Risk to freedom to protest

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The Federal Government is considering banning virtually any activism which seeks to hold Australian companies to account for their business practices overseas, particularly when poor environmental standards are alleged.

Under the Competition and Consumer Act, secondary boycotts – which target a company’s suppliers and consumers rather than the company itself – are allowed when they are “substantially related to environmental and consumer protection”.

But, recent media reports have suggested the government is considering removing the environmental exemption, which could severely limit the activities of the synod’s Justice and International Mission (JIM) unit.

JIM unit director Dr Mark Zirnsak said such a blanket ban could effectively make all campaigning activities targeting businesses illegal.

Based on legal advice provided to the synod six years ago, Dr Zirnsak said the existing secondary boycott provisions already risked making any campaigning in relation to companies associated with severe human rights abuses and serious criminal activity illegal.

Simply encouraging others to write letters or send postcards to a company urging them to take corrective action where they may be associated with serious criminal activity could be illegal.

Dr Zirnsak said in JIM’s work, cases regularly arose where Australian companies were sourcing goods produced with slavery, forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking in their production.

He said the use of Australian law to silence such protests was frustrating when the government failed to stop Australian companies from being recklessly associated with such criminal activities.

“We believe that Australians should have the freedom of speech to encourage companies to hold higher ethical behaviour and to ensure their supply chains and business activities are free of criminal activity,’’ Dr Zirnsak said.

“This extends to criminal behaviour related to environmental activities, such as direct violation of environmental laws, as well as offences such as bribery, money laundering and tax evasion that are common in illegal logging operations.”

Dr Zirnsak’s views are supported by Institute of Public Affairs Research Fellow Chris Berg who, in an opinion piece published on the ABC’s The Drum website last month, said it was wrong to attempt to suppress secondary boycotts by the force of law.

Mr Berg said companies knew values sell which is why consumers are regularly subjected to “flashy” social responsibility marketing campaigns.

“It is only fair that consumers are lawfully allowed to respond in kind. If that means unwelcome pressure on companies … such is capitalism … political outrage is part of the push and pull of a free and open society,” he wrote.

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