OPINION: A controversial piece of legislation is to be debated in the NSW Parliament on Tuesday. The Biosecurity Bill 2015 was introduced last week by Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair, working in conjunction with federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

The bill's dull title belies its significance. For those who have been following the development of the proposed law, its more common name better encapsulates its intent – ag-gag.

Modelled on a popular, yet largely unsuccessful legislative initiative in the United States, ag-gag laws are intended to stop animal advocates investigating industrial-scale animal suffering and publicising their findings. The NSW legislation aims to do this by raising the penalties that can be levelled against animal advocates who go undercover to document animal suffering, whether in piggeries, battery chicken farms or the live export trade.

While the stated aim of the bill is to "protect" these industries by limiting the chance of activists unwittingly introducing biohazards, if passed, the law will have no impact on animal agriculture.


An anti ag-gag poster.

The backers of the legislation hope to ensure that the community doesn't learn about the reality of production animals' lives. If the average urban Australian doesn't know about the treatment of pigs and chickens, or indeed greyhounds and dogs in so-called puppy mills, how can they object?

And if the community can't object, what motivation is there to improve animal welfare standards? Bigger cages for chickens, access to the outdoors and nesting material for pigs, pain relief for lambs; these are all costs that farmers will resist.

The reality is most animal suffering takes place on private property: factory farms; breeding facilities; slaughterhouses; long-haul trucks and ships. The animal advocates who enter these facilities to capture images and distribute them, are the only means by which the community can learn how agricultural animals live and die.

Ag-gag laws are designed to make the penalties for investigative work so harsh that animal advocates will be too scared to do it.

If passed, the law has the potential to seriously slow the rate of animal welfare reform by making it more difficult to question the suitability of animal production systems.

As a result, NSW's Biosecurity Bill 2015 may well be bad news for animals.

Equally, the trend towards shutting the community out of the policy process is bad news for many social justice causes. Ag-gag doesn't just harm animals, it seeks to undermine basic democratic principles by making it more difficult for the community to obtain relevant information and to have its say.

Only time will tell how severe the penalties will be, the extent to which the courts enforce them, and how willing animal advocates will be to jeopardise their own liberty in order to try and improve the lives of animals. But, if the community's response to being silenced about the treatment of refugees on Nauru is anything to go by, for example, actively withholding information about suffering – in whatever form – will not be enough.

As supermarkets move away from selling battery cage eggs and sow-stall pork, the battle lines continue to be redrawn. The power of the consumer – and people's sense of justice – means freezing animal agriculture in a cruel past is less of an option, even in the face of harsh penalties for those who reveal the truth.

Siobhan O'Sullivan is a lecturer in social policy at UNSW.

This piece originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.