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Friday analysis: safeguarding timber workers from protests finally gains traction

The Victorian Government has taken firm – and in some quarters unexpected – action to safeguard the State’s timber workers from protestors.

The proposed new laws are made of stern stuff, and the Government is to be applauded for its action.

Protestors who illegally enter coupes in Victoria and dangerously interfere with workers or their machinery will be subject to stronger penalties including maximum fines of more than $21,000 or 12-months imprisonment.

And PVC and metal pipes, which can be used in dangerous protest activities, will be added to the prohibited items list meaning they potentially attract extra fines if used to hinder or obstruct timber harvesting operations.

These new laws, proposed in the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022, deliver the kind of protection the timber industry has been demanding for years.

Of course, the State Government can’t take all the credit; it only came about through effective consultation with the Australian Forest Contractors Association and other industry groups.

As AFCA general manager Carlie Porteous commented, there are significant costs associated with these unsafe workplace interruptions such as forfeited work hours, paid production and increasing health and safety concerns.

“Our members have endured this sort of activity for many years, not just in Victoria, but in other states. It is good to see Victoria is now strengthening its position on this issue,” she said.

A similar Bill has been introduced into the Tasmanian Parliament – perhaps re-introduced is a better description after it failed in the Upper House last year – which if successful would see protesters hit with harsher fines or longer jail terms for action that obstructs streets or causes a nuisance to workplaces, where penalties would be more severe if a person is convicted of trespassing.

It was passed in the Lower House this week.

This Bill has had a rocky journey, but with apparent Opposition support it might just see the light of day this time.

In both cases, it’s fair to point out, there has been strong opposition from the conservation movement.

In Tasmania the Bill was described as a “dark day for democracy” and “draconian”.

In Victoria the legislation has been described as a bid to criminalise peaceful protest in the lead-up to the November state election.

Liberty Victoria trotted out the “right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly” line  and claimed – incorrectly as usual – that protestors are protected by the “implied freedom of political communication under the Constitution”.

The Australian Constitution contains no such right.

For the record, the Australian Constitution does not explicitly protect freedom of expression. However, the High Court has held that an implied freedom of political communication exists as an indispensable part of the system of representative and responsible government created by the Constitution.

One of these days they will get it right, if it suits their needs.

Let us hope these two Bills get the swift passage they deserve.