Across Australia, new anti-protest laws are being passed in order to silence dissent on rapid action for climate and the environment. In Victoria peaceful forest protectors are facing up to 12 months of jail time come May 2023. Any stripping away of the democratic right to protest affects all communities, and will eventually be used to further limit workplace action and increase the criminalisation of First Nations people standing up for country.
The mass meeting event on Tuesday March 7th, 2023 , hosted by Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) was designed to build confidence within the environment movement to continue to organise for forests, despite increasing repression. It also proposed a common platform with First Nations struggles and the union movement on how we can continue to work better together for our mutual aims. It was structured in two parts, the first as a forum, the second as a mass meeting. Around 100 participants came in person, with 30 more joining online.
Presenting on the night were three speakers. Natalie Hogan from Environment Justice Australia spoke to the details of Victoria's new anti-protest laws that are to come into effect May 20th, 2023. She talked about how penalties will triple including up to $21,000 and a year jail time for a particular offence, the broadening of search and seizure powers in and around timber safety zones, and the introduction of banning notices, amongst other important points.
"It's always been EJA's view, and the view of a lot of other community groups, social justice groups, legal organisations, and other members of the community, that the focus really should be on enforcing environmental laws to protect and restore Country, climate, and ecosystems and not on criminalising peaceful protest."
Godfrey Moase, Executive Director at United Workers Union and co-founder of CoPower, a cooperatively owned electricity provider, spoke on the common platform workers have with the climate and environment movement and the need to organise on a class basis for change. He proposed solutions using Operational Health and Safety (OH&S) legislation to defend the universal right to strike and how CoPower is taking back democratic control of the energy system as consumers.
"To say that this legislation around controlling environmental activists is for workplace safety, when we have an industrial relations regime that actively stops workers from taking into account their basic rights, is frankly offensive."
"climate is a thing that Australian workers are saying they are having to pay for. That it is a threat to their safety, that it is a threat to their take home pay and conditions… If you don't care about the right to organise for climate, you do not care about workplace safety. And that is just a fact. That is a reality."
Marjorie Thorpe, senior Djap Wurrung woman and elder for the Gunnai nation, spoke about growing up in Yallourn, the impact of mining and logging on waterways in Gippsland, the problem with the Voice and the need for Treaty.
"We've been out to those logging coupes and it's unimaginable for those people who haven't seen the razing of an environment. Scorched earth. We've seen forests we were told would be regenerated, there's nothing there... It's all about making money out of a resource (in a way) that is not sustainable. And if this continues what we are going to be left with is poisoned water and no trees... These are the things we need to talk about when we're talking about the work that needs to be done. We're talking about employment, this is ongoing employment, that (sustains the environment) instead of destroying it. And I think these are the things we need to protest for. We don't just need to protest, we need to fight for this, because this is fighting for our very future... That's what we have to do. And if they want to lock us up, well lock us up."
Profiling all these struggles together on a platform was a way to initiate a dialogue between them about what commonalities there are and how we can better support each other's movements. This is how we build solidarity.
The second half of the event was designed to enable participation from the floor on how people want to continue to organise for climate and the environment. While the meeting identified practical ways to move forward via motions, it also demonstrated a participatory and bottom-up approach to decision making and movement building. Several motions were passed by those in attendance in person and online.
The participants in this meeting will not be intimidated by the protest laws and commit to nonviolent direct action when necessary to protect the climate, the environment and the community. (Passed 100%)
This meeting commits to participating in a state-wide mass action for the forests in the form of citizen science or other non-violent direct action to protect native forests, including from disaster logging. (Passed 98%)
Establish a legal fighting fund to support those persecuted under these anti-protest laws, including a high court challenge to the laws constitutionality. (Passed 100%)
This meeting calls on unions to actively and publicly denounce anti-protest laws - and encourage union members present to raise this within their unions. (Passed 100%)
This meeting commits to investing in training and leadership for movement activists and organisers in Victoria so we can build our collective power, strategic capacity and solidarity (Passed 100%)
To read more about the motions and process, read the blog post.
Goongerah Environment Centre is calling out for volunteers to put these motions from the mass meeting into action. We need your help to help organise a state-wide action for forests, broaden links with the union movement around the anti-protest laws, develop a defence fund and help launch a high court challenge of Victoria's anti-protest laws, and help develop training and up-skilling for the movement to achieve these outcomes.
To find out more and get involved, visit: geco.org.au/mass_action_organising
With these anti-protest laws looming ahead of us, we know we can’t continue this work alone. When they try and isolate us, our strength is in broadening our struggle. Ending logging is a fight for climate, it’s a fight for Country, and it's a fight for good green jobs for regional communities. We must defend the environment and the right to protest for it.
Tuffy is a campaigner with Goongerah Environment Centre (GECO) and the organiser of the Mass Meeting.