19 February, 2008

STAR NEWS: MP chain gang

Kath Gannaway
Star News Group, 19th February 2008

Police were forced to intervene on Tuesday last week as timber industry supporters clashed with MP Tammy Lobato at Yarra Junction.

And the Gembrook MP said the incident has left her questioning whether it is safe for her to continue her mobile offices.

Sixteen women led by Timber Communities Australia National coordinator Kirsten Gentle confronted Ms Lobato as she arrived at the Upper Yarra Community House for a scheduled meeting with constituents.

As Ms Lobato attempted to leave to go to Warburton, the women barred her way, holding a chain around her car and refusing her demand that Ms Gentle move away from the driver’s door.

As Ms Gentle spoke on her mobile to the Premier’s Department, Ms Lobato called for police assistance.

Two Yarra Junction police officers escorted the MP to her car.

Ms Gentle later told the Mail she had made a statement to police after Ms Lobato grabbed her arm in an attempt to move her away from the car.

The protestors, representing timber families and communities accused Ms Lobato of reneging on her pledge of support of the timber industry.

The protest was sparked by the MP’s recent call on her government to stop logging in Melbourne’s water catchments until a report currently underway into the practice was completed.

“It’s hard to believe that an ALP member can come out against their own party’s policy and against an industry she has claimed to support since gaining power in 2002,” Ms Gentle said.

Ms Gentle accused Ms Lobato of lying to timber workers about her support and said she was ignoring both the science of logging in the catchments and timber workers’ legal right to carry out logging there.

“The women today wanted to ensure Ms Lobato understood she had lost their confidence and trust in her as a local member and for her to experience first hand the frustration of not being able to work due to protesters locking on to personal equipment,” Ms Gentle said.

Ms Lobato, however, said she had made it very clear that her concerns relate to the logging within the Armstrong Creek catchment and not about the logging industry in general.

“The protestors know that for the past five years I have always been available and keen to support them,” she said. “I have tried to explain my position to the protestors but they won’t listen,” Ms Lobato said.

She said timber workers had refused to meet with her when an invitation was extended last week, and again on Tuesday.

Ms Gentle, however, said the time suggested by Ms Lobato for the first meeting was not suitable for the protestors and said no meeting had been offered on the Tuesday.

Ms Lobato said the protest could cause her to reconsider how she meets with residents in the future.

“When my constituents who want to meet with me in their own townships are subjected to verbal abuse, I obviously need to consider whether my commitment to being accessible by conducting mobile offices is posing unacceptable risks,” she said.

She said she had met with around 20 people and groups on the day and was sad that opportunity may not continue. “For protestors to chain my car was unfair to those residents in Warburton who had taken the time to make an appointment to see me,” she said.

“I do not like to let people down.”

Many of the placards questioned Ms Lobato’s allegiance to the Labor Party and her willingness to represent her logging industry constituents.

“Instead of coming out and condemning illegal forest protestors Ms Lobato decided to attack our family and our industry instead adding fuel to the fire for radical zealots who think they are representing the community when they illegally stop our business from working,” said protestor Nicki Green who claimed her family had been victimised by anti-logging protestors. In the face of slogans such as “Wanted, New ALP Candidate for Gembrook Pre-Selection” and “Tammy Lobato betraying her party and betraying the workers”, Ms Lobato defended her choice to speak out.

“My job as an MP is not to be a mere mouthpiece for party policy but to be an effective representative and stand up for what I believe in,” she said.

“That is what I am doing in this policy area and I have been inundated with messages of support.”

Police said no charges would be laid.

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