concern and surprise at reports of meetings between federal and NSW governments to consider ways to silence animal welfare advocates.
It was revealed on Thursday that the NSW and federal agriculture ministers have been hosting a series of joint roundtable meetings to find ways to stop animal rights groups that trespass on farm land in their attempts to expose animal mistreatment as well as a proposal to strip some groups of their charitable status.
Documents obtained under NSW access to information laws by state Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi and published on Thursday by The Guardian, detailed an August 2015 meeting that included federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, the NSW primary industries minister, Niall Blair, and animal industry groups including NSW Farmers, where a number of options were discussed for targeting animal rights activists who expose animal abuse through undercover footage.
“This is clearly an attempt to try and gag the whistleblowers, rather than address the heart of the issue – animal abuse across Australian industries,” Voiceless spokesperson Elise Burgess told Pro Bono Australia News.
“Among the range of strategies considered, such as making it easier to prosecute animal advocates by altering how evidence can be gathered (such as the ag-gag style Surveillance Devices Act recently passed in South Australia), the roundtable even proposed an option of stripping some animal groups of their charitable status.
“In terms of targeting the charity status, we did not foresee that at all because the heart of this debate is animal welfare and this whole idea of whistleblowers. I mean… we need to be talking about how animals are being treated in these systems and why abuse keeps coming up and not having roundtables trying to essentially silence the messengers.
“We have already seen this with environmental groups. So perhaps I shouldn’t say I am surprised they extended it to us because this is the first that we have heard of it. Clearly this is now a tactic that is being used for advocates generally. First environmentalists, now animal advocates are facing it and who knows what’s next.”
Burgess said the move should be a concern for all not-for-profit organisations that their charitable status could be threatened simply because people don’t like their message.
“It’s a real concern and it is distracting from the heart of the debate,” she said.
“There really should be an open dialogue between government and in this case animal producers and in the environmental case industry and the public and advocates. There should be an open discourse rather that just trying to shut us down.”
However, animal welfare group RSPCA NSW issued a statement saying it had been invited to attend the meeting with other stakeholders.
“The focus of the roundtable was to discuss the impacts of trespass and unlawful entry to premises including security, biosecurity (animal disease and pest) and animal welfare risks and the personal impacts on staff, individuals and families,” the statement said.
“The RSPCA encourages those with concerns over animal welfare to report it directly to authorities such as the RSPCA and police to investigate lawfully, and within outlined biosecurity measures to limit the entry and spread of pests and disease that cause threats to the welfare of livestock.”
The statement did not refer to reports that the two governments were planning to reassess the charity status of animal advocacy groups.
Burgess from Voiceless said: “We need to review our options now and really work out what the best action is for the future.”
“It is probably too early to say given that we are still processing how this impacts not only us but the movement in a broader sense. Is this the new way that we have to approach issues and then we will have to take that on board.
“They attack the idea of donations but a lot of animal groups don’t have tax deduction (DGR) status.
“The thing that surprised us the most is that this is a roundtable of really influential people who could actually enact proper change in animal welfare legislation and instead they spend their time trying to shut down animal advocates It’s just such a wasted opportunity I think.”
In November the Community Council for Australia (CCA) warned that any move by the federal coalition to revisit the tax deductibility of charities and exclude advocacy groups would face a strong backlash from the not-for-profit sector.
CCA CEO David Crosbie said the coalition’s federal executive had already adopted a policy of not allowing tax deductibility for environmental groups.
However he said: “If there is a renewed push to exclude advocacy based charity groups from obtaining or maintaining charitable status and tax deductibility, the coalition will pay a high political price.”
His comments come as the Australian Greens warned that the Turnbull government’s proposed legislative “witch-hunt” against environmental groups was reportedly being expanded to include health, ethnic, housing, and other not-for-profit groups.
“There will certainly be a strong charity sector backlash,” Crosbie told Pro Bono Australia News.
“I am not sure anyone would endorse the hypocrisy of a government claiming to be champions of free speech while seeking to restrict or close down charities that advocate for their communities and their purpose.
“It is interesting to note the recent Essential Polling on this issue shows the Australian public overwhelmingly supports environmental groups and charities being able to advocate on issues of concern.
“I would have thought the lessons on this issue have been well and truly understood given the history of Australian governments that have tried to silence or restrict the voices of civil society.”