Environment and consumer groups have described a push by Liberal senators to ban environmental boycotts of companies as “nonsense” and an attack on free speech.
And the Minister for Small Business, Bruce Bilson, has cast doubt on whether the government would implement a ban on so-called secondary boycotts by changing competition laws.
Tasmanian Senator Richard Colbeck will use a review of competition laws to push for a ban on campaigns against companies on the grounds that their products hurt the environment.
Senator Colbeck told Guardian Australia there was an “appetite” for changes to competition law that would see exemptions for environmental groups and consumer protection removed.
Mr Colbeck is fighting lobby groups such as a GetUp! which is running a campaign to stop Harvey Norman from selling products made using unsustainable timber practices.
“They are saying the forest industry in Tasmania is destroying native forests and that is clearly a dishonest campaign,” Mr Colbeck said.
But GetUp!’s national director Sam McLean said such a move would erode freedom of speech, the protection of which was a key argument for the government in its proposal to change the Racial Discrimination Act.
“I think it’s extremely ironic, and it’s ironic it is touted as a change to competition law which is supposed to protect consumers rather than keep them in the dark,” Mr McLean said.
Meanwhile, the Wilderness Society and consumer group Choice have questioned whether the government would adopt such a policy, which the Wilderness Society’s national director Lyndon Schneiders described as a push by the pro-forestry movement that would prove ineffective in the long run.
“I don’t know how they would do it to stop accurate reporting of a company’s activity,” he said.
“It’s just nonsense.
“Richard Colbeck as a Tasmanian senator of all people should remember the impact of what happened when industry tried to shut down environmental protests.
“That was the beginning of the end for Gunns.”
Choice chief executive Alan Kirkland said "we would be surprised and deeply concerned if the government adopted this position”.
“At this stage the government is referring this issue to the competition review and we think that's an appropriate response, as for any other proposed changes to competition law."
A spokesman for Minister Bilson - the minister responsible for competition policy - said the government was aware of the view in Tasmania about aspects of competition law relating to non-government organisations but there were currently no plans to legislate changes.
“Given we’ve have just embarked on a review of competition law there are currently no specific plans on the table to make changes to secondary boycott provisions or other provisions of the competition law relating to false and misleading representations,” he said.
“What we are asking for is for those who have concerns or an interest in this space is to air their views through the ‘root and branch’ review of competition law so they can be considered in an objective way given there are differing legal opinions about the reach of the current provisions.”
The story Environment groups reject push to ban boycotts as an attack on free speech first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.