Bankrupting Dissent

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The federal minister for destroying the environment, Peter Garrett, has made a series

of outrageous pro-business decisions, including approval of the Gunns pulp mill near

Launceston, the dredging of Port Phillip Bay and a desalination plant near Wonthaggi.

All three projects pose considerable risks to the environment and have led to the

formation of local protest groups dedicated to protecting their local ecosystems. The

Gunns project is in doubt after a leading bank pulled its support, citing environmental

concerns.

Organising around the dredging project has been spearheaded by Blue Wedges, a broad

coalition of community groups with an interest in preserving the Bay. Your Water Your

Say has taken the lead in opposing the desal plant. Both groups have taken Garrett

to court to test the legality of his decisions. Not surprisingly, the courts found in the

minister’s favour. What was shocking was the question of legal costs. Both the state and

federal governments are pursuing the community groups for hundreds of thousands of

dollars in legal fees. This will bankrupt the groups and possibly individual activists. It’s a

vicious attempt to use the superior economic power of governments to silence opposition.

Legal myths. As anyone who’s been involved in litigation knows, lawyers don’t come

cheap. There are also big risks in representing oneself, particularly where the other side

has a fat wallet. For the poor, justice is often a luxury we cannot afford. Equality under

the law is a cynical political slogan. The legal system is there to keep the oppressed in our

place — as the two protest groups have been so sharply reminded!

Political choice. There is a simple way out of this. Put so much heat on the Brumby and

Rudd governments that they pull their heads in and drop their quest to send activists

broke. The courts are only one venue for dissent, but it is a basic democratic principle

that protesters have access to them. Hands off Blue Wedges and Your Water Your Say!

Public funding for litigation against the government!

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