As eight ”nannas” face the clogged court system for knitting in a logging coupe, the price of protest in Victoria is set to escalate.
Fourteen months ago, six grandmothers and two grandfathers entered a logging coupe at Mount St Leonard, placed their chairs in a neat row, and quietly sat down to knit.
The group had watched for weeks as violent clashes escalated between young protesters and loggers on the mountain, 65 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Fed up by the destruction of the forest – and fearing for the safety of those trying to protect it – the so-called Knitting Nannas of Toolangi had decided to take a stand.
“The loggers had begun doing citizens’ arrests and they were getting very aggressive with some of those protesters,” recalls Kerryn Blackshaw, a 66-year-old “nanna” who helped spearhead the wool-and-needles campaign. “As older women in the community, we felt we had to do something. So we walked in quietly, put our chairs in the safest place we could find, and got our knitting out.”
It’s hard to imagine a more civilised demonstration than a bunch of cross-stitching seniors, but as an act of defiance, it was simple and effective. For a few hours that day, the loggers stopped working and the Knitting Nannas protested peacefully. When police eventually arrived, they took a statement, escorted the group out of the forest, and no charges were laid. Or so the nannas thought.
Almost a year later, each member received a summons from the Department of Primary Industries. The offence? Carrying out an activity in a “public safety zone” – an exclusion area set up by the state government to prevent people from entering logging coupes.
Some of the nannas appeared in the Ringwood Magistrates Court last week; the others are due to defend their case in mid-December. But at a time when Victoria’s court system is already under strain because of the Coalition’s tough-on-crime agenda, many question why they were pursued in the first place.
“It was quite a surprise,” another Knitting Nanna, Margaret O’Connell, said last week. “I just don’t know what’s behind it – maybe it’s political or maybe we were being too effective. It just seemed like such a silly thing to pursue, so long after the event.”
Whatever the motive, the price of democracy is about to get higher, with the government set to introduce new offences and penalties for people who protest in logging coupes. Once these amendments are passed by the Parliament, protesters will face new fines of $2877 for possessing prohibited objects or substances in a timber harvesting safety zone and $8661 if they are caught ”breaching an exclusion order”.
Prohibited objects include bolt cutters, cement or mortar mix, metal or timber frames and heavy steel chains. But not knitting needles.
The same amendments will see a 20 per cent hike in maximum fines for people caught removing or destroying fences and notices in timber safety zones (each offence will now carry a top-level penalty of $8661).
Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh says the changes are designed to deter disruptions in logging coupes and improve safety. The government will preserve the right to protest, he says, “so long as the protest activities do not put anyone’s safety at risk or break the law”.
Others, however, are not impressed. “I think it’s an assault on democracy,” says 74-year-old Lorraine Leach, a grandmother of eight. “We’re just there to protest quietly and show the industry that we’re watching and don’t approve. I’ve been walking these forests for 30 years and what is happening up there is shocking. If we don’t take a stand, there will be nothing left.”
The nannas who appeared in court on Thursday were placed on a diversion order, and only require a $50 donation to Landcare to avoid conviction. Ms Blackshaw says it was a good outcome, but admits the process was “distressing for everyone involved”.
“All of us have totally clean histories yet we were treated like criminals,” she said.
Farrah Tomazin The Sunday Age’s state political editor