Governments in two Australian states have been accused of undermining democracy by introducing legislation designed to criminalise environmental protests.
In Victoria, protesters attempting to prevent native forest logging would face 12 months’ jail or more than $21,000 in fines, and bans from protest areas under laws proposed last week by the Andrews Labor government.
In Tasmania, protesters could be fined up to $12,975 or jailed for 18 months for a first offence, and organisations up to $103,800, if they were judged to have obstructed workers or caused “a serious risk”.
The changes introduced by the Rockliff Liberal government passed the state’s lower house with support from the Labor opposition.
In both cases, the governments said new laws were necessary to protect workers’ safety and, in the case of the Tasmanian laws, to protect business interests. Both denied they were attacking the right to protest or free speech, but groups from across civil society described the changes as disproportionate and undemocratic.
Kieran Pender, a senior lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre (and an occasional Guardian contributor), said the laws were part of an alarming national trend of undemocratic infringements on protest rights.
They followed the New South Wales parliament last month passing a bill that introduced penalties of up to two years’ jail for protesters who blocked roads, ports or rail, he said.
“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 introduced. In a joint statement, the Human Rights Law Centre and Environmental Justice Australia urged the Andrews government to withdraw it, and accused it of undermining the freedom to protest “in order to shield business profits”.
The introduction of the legislation follows the government announcing in 2019 that it would phase out native forest logging by 2030, and several legal cases being brought against the state-owned logging agency VicForests over alleged logging breaches.
Ellen Maybery, a senior lawyer with Environmental Justice Australia, said the proposed new criminal penalties were “harsh” 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 stay silent,” she said.
A Victorian government spokesperson said forest protests in the state had increased, and accused campaigners of using “dangerous new tactics” that created an unacceptable risk to the safety of workers, police officers and the protesters themselves.
“There have been instances of protesters blocking heavy working machinery, locking on to machinery, tethering tree sits to machinery and standing under idle machinery,” the spokesperson said. “Forestry workers, like other workers, are entitled to be mentally and physically safe as they go about their work regardless of how people may view that work.”
A VicForests spokesperson said timber harvesting zones were “hazardous worksites.”
“We ask that people do not enter these zones for their own safety and the safety of VicForests staff and contractors,” the spokesperson said.
“We take people’s safety very seriously and any preventative action to ensure the safety of VicForests staff, contractors and the general public is prudent.”
Gemma Cafarella, a barrister and spokesperson for Liberty Victoria, said no evidence had been presented to back up the claim that there was a threat to workers’ safety, or that existing laws, which include penalties of more than $3,000, were not working.
The Victorian Greens environment spokeswoman, Ellen Sandell, said the government had not provided examples and accused Labor of doing everything it could to remove barriers to native timber logging.
Tasmania’s fourth attempt
In Tasmania, it is the Liberal government’s fourth attempt to introduce tougher anti-protest laws since being elected in 2014. Earlier bids were thrown out by the high court or failed to pass the upper house.
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 decriminalise 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 protesting is simply not true when these anti-democratic anti-protest laws do just that,” the groups, including Anglicare, TasCOSS, Amnesty International and Equality Tasmania, said.
Welcoming the bill passing the lower house with Labor support on Wednesday, Tasmania’s resources minister, Guy Barnett, said the state government had “listened to the needs of business”
“It costs money, it creates risk, and it can cause stress for the workers. In some cases there is potential for physical harm,” he said.
Barnett said the government respected Tasmanians’ right to free speech and the laws would not limit lawful protesting.
The inclusion of a clause that targets “body corporates” – organisations – has been interpreted to be specifically aimed at the Bob Brown Foundation, which has protested against logging in native forest logging coupes and drilling by mining company MMG in the Tarkine rainforest, where the company is planning to build a pipeline and waste storage facility.
Jenny Weber, the Bob Brown Foundation’s campaign manager, said the group would not back down. She said claims its protesters had put workers at risk were untrue.
“Tasmania police are well aware that our protesters are trained in nonviolent direct action, and use de-escalation techniques to maintain safety in our protests,” she said. “None of these tactics has had safety impacts on workers.”
The Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff said the changes were an “attack on democracy” and it was “tragic” that Labor had supported the legislation after failing to amend it.
A Labor spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. The bill will come before the upper house later this year.
In 2017, the former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown won a landmark court case against an earlier version of Tasmania’s anti-protest laws. The high court judged the laws directly targeted implied freedom of political expression in the constitution and were unconstitutional.