By Ellen Maybery, Senior Specialist Lawyer
Imagine you are the Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.
The unprecedented 2022 federal election result has just unfurled before your eyes. A slam dunk for community voices demanding real action on climate change and integrity.
At the same time, your state-owned logging company, VicForests, is buried in almost a dozen legal proceedings, and is encountering legitimate protests by concerned citizens, scientists and community groups seeking to hold them to account.
In a landmark legal case, brought by Friends of Leadbeater’s Possums represented by Environmental Justice Australia, the Full Federal Court found VicForests contravened six state environment laws in 66 areas of forest. The Court found that VicForests logged unlawfully, including by failing to avoid serious and irreversible damage to the vulnerable Greater Glider, failing to protect the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum and destroying protected tree species.
You witnessed the catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires. 80 per cent of Victoria’s warm temperate rainforests were burnt in these fires, and at least three billion animals were killed, injured or displaced.
What do you do?
Surely, you listen to the community voices calling for you to protect Victoria’s threatened and endangered species and to rejuvenate the environment after the Black Saturday bushfires.
Surely, you revisit and improve upon your commitment to end native forest logging by 2030.
Surely, you move promptly to regulate VicForests, to ensure they are acting within the law, so that this burden doesn’t fall to concerned community members.
But instead, the Premier and our representatives are failing us and our environment. Last month, the Victorian government introduced draft legislation which, if passed, would result in extreme penalties for concerned citizens who engage in legitimate political expression in Victoria’s forests.
If passed, the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 would mean those seeking to protect our forests and wildlife could face fines of up to $21,000 or 12 months in jail. That is not a typo.
12 months in prison for hindering an officer in a forest. The changes would also introduce powers to search vehicles, confiscate personal belongings and ban people from being in public forests based on suspicion of an offence.
The Andrews government has provided no evidence to demonstrate the need for this new law which we are concerned is disproportionate and lacks sufficient safeguards and oversight.
“I hope, before passing this legislation, the Victorian government can stop and imagine that they are a concerned community member, fearing for forests and wildlife facing extinction, and now also fearing for their civil rights.”
The amendments would not only affect those exercising a legitimate right to political expression through protest, but they would also affect people who enter active timber logging areas to survey wildlife.
Citizen scientists, conservationists, wildlife and environment groups and members of the community who conduct wildlife surveys play a vital role in collating data for Victoria’s Biodiversity Atlas.
The observations collated in the Atlas are crucial for government decision making – showing where wildlife is now and how this has changed over time.
I hope, before passing this legislation, the Victorian government can stop and imagine that they are a concerned community member, fearing for forests and wildlife facing extinction, and now also fearing for their civil rights. That alone should prompt swift action to abandon this law.
I am a lawyer at a Environmental Justice Australia. At EJA, we work with and represent brave community members and environmental groups who have been standing up for threatened wildlife and ecosystems for decades.
If you want to stand with me, you can join the chorus of concerned citizens, legal organizations, civil society, human rights and environment groups all calling on Premier Dan Andrews to urgently withdraw the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 and protect the right of concerned citizens to protest against native forest logging.