MS TIERNEY (Western Victoria—Minister for Training and Skills, Minister for Higher Education, Minister for Agriculture) (18:22): The position of the government is that every Victorian has the right to a safe workplace and workspace. The proposed amendments build on existing laws focused on protecting the safety of all persons who enter into timber harvesting safety zones. These zones are inherently dangerous workplaces where heavy machinery is used and unauthorised entry runs the risk of serious injury or death. The bill does not criminalise protest activity, nor does it alter the places where a person can protest. The Andrews Labor government supports the right to peaceful protest outside the timber harvesting safety zones.
In any democracy the right to protest and engage in demonstration is subject always to reasonable limitations. Timber harvesting safety zones simply are not a safe or appropriate place for protests to occur. It is currently unlawful for members of the public, including protesters, to be inside a timber harvesting safety zone, and this will remain the case. I understand that some in the community are opposed to our native forest industry, but dangerous protest activity presents an unacceptable risk to the safety of workers, authorised officers, police officers and the protesters themselves. We are very fortunate that we have not seen serious injury or death in the timber harvesting safety zones, but this government will not wait for a serious injury or death to occur before acting.
Dangerous protest tactics such as physical interference with moving forest machinery, sitting at heights where a fall would cause death and intentionally camouflaged protesters have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of some native forest contractors and their families, who are put at risk of hurting themselves or others. I know that some have thought overnight that they have hurt someone and have gone out looking for them. It has distressed them, and the anxiety has been significant on them.
In addition to the safety risks, the impact of dangerous forest protest behaviour within the timber harvesting safety zones causes extreme psychological stress. That is due to people just not being clear about whether they have accidentally injured someone else at the workspace. This bill proposes penalty increases to existing offences—they are not new, but they are increases. The already existing exclusion orders will be bolstered by new banning notice provisions. This mirrors other current legislation, namely our Wildlife Act 1975, and only applies to areas of state forest which are timber harvesting safety zones and therefore where access is already restricted.
The bill’s proposed amendments broadly align with approaches that other jurisdictions have adopted, including Queensland and New South Wales, and I understand there is draft legislation circulating in Tasmania that is similar. Overall, some comparable offences in other jurisdictions have higher penalties while others have lower. While there may be variations in these reforms, the trend is towards reforms aimed at addressing dangerous protest behaviour, and the increases are designed to make people think more than twice about undertaking activities that may lead to a situation where a workplace is unsafe.
In terms of the issue of unreasonable interference with the democratic right to protest, the freedom to protest is protected by the implied freedom of political communication in the Australian constitution and Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. Charter rights relevant to the right to protest, such as the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and freedom of association, are not diminished, we believe, by this bill. Nothing in this bill has the effect of banning protest activity which is currently lawful. That is a mischaracterisation of the effect of the bill, this government would argue.
To those who propose that the powers are excessive and could be misused, I reiterate that all measures in the bill were chosen to manage the safety risks in timber harvesting safety zones but go no further than what is necessary. All new powers are subject to appropriate limitations and accountability. For example, in order to prescribe additional prohibited things—items that just simply cannot be brought into the timber harvesting safety zones by an unauthorised person—regulations need to be made. Of course the regulations would need to be tabled in Parliament, and this would provide an opportunity to disallow the regulations. The power to search is subject to strict legal limits: it is limited to particular receptacles such as vehicles, bags and containers; it does not permit body searches; it can only occur within timber harvesting safety zones; and it can only occur when the officer has a belief on reasonable grounds that the search is warranted.
In respect to the amendments pertaining to dogs that have been put forward by Ms Bath, the government will not be supporting these amendments. To a certain extent we understand why they may be put, but the fact of the matter is what we are doing tonight is attempting to create safer workspaces, and to introduce dogs, in the opinion of this government at this time, is to introduce a potential additional factor that could give rise to further unsafe situations in the workplace and create unacceptable risks in controlled environments. So that is essentially the position in respect—
Business interrupted pursuant to sessional orders.
Mr TARLAMIS: I move:
That the meal break scheduled for this day, pursuant to sessional order 1, be suspended.
Motion agreed to.
Ms TIERNEY: There are a number of other matters that I do not have time to go into in this summing-up, matters that have been raised by a number of members, not just in the chamber this afternoon but earlier in discussions with a whole range of people. I am sure that I will be able to deal with those issues, and I am sure that we will not necessarily agree and come to a solution in the committee stage, because I think we have all got our stated positions. They are fairly polarised, but nevertheless this is an ability for the chamber to ask questions of the government, and I am ready to assist in that process in whatever way I can.
I thank members for their contributions so far in this debate. It is an interesting one in that we have, as I said, clearly divergent views. On one hand we would say that certain groupings have overreached, and then there are other groups that say that the government has overreached. It is definitely the position of this government that this is all about the safety of the workplace, and it is about increasing certain penalties, but it is not about creating anything particularly new in terms of— (Time expired)