Warning on animal welfare act

Headshot of Jenne Brammer
Jenne BrammerThe West Australian

Barrister Ross Williamson has warned the Animal Welfare Act could eventually lead to the demise of animal-based agriculture.

Speaking at the Pastoralists and Graziers Association convention last week, he sounded the warning in the lead-up to his defence of Nico Botha of Moola Bulla Station in the Kimberley, who is charged by the RSPCA on eight charges of animal cruelty for dehorning cattle in 2012.

Mr Botha is to appear in the Perth Magistrate's court today and Mr Williamson will ask the court to stay the prosecution on the grounds it is an abuse of the court process.

He will argue the RSPCA was "witness shopping" to present a false representation of what is involved in dehorning.

Mr Williamson said over time the Animal Welfare Act would make animal husbandry more difficult and that it could eventually become impossible.

"I understand in America some intensive farming practices have been wiped out," he said. "This Act will, over time, make animal husbandry less profitable and will be used to demonise innocent people.

"How long it will take until it is used to its full potential is anyone's guess. It may be a few years or may be another generation or two or three."

Mr Williamson said the Act presumed the charged was guilty, and it was up to that person to prove their innocence.

The minimum penalty for a person is $2000 and the maximum is $50,000 or imprisonment for five years. For a company the minimum is $10,000 up to $250,000.

Mr Williamson said another problem with the Animal Welfare Act was that where the same act is repeated on a number of animals, there could be a number of charges.

"With farming operations a prosecutor would readily identify a large number of acts, each of which becomes a separate change," Mr Williamson said.

He cited the case of Mr Botha.

The incident relates to four cattle and RSCPA chief inspector Amanda Swift has alleged eight acts of cruelty, using evidence filmed by a disgruntled employee on a smart phone in July 2012.

Mr Botha therefore faces a maximum penalty of $2 million, though Mr Williamson said any magistrate was highly unlikely to impose such a severe penalty.

Mr Williamson said because Mr Botha had to prove his innocence, a huge amount of time, effort, money and resources had been put into this problem.

In the Animal Welfare Act, cruelty was defined as causing unnecessary harm to an animal, Mr Williamson said.

"Harm is injury or pain or distress, evidenced by severe abnormal physiological or behavioural reactions," he said. "These are vague expressions. Is making a beast move away from you by waving a piece of poly pipe caught by these words?

"The Parliament in its wisdom has decided not to define these words, but left it to magistrates and judges to figure out these important expressions as cases come before them. That is a problem because the people who occupy these positions are increasingly becoming removed from agriculture and animal use."

Mr Williamson said it was likely it would get to the point where animal producers would have "working with animals" checks, similar to the working with children checks put in place about a decade ago.

"There would be endless paperwork and permits required to do what is done everyday," he said.

"And if you have a conviction for an offence - one of these make-believe cruelty offences under this Act - that would weigh heavily against you in your application for a licence in this brave new world that is coming upon us.

"I also envisage that as hysteria goes on and gets bigger and bigger about animal welfare generally, that with someone like the Minister for Lands, that an application for a pastoral lease, or rangelands lease or whatever they are going to call it, would be refused because the applicant is not considered to be of good character under the Animal Welfare Act."

Mr Williamson gave some practical suggestions on how animal producers could protect themselves.

These included not allowing smart phones around yards.

"It is a good idea to ensure places where you deal with animals are not visible to passers by who are driving on public routes," he said. "And when inspectors knock on your door, it may seem easy to explain what you are doing and why. It is easy to give the prosecution a few free kicks, so you shouldn't do it without getting proper legal advice first."

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