Ms O'CONNOR question to MINISTER for PRIMARY INDUSTRIES and WATER, Mr BARNETT
We have right to information documents that detail shocking allegations of cruelty at the VDL dairy in the state's north-west. In Estimates this year, when we asked you and your director of Biosecurity Tasmania about animal welfare issues at VDL, both of you denied any knowledge. These allegations made in four separate reports to Biosecurity Tasmania over the past two-and-a-half years include claims of eye gouging of cows, the use of claw hammers to kill calves, tails being broken by rough handling, illegal substances being injected to induce birth, and animals tightly packed and sleeping on gravel. Twenty senior staff at VDL wrote to the owner in June this year seeking indemnity from prosecution under the Animal Welfare Act 1993.
How do you and Biosecurity Tasmania respond to that alarming rumour? Has there been any unannounced visits to VDL at all since it changed hands or since the June letter? Why have Biosecurity Tasmania officers apparently accepted the assurances of the farm's owner and senior manager that all is well, when clearly there are confirmed serious animal welfare issues at the property?
Madam Speaker, I thank the member for her question. I want to make it very clear that this Government takes animal welfare and compliance with the state's animal welfare legislation very seriously. This Government, under the now Deputy Premier and former minister led by him, increased the penalties for aggravated cruelty for up to five years and strengthened penalties across the board to send a very strong message to this community and the people of Tasmania and to also increase deterrents against acts of animal cruelty. We have also improved the powers of animal welfare officers while increasing their accountability and professional standards. Allegations of animal cruelty are taken very seriously by this Government and acted on appropriately.
In relation to VDL, let me address the allegations that have been made by the member for Clark and Leader of the Greens. I am advised by Biosecurity Tasmania that there are no known animal welfare compliance issues at any property owned by VDL.
Ms O'Connor - There has not been one single unannounced visit, not one.
Mr BARNETT - Madam Speaker, I am attempting to answer this question in a measured manner.
Madam SPEAKER - We would appreciate that, Ms O'Connor.
Mr BARNETT - Thank you, Madam Speaker. Unannounced visits to the properties have not revealed any issues of non-compliance and the department continues to proactively engage with individual farmers and the Van Diemen's Land Company's management. Further, I am advised that a number of visits to properties associated with VDL have been made in the last three years either as part of a proactive engagement or in response to complaints. All have found no evidence of adverse animal welfare.
A visit by a veterinary officer and a Tasmanian Dairy Industry Authority officer in June this year, shortly after media reports about an internal letter between senior managers and the owner of Van Diemen's Land Company, did not reveal any issues of adverse animal welfare. It is apparent that this internal communication reported in the media is part of ongoing management discussions at the company and does not reflect on the current state of animal welfare on the properties. That is the advice I have received.
The department continues to proactively engage with individual farmers and Van Diemen's Land Company management. This is a very important matter, Madam Speaker, and I take it very seriously.
Ms O'Connor - Why did you mislead at the Estimates table? Did you know nothing at the Estimates table?
Mr BARNETT - Let us address that allegation from the member for Clark. Between March 2016 and June 2019 there were four animal welfare complaints- two in 2016, one in 2017 and one in early March 2019. Each complaint was taken very seriously. All complaints made in relation to VDL property were followed up by experienced biosecurity inspectors, as they are with any allegations of poor animal welfare in any location. No compliance action was required in any case.
The member has referred to the Estimates hearings and I will address that aspect of her question. During the Estimates hearings, Dr Lloyd Klumpp, the director of Biosecurity Tasmania, acknowledged that there may have been complaints in relation to VDL but he was not aware of them. I am advised that this answer was provided in the context of the many statewide animal welfare complaints being received by the department. By way of example, there were over 300 complaints received in 2018-19.
Ms O'Connor - The question I asked him was specific to VDL.
Madam SPEAKER - Order. Ms O'Connor, please let the minister talk.
Mr BARNETT - I am informed that of the four animal welfare complaints that were followed up in relation to VDL between 2016 and 2019, Dr Klumpp was copied into emails related to the 25 allegations on October 27. Each complaint was taken very seriously. All complaints made in relation to the VDL property were followed up by experienced biosecurity inspectors, as they are with any allegations of poor animal welfare in any location. No evidence of breaches of the Animal Welfare Act were found during these inspections.
VDL is Australia's biggest dairy. The purchase of VDL by Moonlake Investments, a Chinese-owned company, was approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board in February 2016. VDL is the largest dairy farming operation in Australia with, I am advised, some 18 000 cows.