Environmental protests are almost synonymous with Tasmania.
- Tasmania’s history of environmental activism dates back to 1972’s protests against flooding Lake Pedder
- Protests against the Franklin Dam plan and the timber industry have divided the state
- The state government’s latest attempts to introduce harsh penalties for protesters who disrupt workplaces have failed, but it has vowed not to give up
They’ve decided elections, divided opinion and generated more international headlines than an island off the south of Australia could realistically expect to receive.
Environmental protests continue to take place in the state, with two protesters arrested and charged last week for trespassing at the Venture Minerals Riley Creek Mine site in the Tarkine.
Protesters also recently stopped logging operations in the Eastern Tiers in the state’s north-east, with former federal Greens leader Bob Brown arrested there in December.
Mr Brown, who successfully challenged the last anti-protest legislation in the High Court after he was arrested in a logging coupe in the north-west, is a central figure in Tasmania’s history of environmental protest.
In the late 1970s he emerged as a leader in the campaign to stop the damming of the Franklin River.
He was one of about 1,500 people arrested in the blockades in 1982, spending more than two weeks in Risdon Prison.
The project garnered worldwide attention, and plenty of controversy in Tasmania, with a referendum held in 1981.
Other notable protests include the fight against the flooding of Lake Pedder, lengthy sit-ins during the state’s “forest wars”, the campaign against Gunns’ proposed Tamar Valley Pulp Mill, protests against the Ta Ann veneer mill at Smithton, and the “Weld Angel” blocking access to the Tahune Airwalk in 2007.
Anti-protest laws voted down
Tasmania’s Upper House has voted down anti-protest laws, with six in favour and eight against, years after they were first introduced by the government, in a move that may well weigh into calculations about how and when the next state election is fought.
The Liberal government introduced anti-protest laws in 2014, aimed particularly at opponents of the forestry industry.
They were controversially received in a state with a lengthy history of protests, particularly environmental ones.
The laws were challenged in the High Court by Bob Brown, who was arrested in 2016 at an anti-logging demonstration at Lapoinya in the state’s north-west.
The High Court found the laws were unconstitutional, and impacted the implied freedom of political communication.
In the lead-up to the 2018 state election, the government promised to resurrect the laws by amending them, and introduced the legislation the following year.
The House of Assembly debate was held in the final week of state Parliament in 2019.
After sitting into the early hours of the morning, the government gagged further discussion on the final day of sittings, declaring the bill urgent, to get it passed with the support of independent MP Madeleine Ogilvie.
It has sat on the Legislative Council’s to-do list since then — until this week, when the government decided the time was right to bring it on.
The legislation is aimed at preventing protesters from impeding workplace activities, and the government said it believed the amendments would ensure the anti-protest laws conform with the constitution.
Penalties for a first offence under the laws would be up to 18 months in jail, while a second offence could attract a four-year term and a $10,000 fine.
The bill includes higher penalties for offences by body corporates.
Leader of Government Business in the Upper House Leonie Hiscutt pointed out the government had been twice elected on the promise the laws would be introduced.
“The bill gives effect to a fundamental principle, that our laws should protect people who are undertaking lawful business activities,” she said.
“Overall, this will provide the country’s highest maximum penalty for the offence of trespassing while intentionally impeding business activities on business premises.”
Other legislative councillors questioned the timing of the bill’s introduction, more than a year after it passed the Lower House, but with Upper House elections just weeks away and a state election due by next May.
Labor MLC Craig Farrell, whose seat of Derwent is up for election in May, said it was disappointing but not surprising that the bill had been brought forward this week.
“It is obvious to all that this bill is being brought to this Council, at this time, for purely political reasons,” he said.
Murchison independent MLC Ruth Forrest said few would disagree that workplace invasions were inappropriate, and a real problem for some businesses, but there were other laws that could deal with the issue.
“Despite some of the recent media promotion by the government, it is interesting to note that in my discussions about this bill with key stakeholders, in the forestry industry in particular, but [also] others, they share this view that this bill is a political game.
The defeat is unlikely to be the last heard about anti-protest laws, particularly with Legislative Council elections around the corner.
Their resurrection may again become a key promise for the Liberals in the upcoming state election campaign, with increasing speculation the poll will be held considerably sooner than next May, when it is due.