Protest laws shift focus
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
, WHAT IS MOST INTERESTING ABOUT THE BILL IS ITS TIMING, AS THE GOVERNMENT FLOUNDERED AMID A WORSENING HEALTH CRISIS