Date: 29 October 2014
Source: The Guardian
Keywords: human rights
A former Tasmanian supreme court judge has told the state’s upper house that a controversial anti-protest law is “one of the worst-drafted pieces of legislation I’ve seen”.
The Tasmanian legislative council heard submissions on the Hodgman government’s protection from protesters bill on Wednesday ahead of a parliamentary debate.
The bill – which the government is amending following widespread criticism, including from the United Nations – could see protesters face significant fines for “obstructing business activity”. Second and repeat offenders could face mandatory minimum three-month jail terms.
Former state supreme court justice Pierre Slicer told an upper house briefing that the bill had been “drafted in haste” and had serious “unintended consequences”.
He highlighted the risk of fines of up to $50,000 being levied against groups such as the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, which engages in protests but also delivers health care, education, legal and domestic violence services. “They would lose their premises,” he said.
He said the legislation breached the right to “freedom of conscience” enshrined in Tasmania’s constitution, and that mandatory jail terms would prevent judges from issuing appropriate, “measured” penalties.
“It may be that a couple of protesters should go in [to jail] if they’re committing violence, but sending people to jail on a second conviction for anything, you take away any measured response to the conduct of the individual,” he said.
A report from the Human Rights Law Centre, released on Wednesday, said the bill “stifled and criminalised” legitimate protest activity and “inappropriately prioritises commercial and economic interests over fundamental human rights of individuals”.
The HRLC was also scathing of mandatory sentences, arguing that protesters would be jailed “irrespective of the severity of the relevant protest activity or the person’s culpability, character, remorsefulness or prospects of rehabilitation”.
Along with mining, agriculture and construction, forestry has been highlighted by the state government as one of the “vulnerable” industries the bill seeks to protect. The chief executive of the Tasmanian Forestry Industry Association, Terry Edwards, told the hearing he strongly backed the measures.
“The forest industry in Tasmania has been subjected to 30 years of direct physical protest activity that has prevented work being undertaken by contractors and processors,” he said.
“Frankly, it’s enough. We now believe the days of physical protest activity should be over. It’s not an acceptable activity in a civilised society.”
Edwards said the forestry lobby “strongly supports” the right to protest, but “where people take deliberate, illegal activities to prevent people from earning a living, it’s going too far”.
Michael Kerschbaum, the head of the Master Builders Association, also spoke in support of the bill, arguing that existing laws against trespassing were failing to protect the construction industry.
“We’ve seen trespass laws only apply for entry onto somebody’s site, but they don’t apply to blockades,” he said, “and construction sites are particularly vulnerable because they typically have only one access or egress point, so it’s very easy to choke off access.”
He said the bill was aimed at tackling a recent increase in “militant” industrial unrest in the state and elsewhere.
“It’s not about stopping protests. We all know what a lawful protest is, and it’s not about stopping those. It’s really about stopping illegal behaviour because we know existing laws don’t work.”
Kerschbaum said innocent bystanders were unlikely to be caught up in the new laws.
“People don’t just find themselves in the middle of a rainforest tied to a bulldozer by accident. These people deliberately go out of their way to take this activity,” he said.
Tasmania’s 15-member upper house has just three party-affiliated members. The remaining 12 are independents and their votes are said to be “finely balanced”. The bill could be voted on as early as Thursday.###