Former PM Tony Abbott. READERS may remember a kerfuffle in August when the Abbott government talked about new laws to stop ‘‘vigilante legislation’’ after the Federal Court briefly delayed approval of the Carmichael open-cut coal mine in Queensland.
The ruckus began when the court agreed with environmentalists who said Environment Minister Greg Hunt had not properly considered the impact the mine would have on two threatened species – the yakka skink and the ornamental snake.
Attorney-General George Brandis was ‘‘appalled’’ by the decision, which was ‘‘very damaging to the economy’’. Tony Abbott, still PM at the time, said the ruling was ‘‘tragic’’.
‘‘And if we get to the stage where the rules are such that projects like this can be endlessly frustrated, that’s dangerous for our country and it’s tragic for the wider world,’’ Mr Abbott said.
But Abbott’s tragedy was averted. Hunt looked more closely at the skink and the snake, and the mine was approved with a slew of conditions applied by both the Commonwealth and Queensland governments.
The restrictions that Brandis and Co were calling for would have limited court action to those with a direct connection to the mine – its neighbours, in other words – dramatically reducing the ability of the environment lobby to act as the community’s watchdog.
In a similar light, Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm reacted to a February Four Corners program on animal cruelty with a proposal for ‘‘ag-gag’’ laws aimed at animal rights activists.
Leyonhjelm seems to have taken his cue from the United States, where agribusiness has kept its critics at bay with various ag-gag laws passed in state legislatures.
In North Carolina, hog farmers fighting environmentalists concerned about the effluent from piggeries convinced that state to pass House Bill 405, which from January next year will give business the right to sue people taking photos or videos in ‘‘non-public areas’’.
Taking things one step further, the Wyoming state legislature has passed Senate File 12 to create the crime ‘‘of trespassing to unlawfully collect resource data’’ from ‘‘open land’’.
The Wyoming law follows a long battle between cattle ranchers and an environmental conservation group, the Western Watersheds Project, which works to counter ‘‘the negative impacts of livestock grazing on 250million acres [100million hectares] of western public lands’’.
On one reading, the aim of the act is to stop people entering private property or leasehold land to take photographs on that land or on public lands reached after crossing the private property. But critics say the wording makes it illegal to photograph breaches on public land, whether or not private property was crossed to reach it.
Having read the law, it says ‘‘a person is guilty of trespassing to unlawfully collect resource data if he [there is no mention of ‘she’] enters onto open land’’ and does not own the land or have the permission of the owner.
Also, any resource data collected in violation of the law cannot be used in any ‘‘civil, criminal or administrative proceeding’’, and the government reserves the right to ‘‘expunge’’ any such data.
Unlawful collection of resource data – taking a photo of open lands, in other words – is punishable by up to six months jail and a $US5000 ($7020) fine.
Not surprisingly, given the implications, a coalition of conservation, animal welfare and media groups has challenged the Wyoming laws as unconstitutional, filing a lawsuit describing them as a violation of free speech.
Senator Larry Hicks, who backed the laws, said they included photos taken on state land, but not federal land. He compared ‘‘illegal data collection’’ by environmentalists to the National Security Agency secretly accessing people’s private phone records.
Commenting on the challenge to Senate File 12, Hicks said: ‘‘At the end of the day, let’s assume they [the plaintiffs] have a small victory. We’ll tweak the law. They still won’t like it. Anything we do to impede their authority to regulate someone off the land they will not like, and they will litigate, and we should have no expectation other than that.”
Different country, same politics.