Tasmania’s long-running and bitter battle over its forests looks set to head back to court if the island state’s Liberal Government changes national defamation laws to allow corporations to sue protestors.
Tasmanian Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin says that the proposed changes are “about protecting Tasmanian jobs”.
“We will always support the right to free speech but that right to free speech needs to be balanced by the opportunity to challenge clearly false and misleading claims which have the potential to destroy jobs,” Goodwin said in a press release.
“This policy, which was endorsed at the election, is all about protecting Tasmanian-based companies and their workers from misleading and dishonest campaigns.”
She claims the 2013 protests against plywood manufacturer Ta Ann Tasmania cost the company 40 jobs.
“We know that there are radical environmental groups who make a hobby of spreading misinformation to markets with the aim of destroying Tasmanian jobs,” she said.
But the changes would place Tasmania out of step with the rest of the country. National universal defamation laws came into effect in 2006 and while corporations are unable to sue for defamation, they can still sue for injurious falsehood when a misleading statement has a financial impact on the company.
Environmental activist Jonathan Moylan was given a 20-month suspended prison sentence in the NSW Supreme Court last year after pleading guilty to disseminating false or misleading information.
Moylan distributed the hoax media release that wiped $300 million from the value of Whitehaven Coal before it was revealed as a fake.
While the Attorney-General has yet to reveal the legislation, many fear the new laws will allow corporations to sue for loss of reputation, rather than economic loss.
In 2005, Gunns sued 20 environmental activists, known as the Gunns 20, including former Greens leader Bob Brown for $6.3 million in damages, claiming loss of income from protests.
It became a PR nightmare for the company after Justice Bongiorno of the Victoria Supreme Court ridiculed the company’s statement of claim as “a tortuous course. It would make Burke and Wills, and explorers like them quake in their boots…” – before striking it out. The court ordered Gunns to pay costs for the strike out hearings of $585,000.
In later attempts, Gunns dropped a number of claims against the defendants, including Brown, and were forced to pay the legal costs of the defendants. Aspects of the case with the remaining defendants dragged on for another five years until settled out of court in favour of the company.
Two years later, Gunns was placed in voluntary administration.
The case was compared to the 20-year-long “McLibel” case in the UK.
When McDonald’s tried to sue two British activists, Helen Steel and David Morris, over a 1986 pamphlet titled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s”, which criticised the fast food company and its environmental record, it became longest trial in British history, with 130 witnesses and an estimated legal bill for McDonald’s of around £10 million. It also did more reputational damage to the company than the original pamphlet, especially when High Court justice Rodger Bell’s 1997 judgement found that some claims were true.
Tasmania’s latest legal move comes amid an increasingly hardline stance against the forestry protestors by Premier Will Hodgman’s Liberal Government.
In September last year, it repealed the historic peace deal struck between the forestry industry and environmentalists during the previous ALP-Green government.
Two months ago, the Government increased the fines to $10,000 and doubled the maximum jail terms, from two to four years, for protests that “prevent, hinder or obstruct” business. The legislation originally included mandatory three-month sentences for repeat offenders but that component was dropped after wide-ranging criticism, including a scathing assessment by the United Nations.
Resources Minister Paul Harriss said he was disappointed when mandatory sentencing was dropped.
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