Despite opposition from trade unions, legal, human rights and environment organisations and the Greens and Animal Justice parties, the Victorian Labor government passed a draconian law to criminalise environment protesters.
The Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 passed the Legislative Council on August 4 and was given approval on August 9.
The amendment to the Sustainable Forests (Timber) Act 2004 increases the maximum jail sentence to 12 months and fines to more than $21,000 for anyone “hindering” or “obstructing” authorised persons and machinery in a “timber harvesting safety zone”.
The government is trying to justify the amendment as necessary to ensure workplace safety. However, unions, including the Victorian branches of the Maritime Union of Australia, the United Workers Union and the Australian Services Union, refute this.
They have written to the Daniel Andrews government saying the bill is undemocratic and will not lead to greater workplace safety.
The Guardian reported on August 4 that the letter said: “Any stripping away of the right to protest eventually finds its way to further limiting workplace action.
“Already Australia has some of the most restrictive laws around industrial action in the world. In the context of a climate crisis, the right to protest must be advanced not diminished.”
Despite repeated requests, the government has not provided evidence that anti-logging protests have threatened the safety of forestry workers.
Sixty-seven human rights, environment, climate and legal groups published an open letter on August 4 opposing the bill. “Victorians have a long and proud history of peaceful protest,” the letter said. “The freedom to protest sits at the heart of our democracy. It allows those without financial means or access to politicians and platforms to be able to be heard and effect change.
“In the context of a climate crisis, continued destruction of First Nations Country and collapsing ecosystems, we need to protect this right more than ever. For these reasons, we call on you to withdraw the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022.”
Further, the letter pointed out the plan to only end logging by 2030 is “inadequate”.
Despite widespread public support for an immediate end to native forest logging, Aboriginal sovereignty and strong action on climate, the government is “attempting to demonise community members for peacefully protesting with heavy-handed fines and possible imprisonment”.
It said VicForests has “repeatedly broken logging laws” and undertaken unlawful logging, which has caused irreversible damage to endangered species and is destroying protected tree species.
An estimated 6 million hectares of forest and 3 billion animals were destroyed nationally by the Black Summer bushfires of 2019–20. Despite this, VicForests has continued to log.
The letter reminded the government that the High Court in 2017 had invalidated an anti-protest law in Tasmania in the case of Brown v Tasmania. “We are concerned that the lack of necessity and proportionality in this draft law” which also raises constitutional concerns.