Coalition MPs are pushing for a ban on environmental campaigns against unsustainable products.

3 April 2014 – Environmental groups will have a major fight on their hands if proposals to make environmental campaigns against unsustainable products illegal gets lift-off.

Australia will also risk falling into line with draconian US laws that prevent public participation and make it almost impossible to get rid of toxic chemicals and products in green buildings.

In plans revealed by the Guardian today [Thursday] Coalition MPs and industry groups such as the Australian Forest Products Association and the National Seafood Industry Alliance want to use “secondary boycott” laws to prevent campaigns such as the “NoHarveyNo” campaign to urge consumers to ban Victorian forest timber in products sold by retailer Harvey Norman.

The Guardian article said parliamentary secretary for agriculture Richard Colbeck believed he had strong support from rural interests and ministers for the tightening on the rules, under the jurisdiction of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.

“I do think there is an appetite in the government for changing these laws,” Mr Colbeck told the newspaper.

Mr Colbeck denied his views contradicted the government’s stand in favour of freedom of speech.

“They can say what they like, they can campaign about what they like, they can have a point of view, but they should not be able to run a specific business-focused or market-focused campaign, and they should not be able to say things that are not true,” he told The Guardian.

“If businesses make a claim they can be challenged. If someone makes a claim about their products there needs to be some recourse to enforce accuracy.”

The new state Liberal government intends open the floodgates to forest mining and Prime Minister Tony Abbott made clear before the state election he would support that move wholeheartedly.

Greens leader Christine Milne in the report it would “shock Australians to see the lengths that the Abbott government will go to to cover the fact that they intend to log forests listed as World Heritage areas”.

According to The Guardian:

Groups like GetUp! and Markets for Change are currently exempt from section 45D of the Consumer and Competition Act which prohibits actions that stop a third person buying goods from another.

Section 45DA provides the exemption from the so-called “secondary boycott provisions” if their actions are “substantially related to environmental or consumer protection”.

The Colbeck proposals, if accepted, would bring Australia more into line with the anti-trust laws in the US that protect toxic substances and chemicals from being excluded or discouraged by environmental rating tools such as LEED.

The USGBC has been struggling to even have these chemicals of significant concern made transparent in their rating tools.

The mooted changes would also start to resemble the US’s Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation or SLAPP suits.

According to the Public Participation Project:

They commonly masquerade as defamation or business interference tort suits. Civil rights, anti-trust, and intellectual property laws have all been used to bring SLAPPs.

However, SLAPP filers can be very creative. Recently, a union was SLAPPed by a corporation that alleged that the union’s organising activities constituted a conspiracy under federal organised crime laws.

Who is affected by SLAPPs?

Almost anyone who dares to share an opinion can be SLAPPed. Homeowners and tenants protesting development projects, consumers reporting on products and workers filing complaints about health and safety violations have all been SLAPPed.

The Colebeck proposals also hark back to pressure from unions and the Victorian and federal governments to force the Green Building Council of Australia to stop Green Star ratings favouring Forest Stewardship Council timber instead of Australian Forestry Standard timber, which is weighted to sustainability of timber jobs.

The GBCA has also come under strong pressure from manufacturers of PVC products to stop discrimination against its products.

The “secondary boycott” moves started in September 2013, not long after the election of the Coalition government.

TimeBase reported in September 2013 that the proposal were an argument largely based on economics, “in that it will allow businesses more freedom to grow and develop”.

According to TimeBase, the exemptions for environmental and consumer protection were put into place in 1996 by the Howard government, in order to leverage support from the Democrats in the Senate to pass the new workplace laws.

There are some concerns the mooted changes could curtail advice on products to avoid in relation to sustainability.

Donna Luckman, chief executive of the Alternative Technology Association said: “Many people make environmental choices when building or renovating and to improve their lives generally. The ATA supports choices based on sustainability and what’s good for the environment and any action by the Federal Government to curtail those choices is unwelcome.

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