Earlier this year, charges against several Tasmanian anti-logging protesters were suddenly dropped.
Lawyers had discovered a problem with Tasmania’s forestry laws.
Environmentalists say this problem means native forestry logging may have been carried out illegally in Tasmania for the last 35 years.
The Tasmanian government denies that, but it has urgently moved to change the laws in state parliament to remove any doubt about the legality of timber operations.
What’s the problem?
In Tasmania, timber harvesting operations need a valid Forest Practices Plan to be legal.
These plans are approved by Forest Practices Officers, who are authorised to do this by the Forest Practices Authority.
This authorisation is called a “delegation”, and the written letter granting the authorisation is called an “instrument of delegation”.
During recent court proceedings against anti-forestry protesters, who were arrested in Tasmania’s Eastern Tiers in 2020, lawyers discovered a potential problem with some of the words in these instruments of delegation that have been used since 1987.
Tasmanian Resources Minister Guy Barnett said it was possible these words could be interpreted to mean the powers of Forest Practices Officers to approve timber harvesting are “fettered”, or restricted.
The Bob Brown Foundation and the Greens argue this means logging may have been conducted illegally, because the operations did not have valid Forest Practice Plans.
What does this mean for timber harvesting and protesters?
The protesters who were facing court when the problem was discovered were members of the Bob Brown Foundation.
The charges against them were dropped.
The foundation said if Forest Practices Officers did not really have the legal power to approve timber harvesting operations, then most or all logging of native forests in Tasmania has been done illegally since 1987.
It also argues there was not a valid legal basis to convict and fine or jail anti-forestry protesters since then.
Some protesters who have been fined say they will ask the Tasmanian government for compensation.
But Mr Barnett disputes that the problem means logging has been illegal, and says it does not have anything to do with the safety or appropriateness of forestry operations.
He has told state parliament it is not certain the phrases in the instruments of delegation are actually problematic.
He said the government was acting to fix the wording out of “an abundance of caution” and to give the timber industry certainty.
What is being done to fix it?
When Tasmania’s House of Assembly sat on Tuesday for the first time in more than a month, the government introduced a bill to fix the problematic words.
It successfully argued the house should debate the bill as a matter or urgency, meaning it could be passed in the lower house on the same day.
The bill will delete some parts of the Forest Practices Act and add new clauses in the sections that deal with Forest Practices Officers, and their authorisation to approve timber harvesting operations.
It will also add a new section that will mean the letters giving power to the officers to approve logging were always legal, even if they were issued before the problematic wording was changed.
The Greens and the Bob Brown Foundation argue this amounts to retroactively legalising illegal logging.
The bill passed the House of Assembly last night with Labor support, but will still need to be approved by the Legislative Council.
The problematic wording may still be tested in court — a trial is due to start in the Supreme Court next week challenging the legality of logging near mountain bike trails in Tasmania’s north-east.
That may determine whether the amendment bill has fixed the problem.
Posted , updated