InternationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 33

Beware the criminalisation of environmental protest in Australia

In February, as the Australian summer drew to a close, environmental activist Ali Alishah walked into the Styx Valley in Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost state. Alongside him was Bob Brown, former leader of the Australian Greens in the federal parliament and chair of the environmental organisation Bob Brown Foundation (BBF).

An island sitting in the wilds of the Southern Ocean, Tasmania is globally renowned for its environmental values: one-fifth of its landmass is recognised by UNESCO as a Wilderness World Heritage Area.

And yet, even amongst all this natural splendour, the Styx Valley, is – as the name suggests – almost mythological. Towering through the valley are some of the best-known stands of swamp ash (Eucalyptus regnans), the tallest flowering plant in the world.

In the part of the Styx where Alishah and Brown found themselves, however, the rumble of logging trucks echoed through the trees. An area of the valley, less than a quarter of a mile from the Wilderness World Heritage Area and which included an old-growth forest, was being cut down by native forestry contractors. After conducting a non-violent protest, Alishah and Brown were arrested and charged with trespass in an area set aside for forestry operations. While Brown is due to face court in July, Alishah was held in remand and then sentenced to three months in prison, one of the most significant convictions for environmental protest in Australia this century.

The case of the Styx Valley protest has thrust Brown and the BBF into the spotlight and ignited discussion across Australia about the rights of protesters and of freedom of expression through activism. Notably, it has raised questions about the legitimacy of a suite of anti-protest laws which have been enacted across the country in recent years.

The laws, which have been passed in the majority of Australian states, have drawn international scrutiny. For example, global NGO, Human Rights Watch, found last year that the state of New South Wales is “disproportionately” targeting climate protesters, “punishing them with hefty fines and up to two years prison for protesting without permission”. Similarly, in the state of South Australia, legislation passed in 2023 increased the penalty for “obstructing a public place” from $500 to a maximum of $33,000. This led the Environmental Defenders Office to declare that the “intention of the law is to punish only a small section of society for their actions – climate protesters”.

However, it is Tasmania, where the BBF chiefly operates, where legislation has reached beyond the individual in order to prosecute organisations. In 2022, legislation was put to the state parliament that would see penalties increased for protesters who obstructed business activities. “Body corporates” who supported protesters would be subject to fines of over $66,000, enough to potentially bankrupt nonprofit organisations.

While the state government labelled protesters “radical extremists” who “invade workplaces and endanger employees”, its proposed bill faced scrutiny and resistance: The legislation was eventually passed, albeit with significant amendments. Those organisations that support environmental protest now face fines of more than $30,000, less than half of what was originally proposed.

But if the state government had hoped that this bill would deter activism, it seems that it has had the opposite effect. Instead of backing down due to the severity of financial consequences, environmental organisations across Australia have been galvanised to further challenge the legitimacy of the laws.

Leading this is Brown and the BBF. Brown won a landmark case in 2017 in Australia’s High Court which related to an earlier version of Tasmania’s anti-protest laws. The presiding magistrate found that the legislation “directly targeted implied freedom of expression” and was therefore unconstitutional.

Last month, on May 17, Alishah was released after serving his prison sentence for the Styx Valley protest. He immediately issued a statement, saying that the “useless and draconian” legislation that had resulted in his conviction had had the “opposite effect” of what it sought to do, which was “to deter people from standing up for the protection of Tasmania’s forest estate”.  “I can categorically state that anti-protest laws do not work because it is an honour, in fact, a duty, to stand up and protect our native heritage,” Alishah said.

As the debate around the right to protest is being fought out in Australia’s judicial system, a key question has not received the scrutiny it deserves: As native forests are receiving greater protections in many countries around the world, why are they being cut down in Australia?

The answer, it appears, is for not a lot at all. In fact, the numbers show that the native forestry industry is, in any respect, struggling to stay afloat. Native forestry differs from plantation timber in that plantation forests are vast monocultures of a particular species; native forests are ecologically diverse. Currently, almost 90 percent of timber in Australia comes from plantations.

The market’s move away from native forestry products to plantation has been so extreme that it has led the states of Western Australia and Victoria to abandon their respective forestry industries, citing a lack of economic viability.

In Tasmania, the story is the same. Research collated last year by public policy think tank The Australia Institute found that forestry jobs – in both plantation and native forests – make up less than 1 percent of jobs across the state. Moreover, the figures put forward by The Australia Institute outline that the Tasmanian state government has been subsidising the industry for decades. In essence, what these figures reveal is that Tasmanians are in fact paying, through their tax money, to have their forests cut down.

This includes habitats which house critically endangered species. Perhaps the most famous of these is the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) the fastest parrot in the world. These birds, endemic to southeastern Australia, require the native forests of Tasmania to nest and breed, areas of which are currently earmarked to be logged.

In March, a team from The Australian National University found that the population size of the species is “declining in large part due to logging of their Tasmanian breeding habitat”. The researchers declared that swift parrots “will go extinct unless we urgently change how we manage Tasmania’s forests”. Despite these concerns, the incumbent Tasmanian government has committed to opening up areas of protected reserves to logging, with the state forestry minister, Felix Ellis, advising that he was committed to the industry and was “not going to be blackmailed by environmentalists”.

With the Tasmanian government declaring its commitment to forestry and activists refusing to back down, the only certainty, it seems, is that environmental protest legislation will continue to be enacted and challenged across the island. The other Australian states, with the legitimacy of their own laws also in question, will be watching intently.