Moderate - or be punished politically

ENVIRONMENTAL activism is not a crowd favourite in hard economic times. Saving trees and rivers never quite resonates with a broader community desperately trying to save jobs.

It's no wonder the Greens' vote in Tasmania and nationally has slipped, as the electorate and the media blame the Greens for minority government indecision. As well, protesters bring it on themselves; behaving like forest purists in a recession.

In the wake of Ta Ann protests at Smithton on Monday, the Liberals have called for tougher laws on such protests. Liberal Senator Richard Colbeck has researched environmental activism and the law and current tax exemptions that non-profit environmental groups enjoy. An interesting development.

Forest protests present a dangerous predicament for workers, especially where highly mechanised work sites are involved. It is also potentially a dangerous predicament for protesters, because of an angry community backlash against ill-timed radical protests and overseas lobbying of our resource customers.

The Ta Ann protesters yesterday were charged by police with trespass and bailed. The law intervened, the protesters were removed and the image of the environment movement took another hit.

Should the laws against protest be toughened? It would be a dangerous path. You could increase penalties or broaden the scope of offences, or you could review or penalise the tax- exempt status of these organisations and the grants they routinely receive, but all the while you are meddling with our strong tradition of free speech and freedom of protest.

If protesters breach current laws, they pay a legal price. They probably pay an even greater price in the propaganda stakes.

I believe the environment movement and the Greens could boost their appeal considerably if they moderated and better-managed their campaigns. They are getting dud strategic advice.

Times are tough. The forest industry is suffering a decline through a number of local and overseas commercial factors, but the environment movement seems hell- bent on shouldering the blame for this demise and smothering any advantage it enjoyed over a beleaguered industry.

Peak environment groups are currently engaged in prolonged negotiations with the forest industry. You would think their young braves would back off and see what develops.

They wanted 572,000 hectares of land protected and will probably have to settle for about 500,000 hectares. That's half a million hectares that would still rank among the big conservation victories of the past 50 years, and yet the zealots are still engaging in what some Australians regard as eco- terrorism.

One would expect veteran leaders like Bob Brown, Christine Milne and Nick McKim to tell these hotheads to shut up and be patient, because with elections coming up their actions will in effect peel off votes from the Greens and deny the party any prospects for electoral expansion.

The 1981 Franklin dam protests were peaceful and involved land and water-based trespassing on Hydro property. There was an informal protocol of understanding between protesters and police and there were plenty of "peaceful" arrests.

It was all part of the theatre for interstate mass media consumption. It also worked. It certainly did them no harm politically.

The difference in this case is the serious attempts by both sides to get a lasting, peaceful settlement. No one is ever fool enough to negotiate in a climate of threat of intimidation. Even the most hardened protester, or logger for that matter, would surely comprehend that.

Barry Prismall is a deputy editor of The Examiner.

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