By Teresa Dowding
HOBART - The Tasmanian House of Assembly on April 16 passed a bill granting police increased power of arrest and prescribing mandatory fines for peaceful protest.
The bill, introduced by Liberal minister for police Dr F. Madill, is aimed at curbing the rights of forest protesters. If it is passed by the upper house, police will have the power to arrest people who verbally assault a public officer, or an officer's "dignity". Public officers include forestry and fisheries officers and even clerks processing land tax receipts.
Changes already made to the Forestry Act allow police to arrest anyone peacefully blockading the operation of vehicles or equipment in state forests. Currently police can remove people or restrict their entry to a state forest if they "reasonably suspect" the person intends to damage vehicles or machinery. If the new bill is passed, judges will be obliged to impose a mandatory minimum fine of $1000 on anyone who refuses to obey instructions to leave crown land, with a maximum penalty of $20,000 or 12 months in jail. Such fines discriminate against protesters on low incomes.
Even Hobart's conservative Mercury newspaper has condemned the bill, calling it draconian and a threat to civil rights.
The bill can, in theory, also be used against activists who are independently researching forests on crown land planned for logging, or assessing company operations in forests. It could also easily be turned against union struggles.