Protest laws shift fo­cus

Mercury (Hobart) - - LETTERS -

THE Lib­eral Party’s de­ci­sion to pro­mote an­tiprotest laws to the top of its agenda al­most at the end of the par­lia­men­tary year seems a cu­ri­ous one on the face of it. It has been more than a year since the High Court ruled that the large slabs of the pre­vi­ous barely-used laws were un­con­sti­tu­tional.

It is not as if there has been a sud­den up­swing in dis­rup­tive protests around the state in the mean­time. De­spite some well-pub­li­cised but in­ef­fec­tive protests in the Tarkine in re­cent weeks, large-scale forestry protests which caused any no­table dis­rup­tion to busi­ness seem to largely be a thing of the past.

Tough­en­ing laws against protest was an elec­tion promise, so it could also be that the Gov­ern­ment is eye­ing the uptick in en­vi­ron­men­tal and animal ac­tivism in­ter­state or an­tic­i­pat­ing op­po­si­tion to lo­cal is­sues like the Mt Welling­ton ca­ble car and the Lake Mal­bena de­vel­op­ment.

Busi­ness groups have wel­comed the new laws and the protection that they of­fer from dis­rup­tion by protests. On the other hand, civil lib­er­tar­i­ans and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups say the laws go too far, with wide reach, stiff fines and lengthy jail terms. The sum­mer re­cess will no doubt give ev­ery­one time to re­flect on the changes wrought in so­ci­ety by protest move­ments — and on what value and lim­its to place on free­dom of ex­pres­sion, even for causes which are ini­tially un­pop­u­lar or which use dis­rup­tive meth­ods.

For keen ob­servers of Tas­ma­nian state pol­i­tics, what is most in­ter­est­ing about the Bill is its tim­ing, as the Gov­ern­ment floun­dered amid a wors­en­ing health cri­sis, sud­denly the anti-protest laws and an om­nibus manda­tory sen­tenc­ing Bill ap­pear, as if to en­cour­age ev­ery­one to look else­where, at least for a mo­ment.

The Bills of­fer the Gov­ern­ment an op­por­tu­nity to sal­vage some po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage after a tough few weeks by putting La­bor on the spot. Given that the Greens have pre­dictably de­clared ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion to the protest laws, La­bor is faced with the vexed choice of sid­ing with their for­mer part­ners in gov­ern­ment — some­thing they re­gard as elec­toral poi­son th­ese days — or cav­ing in and stand­ing with the Gov­ern­ment on two of its more pop­ulist law and or­der re­forms. Per­haps La­bor will bor­row the Gov­ern­ment’s re­cent tac­tic of avoid­ing fronting the media for a lengthy spell to avoid be­ing drawn on such thorny ques­tions.

At face value, nei­ther of th­ese new pieces of leg­is­la­tion seems to stand much chance of mak­ing it through the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil with­out se­ri­ous amend­ment — if at all. It is even con­ceiv­able that Speaker Sue Hickey and in­de­pen­dent Madeleine Ogilvie could op­pose them in the Lower House. It is also highly likely that the High Court may again take a dim view of the sweep­ing lim­its on po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion con­tained within this Bill that un­did the Lib­eral’s pre­vi­ous anti-protest laws. It is Guy Bar­nett’s sec­ond Bill in re­cent times with a whiff of the au­thor­i­tar­ian, after he some­how made place names a mat­ter of con­tro­versy. Nev­er­the­less, it is a bold at­tempt by the Gov­ern­ment to shift the de­bate, some­thing to give its em­bat­tled min­is­ters a chance to talk about a topic other than the health sys­tem.

Re­spon­si­bil­ity for all ed­i­to­rial com­ment is taken by the Editor, Chris Jones, Level 1, 2 Sala­manca Square, Ho­bart, TAS, 7000


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