Tasmania’s anti-protest bill targeting environmental protesters has been watered down – here’s what happens next

Tasmania’s government will have to decide whether to accept a significantly watered down version of its flagship anti-protest legislation after the state’s upper house significantly amended the bill to reduce its reach and penalties.

The Workplace Protection Bill sought to toughen penalties for protesters who obstruct business, such as environmental protesters blocking a logging site, by amending the Police Offenses Act to introduce new aggravated offenses of public nuisance and trespassing.

Protesters would have been subject to fines or increased jail time if a court found that by committing the offense of public nuisance they prevented workers from entering a workplace, or if, by committing a trespass, they had prevented employees from carrying out their work or caused a risk to their own safety or that of the workers.

But yesterday the Legislative Council refused to back the section that dealt with public nuisance, meaning it is no longer part of the bill.

Legislative counsel also significantly changed the part of the bill that would introduce the new aggravated trespassing offence.

Protesters gathered outside parliament to send a message to the upper house.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Amendments supported by the council included:

  • Require police to prove protesters ‘substantially’ inconvenienced workers and intended to do so
  • Excluding protesters who obstruct work in their own workplace as part of a trade union campaign or social dispute
  • Reduced maximum penalties for individual protesters from $13,575 for a first offense to $9,050, with the maximum jail term reduced from 12 months to 18 months
  • Reduced maximum fines for a second offense from $22,625 to $13,575, with the maximum jail term reduced from 30 months to 24 months
  • Reduce the maximum fine for a corporation by more than half from approximately $108,600 to $45,250

The Legislative Council passed the amended version of the bill this morning.

How did it happen?

In May, the bill passed the second of three votes in the Legislative Council, and was expected to pass the final vote yesterday.

Murchison MLC Ruth Forrest backed the bill ahead of winter recess, but yesterday persuaded the council to consider further amendments to the bill, arguing it has failed to strike the right balance between protecting workers and the protection of the right to demonstrate.

A Tasmanian police officer watches protesters at a site in Tarkine Forest, Tasmania in February 2020.
Protesters convicted of aggravated trespassing now face a maximum fine of $9,050 for a first offense.(Provided: Dan Broun)

Ms Forrest represents a constituency in the far north west of Tasmania where many people are employed in mining and forestry and is the site of many environmental protests.

She said she was particularly concerned about the unintended consequences of the section of the bill dealing with public nuisance, which applies to people who obstruct vehicles and pedestrians on public roads.

Ms Forrest argued that this meant the new offenses could be applied to people unwittingly blocking workers or workplaces unrelated to the protests.

His amendments to this part of the bill were supported, but Ms Forrest and Launceston MLC Rosemary Armitage both voted against the entire clause, sinking it.

Ms Forrest also successfully proposed amendments to narrow the scope of the aggravated trespass offense and to exclude protests related to industrial action.

A small boat seeks to block the path of a larger vessel.
Anti-protest legislation aims to prevent people from interfering with workplaces.(Facebook: Bob Brown Foundation)

Nelson MLC Meg Webb and Hobart MLC Rob Valentine strongly opposed the exclusion from industrial action, arguing that it was discriminatory to favor one category of protesters over others; both opposed the bill as a whole.

Latrobe MLC Mike Gaffney successfully amended the bill to reduce maximum fines and penalties.

He argued that the initial maximum penalties were disproportionate to those for other comparable offenses and to similar laws in other states.

What happens now?

Reflecting on the amended bill this morning, Ms Forrest said while she still had concerns, the best balance possible under the circumstances had been struck.

“I maintain that the right to protest is sacrosanct to our democracy and must not be compromised,” she told the Legislative Council during her third reading speech this morning.

“Protest is disruptive in nature but should not adversely affect the health and safety of others.”

A protest sign outside Tasmania's parliament reads: We will not be silenced
The government must decide whether to support the amended bill in the lower house, or else it may have to scrape it all off. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

Since the Bill has been amended by the Legislative Council, it will be returned to the House of Assembly.

The lower house will either approve the amended bill or make other changes, in which case the bill must be sent back to the Legislative Council for further consideration.

The current bill is the Liberal government’s fourth attempt to crack down on protesters who disrupt mining and forestry operations.

The Hodgman government passed stand-alone workplace protest laws in 2014, but after former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown challenged his conviction under the laws, the High Court ruled them unconstitutional.

The current bill’s high maximum fine for corporations is widely seen as the target of Dr. Brown’s namesake organization, the Bob Brown Foundation, which frequently engages in protests aimed at stopping logging and mining operations. contentious.

Protesters seated in machinery at a factory in Ta Ann holding a sign reading "Ta Ann sells the destruction of the Tasmanian forest"
In 2019, anti-forestry protesters chained themselves to machinery at the Ta Ann factory in Smithton.(Groundswell)

In 2018, the Legislative Council declined to pass a similar stand-alone bill.

This latest bill took a different approach, toughening penalties for existing offences.

The government has consistently maintained that it has a mandate to pass laws protecting workers from disruption caused by protests, having won three state elections while enforcing the policy.

It remains to be seen whether the government will accept the constrained and watered-down bill handed to it by the Legislative Council or whether it will once again return to the drawing board.

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