The first environmental activist to be jailed in Tasmania in 12 years speaks up about her unbroken commitment to nonviolent direct action, despite the harsher penalties now faced by protesters around the country. By Elfy Scott.

Jailed activist remains committed to the cause

Environmental activist Colette Harmsen and Bob Brown on the day of her release from jail.
Environmental activist Colette Harmsen and Bob Brown on the day of her release from jail.
Credit: Karen Brown

Dr Colette Harmsen is no longer afraid of getting up close to excavators. She admits the process of being removed from this heavy machinery by police search-and-rescue squads can be intimidating and risky, but she finds a lot of meaning in taking this kind of action.

“My fear was quickly replaced with an immense sense of empowerment that we could use our bodies to stop these great big machines from destroying what shouldn’t be destroyed in the first place,” she says.

She is speaking weeks after her release from prison. Her three-month sentence, handed down in July, made her the first environmental activist to be jailed in Tasmania in 12 years. Harmsen participates in what is known as “nonviolent direct action” to disrupt industrial operations such as mining and logging. This form of protest includes tactics such as scaling trees and “locking on” to machinery to prevent workers from accessing and using sites.

Some of the charges that led to Harmsen’s conviction were related to her protest with the Bob Brown Foundation at a site owned by mining company MMG on Tasmania’s West Coast in 2021. She attached herself to an excavator using an “elbow” – a large steel tube welded together at an angle that protesters use to fix around machinery and lock their wrists together.

Harmsen says her sentence hardly came as a surprise. At that point, the 47-year-old had been protesting for the protection of the environment for more than a decade and she had been arrested 22 times for her efforts. She reflects the action she took was, admittedly, “pushing the envelope”.

Harmsen, who was then on a three-month suspended prison term, pleaded guilty in Hobart Magistrates Court to four counts of trespassing, and single counts of wilfully obstructing the use of a road and failing to comply with the directions of a police officer.

At the initial court hearing, Magistrate Chris Webster remarked that Harmsen’s repeated arrests were “basically giving a finger to the entire judicial system” – an accusation she resents. “I think that the judicial system is giving its middle finger to the entire climate emergency,” she says.

Harmsen has devoted much of her life to protecting animals and the natural environment. She practised as a veterinarian for many years in Tasmania and worked in government-funded conservation, such as the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. Over time, she became immensely frustrated with government inaction to preserve natural habitats and the intensifying threats of logging and mining operations.

Her first arrest came in 2009, during a relatively innocuous protest outside Tasmania’s state parliament. The activists were peaceful, dressed in white and calling for the government to abandon plans for a proposed pulp mill in the state’s north. After ignoring move-along orders given by police, all members of the group were arrested and Harmsen was placed, for the first time, on a year-long good behaviour bond.

While she had little interaction with law enforcement before this arrest and says she had always been terrified of the police, her first arrests quickly dispelled those fears and emboldened her actions. She became passionate about placing herself on the frontline and, after experiencing a mental health crisis in 2015 and leaving veterinary practice, Harmsen turned to volunteering with the Bob Brown Foundation almost full-time.

As a state that is distinct for its preponderance of wilderness, Tasmania has an established history of environmental protests dating back to the early 1970s.

In 1972, the state government gave the then Hydro-Electric Commission of Tasmania permission to build dams on the Serpentine and Huon rivers, flooding the natural basin of Lake Pedder. Environmental groups, including what would become the world’s first “green” party, protested against the decision. The dam went ahead and resulted in widespread habitat loss and environmental damage.

However, the fight for Lake Pedder mobilised a wave of new conservation groups that would later push for the protection of the Franklin River following the state government’s proposal for the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam project. The Tasmanian Wilderness Society, with a young Bob Brown at its helm, spearheaded the campaign against the project, which ultimately led to its abandonment.

These protests brought environmental protesters into the scope of the criminal justice system in Tasmania. Blockades at the Franklin River in 1982 and ’83 resulted in the arrests of about 1500 people and Brown himself famously spent 19 days in Risdon Prison.

Today, the foundation continues to train and equip volunteers to participate in nonviolent direct action they acknowledge may lead to run-ins with the justice system. Jenny Weber, the foundation’s campaign manager, says while the group was “astounded” Harmsen received a prison sentence, they have to accept convictions as an occupational hazard.

“Historically, people who engage in civil disobedience recognise that if change does not come – for the benefit of nature or women’s rights or whatever people are protesting about – then, unfortunately, the power of the state does mean that we may end up in prison as activists,” Weber says.

“It’s something we all consider, we all face, but it is also always a shock and always a sign of injustice.”

The group faces the risk of much harsher penalties since the passage in August last year of new anti-protest legislation in Tasmania. Citing the protection of workers’ safety and business interests, the Liberal government passed legislative amendments that increased penalties for community members obstructing workplaces and causing “serious risk to the safety” of themselves or another person to a fine of $12,975 or 18 months’ imprisonment for a first offence.

In addition to this, any organisation supporting members of the community in obstructing workers or causing a “serious risk” could be fined more than $45,000. Fortunately for her, Colette Harmsen was not charged under the new laws, which could have enabled compounded charges of unlawful entry.

The Tasmanian anti-protest legislation is similar to laws passed recently in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria. All brought harsher penalties against environmental protesters seeking to disrupt.

The rafts of laws have been condemned by a number of environmental and human rights organisations, who express concerns about the implications for Australian democracy. David Mejia-Canales, a senior lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre, says legislation passed across Australia over the past two decades has explicitly targeted environmental and climate protesters.

“The right to protest is very much under attack, in particular for this subset of people,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “We’re seeing a lot more people charged with these really vague offences that have incredible penalties – completely disproportionate to what is alleged to have occurred.”

The laws may also have unintended consequences. Dr Robyn Gulliver, a researcher of collective action at the University of Queensland, warns that many Australians do not view peaceful environmental protest as criminal behaviour, so penalising such actions may backfire on governments.

“It undermines the public trust in the government. It undermines our belief that governments should be fair and should be taking care of our own or preserving our implied political rights for communication.”

The laws appear to have had little effect on dampening protest action over the past year and Mejia-Canales says that could mean escalating social tension and conflict between protesters and law enforcement.

Harmsen certainly seems undeterred by her sentence. She was released from prison on Friday, October 13, and was back in the forests protesting a few days later, as well as planning a visit to NSW to participate in a subsequent port blockade. She acknowledges that while tougher penalties may force other protesters to retreat, her personal circumstances allow her to continue to break the law for a cause she considers worthy.

“I’m very privileged,” she says. “I’m white, I’ve got a supportive family and fantastic friends – and I don’t have kids. So, I’m in a position where I can make that choice and be okay with it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "Direct action and reaction".

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