Image for Libs pledge to get tough on forests protests

Will Hodgman’s Liberal Party has pledged to introduce draconian new anti-protest laws aimed at making anyone who “creates a fear” in a Tasmanian forest workplace liable for prosecution.

Under the heading of “Protect our lifestyle & strengthen our community”, the Liberals “forests protests” policy policy invokes the spectre of environmentalists “maliciously damaging equipment” as justification for promised new laws. But when pressed on whether any Tasmanian environmentalists have been prosecuted and convicted of damaging equipment in the last decade, Hodgman’s spokesman, Brad Stansfield, conceded that he could not cite any specific instances. “I don’t have any details at my fingertips,” he said.

Barry Chipman, the Tasmanian State Secretary of Timber Communities Australia, a timber industry funded lobby group, agreed that there had been no prosecutions and convictions. “I don’t believe there have been any,” he said, though adding that it was “like arson” and difficult to detect.

But the absence of evidence is no deterrent to the Liberal Party deciding there is a need to get tough on forest protests.

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A policy for ‘fear’ mongers

In its policy, the Liberals pledge that they will “not outlaw legitimate protest, but it does provide for offences if a person intentionally creates a fear or hazard in a workplace, disrupts a workplace without lawful excuse, or damages vehicles or other equipment and tools in a workplace.”

Asked what would constitute creating “a fear” in a workplace and what would constitute evidence of such an offence, Stansfield could offer no assistance.“I’m not a lawyer and that’s what we have lawyers draft laws for,” he said.

Roland Browne, a partner in Fitzgerald & Browne Lawyers who has represented defendants in forest protest cases, said that as far as he knew the only existing laws that had any similar provisions were national anti-terrorism laws.

Browne believes that if the Liberals formed government they could face major problems drafting amendments which didn’t alienate the business community. “The most common source of fear in a workplace would probably be bullying,” he said. “Making an offence of creating ‘fear’ may well end up having far broader application than just against protests.”

As for the provision aimed at making an offence for anyone who “disrupts a workplace without lawful excuse”, Browne pointed out that Section 20 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act of 1995 already creates an offence of anyone who creates a risk at a workplace or damages equipment. Stansfield, however, was unaware of the provisions in the Workplace Health and Safety Act.

In the event of a minority Liberal government, Hodgman would require the support of the Labor Party to pass legislation through the House of Assembly. While the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union have pressed for legal changes to quash forest protests, the union movement more broadly is likely to be far more cautious about laws that could be used against their organisers and officials.

Playing the ‘eco-terrorism’ card

As for damage to vehicles, equipment or tools, Browne said that there were numerous provisions under the Police Offences Act and the Criminal Code that could be used to lay charges for such incidents.  “There is no evidence that the current laws fail to protect anyone,” he said. “Creating more offences doesn’t deter offences, it is detection that does.”

Asked why criminal damage and other provisions were considered inadequate, Stansfield said “we make no apologies for the proposed changes.” He insisted that there had been numerous instances of damage to machinery in forestry areas. However, when pressed what the evidence was that this was specifically caused by environmentalists rather than attributable to a range of other motivations, Stansfield suggested that the connection was obvious. “You’re not suggesting that contractors did it to their own machinery are you?”

While no detailed analysis of Tasmanian incidents has yet been compiled, claims that environmentalists were responsible for damage to logging equipment in forestry areas in East Gippsland in Victoria was tested in a 1997 Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal hearing. The tribunal heard an appeal by the author over a Freedom of Information request for Victoria Police records on “eco-terrorism” incidents.

In evidence, the late Detective Sergeant John Weel from Bairnsdale CIB stated that of twelve reported incidents of damage to forestry equipment in East Gippsland. Of these, there had been six prosecutions and convictions, none of which were environmentalists. When asked what the motivations were, Weel explained that some were incidents general vandalism, one was a contractor’s wife damaging her husband’s equipment and others involved rival contractors.

If existing legislation has broad provisions relating to workplace safety and damage to property is covered under the criminal code, why are new laws necessary? “We think it only reasonable that people who enter workplaces and shut them down with protests be prosecuted,” was all Stansfield would add.

Is there a hidden agenda?

If existing laws already cover what the Liberals are publicly defining the problem as, are they intending on introducing far-reaching changes under the cover of ‘anti-terrorism’ rhetoric?

A hint lies in Stansfield’s insistence that the December 2008 Gunns Triabunna woodchip mill protest, where protesters locked themselves on to the mill’s conveyor belt and other machinery and forced the temporary closure of the plant, illustrated the need for new laws. “It shouldn’t be the situation that the company has to take civil action as they have,” he said. The protesters, he suggested, hadn’t been prosecuted by police.

However, in that instance, Tasmania Police arrested seven protestors and charged them with trespass. At the time Forest Industries Association Terry Edwards argued that workplace laws should be applied to protesters. The Resources Minister, David Llewellyn, called the protesters “industrial terrorists” while the Liberals Jeremy Rockliff wanted the workplace laws toughened.

Subsequently, Gunns launched launched a civil action for damages, punitive damages, and was also seeking injunctions to prevent further protest actions against 13 people involved in the protest, including six who weren’t arrested but were holding a banner outside the mill gates. (When challenged on how they got the details of the 13, Gunns claimed claimed that they obtained them from court documents. However, it was later revealed that Tasmania Police had handed the information to Gunns.)

Given that the seven arrested are being prosecuted by Police for trespass, the proposed changes by the Liberals would have made little difference. There was no damage to equipment, so existing or amended criminal damage provisions wouldn’t have made any difference. Nor would changes to workplace safety laws have deterred the protest, as the activists locked on to the machinery very early in the morning before it was even operating. Did they create “fear”? Well one can just imagine that lawyers would have a field day with that one.

The only change that would have made any difference at all to Gunns would be if the State government took on responsibility for initiating damages claims for the benefit of Gunns and/or contractors. Given Gunns costly escapade in suing the Gunns 20, it is not surprising that the company has just about lost its appetite for legal actions, the Triabunna 13 being the sole remaining case the company is pursuing. Given the current calamitous loss in sales and profit plummet, it is hard to imagine that they are relishing the thought of spending more money on lawyers.

However, the consistently strong public support for the protection of forests makes providing more financial and legal favours for the logging industry problematic for the Liberals. Having the government take on responsibility for initiating civil damages claims would be likely to open a legal Pandora’s box that few would entertain.

More likely, the Liberals are angling to substantially increase the potential financial penalties for minor civil disobedience protests. To win support for these changes, it seems that they hope to hide behind the unsupported claim that environmentalists are ‘eco-terrorists’ who routinely damage logging equipment.

Perversely, while packaging anti-forest protest laws in ‘law an order’ rhetoric, the Liberals remain strangely silent on the issue of violence against environmentalists by those employed in the timber industry. Indeed, embracing the ‘damage to machinery’ hype is only likely to increase the risk of contractors indulging in pre-emptive vigilante injustice, for which there have already been numerous prosecutions and convictions in Tasmania.