Governments of Victoria and Tasmania under fire from laws that target environmental protesters | Environment

The governments of two Australian states have been accused of undermining democracy by introducing legislation to criminalize environmental protests.

In Victoria, protesters who try to prevent indigenous logging would face up to 12 months in jail or more than $21,000 in fines, and bans from protest areas under laws proposed last week by Andrews’ Labor government.

In Tasmania, protesters could be fined up to $12,975 or 18 months in prison for a first offense, and organizations up to $103,800, if tried for obstructing workers or caused “a serious risk”.

Changes introduced by Rockliff’s Liberal government were passed by the state’s lower house with the support of the opposition Labour.

In both cases, governments have said new laws are needed to protect worker safety and, in the case of Tasmanian laws, to protect business interests. Both denied they were attacking the right to protest or freedom of speech, but groups across civil society have called the changes disproportionate and undemocratic.

Kieran Pender, senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Center (and occasional Guardian contributor), said the laws were part of an alarming national trend of undemocratic abuses of protest rights.

They followed the New South Wales parliament last month in passing a bill that introduced penalties of up to two years in prison for protesters who blocked roads, ports or railways, a he declared.

“The right to protest is a core democratic value that must be protected,” Pender said.

Victoria’s surprise penalties

The Victorian legislation surprised observers when it was introduced. In a joint statement, the Human Rights Law Center and Environmental Justice Australia urged the Andrews government to withdraw it and accused it of undermining the freedom to protest “in order to protect corporate profits”.

The introduction of the legislation follows the government’s announcement in 2019 that it would phase out indigenous logging by 2030, and several lawsuits against state logging agency VicForests over alleged logging violations.

Ellen Maybery, senior counsel at Environmental Justice Australia, said the proposed new criminal penalties were “tough” and a “politically motivated crackdown on legitimate political expression” ahead of the November state election.

“Our climate and vital ecosystems are collapsing before our eyes and people who understand this cannot remain silent,” she said.

A Victorian government spokesman said protests against forests in the state had increased and accused activists of using ‘dangerous new tactics’ that created an unacceptable risk to the safety of workers, police and protesters themselves.

“There were instances of protesters blocking heavy work machinery, locking onto machinery, tying seated trees to machinery and standing under idle machinery,” the spokesperson said. “Forestry workers, like other workers, have the right to be mentally and physically safe while doing their work, regardless of how people may perceive that work.

A spokesperson for VicForests said the timber harvesting areas were “dangerous worksites”.

“We ask that people do not enter these areas for their own safety and that of VicForests staff and contractors,” the spokesperson said.

“We take the safety of people very seriously and any preventative action to ensure the safety of VicForests staff, contractors and the general public is prudent.”

Gemma Cafarella, a lawyer and spokeswoman for Liberty Victoria, said no evidence had been presented to support the claim that there was a threat to worker safety or that existing laws, which provide for penalties over $3,000, did not work.

Victoria Greens environment spokeswoman Ellen Sandell said the government had failed to provide examples and accused Labor of doing all they could to remove barriers to exploitation native forest.

Fourth Tasmanian attempt

In Tasmania, this is the Liberal government’s fourth attempt to introduce tougher anti-protest laws since being elected in 2014. Previous bids have either been rejected by the High Court or failed to pass the chamber high.

Ahead of the parliamentary debate, 12 civil society groups, in an open letter in the Hobart Mercury, called on MPs to protect the state’s ‘long and proud history of peaceful protest’, which they said included campaigns to decriminalize homosexuality, protect the Franklin River and fight for better working conditions.

“The Tasmanian government’s claim that it will not put in place anything that will limit lawful protests is simply not true when these anti-democratic anti-protest laws do just that,” the groups, including Anglicare, said. , TasCOSS, Amnesty International and Equality Tasmania, said.

Welcoming the bill passed the lower house on Wednesday with Labour’s backing, Tasmania’s Resources Minister Guy Barnett said the state government had “listened to the needs of business”.

“It costs money, it creates risks and it can cause stress to workers. In some cases, there is potential for physical harm,” he said.

Barnett said the government respects the right of Tasmanians to free speech and the laws will not limit lawful protests.

The inclusion of a clause that targets “legal persons” – organizations – has been interpreted as specifically targeting the Bob Brown Foundation, which has protested logging in native logging and drilling by the mining company MMG in the Tarkine Rainforest, where the company plans to build a pipeline and waste storage facility.

Jenny Weber, campaign director for the Bob Brown Foundation, said the group would not back down. She said claims her protesters had endangered workers were false.

“Tasmania Police are well aware that our protesters are trained in non-violent direct action and use de-escalation techniques to keep our protests safe,” she said. “None of these tactics impacted worker safety.”

Green MP Rosalie Woodruff said the changes were an “attack on democracy” and it was “tragic” that Labor backed the legislation after failing to change it.

A Labor spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. The bill will be presented to the upper house later this year.

In 2017, former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown won a landmark case against an earlier version of Tasmania’s anti-protest laws. The high court ruled that the laws directly targeted the freedom of political expression implicit in the constitution and were unconstitutional.

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