Farmers share pain at activist hearings

Michelle Slater

A Yarragon goat farmer whose property was invaded by animal activists has told a parliamentary inquiry there had been a miscarriage of justice in the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court earlier this year.

Gippy Goat Café owner John Gommans gave evidence before the Inquiry into the Impacts of Animal Rights Activism on Victorian Agriculture in Warragul yesterday, calling for tougher laws to protect farmers.

He called for $1000 on-the-spot fines in line with laws in NSW and for courts to stop discharging offenders without conviction.

The inquiry received almost 500 submissions from across the state, however, some of those people stood before the Warragul hearing in-camera, saying they feared further harassment from activists.

“In my opinion, we don’t need operational oversight from moralistic vigilantes,” Mr Gommans said.

“My wife and I chose to stand up in the public in full recognition that we may become targets again from animal activists.”

Mr Gommans recalled being repeatedly targeted by activists entering two of his dairy properties at Caldermeade Farm and the Gippy Goat last year, stealing animals from a children’s nursery and one dairy goat.

The incident led Mr Gommans to close the Gippy Goat after his staff, family and customers were bullied in online attacks.

Three of the activists pleaded guilty before the Latrobe Valley Magistrates’ Court and were fined one dollar each for breaching bio-security laws and $250 to compensate the theft of $2000 worth of livestock with six months to pay.

Mr Gommans accused the magistrate of “scoffing” at the idea that the animals were worth $2000, and he said the activists were not ordered to return the stolen livestock.

“At the sentencing, the magistrate said [to the activists] ‘no one likes animal cruelty, keep doing what you are doing but don’t get caught,” Mr Gommans said.

Mr Gommans said he believed another magistrate told other activists who were facing charges in Melbourne in relation to the Gippy Goat thefts that the case was “trivial”.

“Rural people now know that trespassing, theft and bio-security breaches are trivial matters not worthy of the judiciary’s time,” Mr Gommans said.

“We were devastated by these results. To us this was the grossest miscarriage of justice. The impact on us and our staff was severe.

“Imagine telling our staff that after the court hearing no one gave a damn. That what happened to our farm and business was of no consequence.”

Mr Gommans said the police and Agriculture Victoria had laid charges against the activists who pleaded guilty immediately, which meant he was not required to make a statement to the court.

“This prevented, in my opinion, that the magistrate was not being made fully aware of the context of the charges laid,” he said.

“In my opinion, the magistrate made no effort to establish the truth of the matter. We felt terrible.

My farm manager was there and we felt guilty like we were on trial.”

Member for Eastern Victoria Melina Bath sat on the inquiry panel, and backed Mr Gomman’s calls for tougher penalties and on-the-spot fines.

“Many of the themes we’ve been hearing recently in this inquiry are farmers are being harassed, intimidated, spat at and yelled abuse in their law-abiding jobs,” Ms Bath said.

“This has caused considerable anguish among these people and the wider community and this is not not acceptable.

Ms Bath said political activists or protesters could instead stand on public land in front of farm gates or take to Bourke Street Mall to take their case in a “respectful and loud manner”.