Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Treasurer takes on the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals: "I am not trying to shut down free speech"

Treasurer Peter Costello is to amend the law to make it easier to take legal action against an animal rights group calling for a boycott of stores selling Australian wool.

People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is currently being sued by Australian Wool Innovation Ltd under sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act on the ground that it has organized an illegal secondary boycott.

The amendment announced by the Treasurer yesterday will enable the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to bring its own action against PETA and seek damages...

Addressing the Pastoralists And Graziers Association of Western Australia Mr Costello identified PETA which he said had been joined by the tennis legend Martina Navratilova and the popstar “Pink” as the main target of the leglislation.

"We're going to amend the law so the ACCC can bring legal action on behalf of all Australian farmers, on behalf of those who are tying to boycott their wool, and boycott their wool on these spurious grounds," he said.

Navratilova and Pink have both campaigned against mulesing – the removal of skin from the rear of Marino sheep to prevent flystrike – and called for a consumer boycott of American and British stores that sell Australian wool. After a visit to Australia early this year Pink withdrew her support from the campaign.

Mr Costello said that he was not trying to shut down free speech. “Martina Navratilova and Pink will still be able to attack Australian wool as they do, ignorantly – it is just that people who organise boycotts that cost farmers money, won’t be able to continue with their boycotts,” he said.

The leader of the Greens Bob Brown warned the proposed change could turn the ACCC into a new McCarthy Committee and pledged to oppose it in the Senate.

“The Treasurer is proposing to give the ACCC the power to intervene on behalf of corporate Australia in disputes with community groups. In the past, community pressure has highlighted the death of dolphins in the tuna industry and the destruction of old growth logging. Under the Treasurer's plan it would be the deep pockets of the taxpayer and the imprimatur of the ACCC that was deployed against community groups rather than the current situation in which companies have to fund their own actions,” he said.

Section 45D makes it illegal for two people to act together to hinder or prevent a third person from supplying goods or services to, or acquiring goods or services from, a fourth person. In theory it could apply to health-related boycotts such as those dealing with the sale of cigarettes or the promotion of breast milk substitutes.

But legal experts contacted by the Canberra Times said to date the Australian courts had interpreted the section narrowly. Political campaigns had not been held to prevent or hinder trade. On its face, the Treasurer’s proposed amendment did not change that.

“The amendment he has come up with has nothing to do with whether or not conduct is illegal. For him to suggest that he is now arming the ACCC with the ability to take action against people who organize consumer boycotts, he hasn’t made any change to the law of section 45D at all,” said one practitioner who asked not be named.

The case Federal Court mounted by Australian Wool Innovation Ltd and 102 individual woolgrowers against PETA is set down for trial in the Federal Court at the end of this year.