Protest bill may penalise farmers

CONCERNS have arisen that the state government’s anti-protest legislation could see farmers arrested for holding ‘‘Lock The Gate’’ style protests against gas exploration on their own land.

The government has disputed the idea, but has refused to release its legal advice on the matter.

The Workplace (protection from protesters) Bill is currently being considered by the Legislative Council, having passed the lower house in June.

If ratified it would impose mandatory first offence fines of $2000 for protesters who impede access to a work site, and a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three months for a second offence.

Earlier this month Tasmanian Greens MP Nick McKim released legal advice that indicated farmers protesting gas exploration on their land could fall foul of the anti-protest legislation if they use the ‘‘Lock the Gate’’ method that has been widely employed on the mainland.

Lock the Gate literally involves farmers locking their farm gates to prevent mining and gas drilling companies from accessing their land. The method has been used across the country since 2010.

The legal advice released by the Greens — which specifically considered the issue of farmers locking their gates to hydraulic fracturing companies — found that farmers who deny access to their land to a company in possession of an exploration or hydraulic fracturing permit could be in breach of the legislation.

In February, oil and gas company Petragas was granted a five-year licence to search for unconventional gas resources in the Southern Midlands. A Department of State Growth spokeswoman said on Thursday that Petragas will initially use conventional methods to search for gas in the region, and may use drilling techniques towards the end of the licence.

Tasmanian Lock the Gate Alliance spokeswoman Hannah Aulby said her organisation was concerned that farmers could be at risk of being arrested in their own homes.

‘‘The difficulty for us is that someone’s farm can become a work site, and a farmer who’s trying to protect his home could be accused of getting in the way of someone doing their work,’’ she said.

‘‘The thing with fracking is that your water table can be damaged with only one frack ... so it’s completely fair enough for a farmer or a landholder to protest against this, because it’s his water and it’s his land.’’

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association chief executive Jan Davis said  they  had  received legal advice that found farmers could be at risk, and had requested changes to the legislation.

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association chief executive Jan Davis

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association chief executive Jan Davis

‘‘We’re very supportive of the legislation, however we are concerned that there are aspects of it that pose a risk to our farming community,’’ she said.

‘‘We’d like to be sure there are no unintended consequences.’’

Ms Davis said the TFGA intended to talk to members of the Legislative Council before they voted on the bill.

A  spokesman for resources minister Paul Harriss disputed the idea that farmers could be found in breach of the legislation, but said the government would not release their legal advice. He said the government was confident that the legislation was constitutional.

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