Anti-protest laws: a flawed approach to a moral question

Michaela Vaughan examines how Baird’s bill will hurt activism

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On March 22, the NSW parliament assented to a suite of legislation introduced by the Baird Government targeting environmental activists and protesting across NSW. Making good on an election promise to the mining industry, these laws were passed with concerning swiftness thanks to Fred Nile and the Shooters and Fishers Party, despite the heavy implications for civil liberties and freedom of political expression.

It has been revealed this legislation was drafted with little community consultation. “The Premier actually announced the policy changes to a meeting of the Minerals Council. This means farmers, traditional owners and those protecting our forests were left out in the cold,” said Greens justice spokesperson, MP David Shoebridge.

A particular concern is the impact on Indigenous communities, in a context where Indigenous Australians are already incarcerated at a disproportionate rate – 14 times more – than the general population.  The changes mean an Indigenous person may be targeted for “interfering with a mine” by merely being on country.   If this legislation’s aim is one of deterrence, the only thing it will deter is the freedom of cultural expression of Indigenous Australians.

Gadigal woman, USyd Arts student and Students’ Representative Council Indigenous Officer Georgia Mantle was not surprised by these changes.

“This is nothing new – we have always been criminalised for trying to remain on our own land. I do think the law disproportionately affects Indigenous people due to deeply rooted, institutionalised racism,” she said.

Baird’s policy quashes the symptoms of wider community resistance to the fossil fuel industry, highlighting the extent to which our legislators are linked to powerful mining companies.

Critics of this legislation note the previous laws were sufficient in cracking down on criminal behaviour and that mining companies already had the option of suing protestors for damages where they were entitled to compensation.

Many environmental protestors both accept and welcome the law’s invitation by putting their bodies on the line, and new laws aren’t going to stop them. The environment cannot speak back when companies seek to destroy it and the communities – predominantly Indigenous – have too much at stake to be deterred.

Some student activists see the new laws as an invitation. Usyd social work student Alex Walker commented,  “These new laws motivate me more because it shows the government’s alliance with the coal and coal seam gas (CSG) companies that are destroying the environment.”

Walker was arrested and charged with intentionally and recklessly hindering mining equipment in 2013, when she “locked” on to mining equipment at the Tarrawonga Coal Mine in Northern NSW. She was initially convicted and fined $550 but was acquitted on appeal in 2015.

Baird’s policy also does not recognise illegal protesting as a last resort after all other avenues have been exhausted, and that those involved are otherwise law-abiding citizens. At times it is enacted when legal proceedings are already afoot, yet the area concerned continues to be destroyed.

Convenor of the Australian Students Environment Network and Usyd student Marco Avena commented,“There are many examples of where non-violent peaceful protesting have succeeded in protecting the environment and has been critical in preventing greater damage from being inflicted.”

Avena was arrested in East Gippsland Victoria in 2015 for halting the logging of old growth forest. Even though a legal challenge – which eventually succeded – was underway regarding the appropriateness of the site for logging, the logging company continued to harvest timber. Avena’s actions were therefore one in a range of tactics that activists were using to fight the environmental harms.

It clear that these laws are an attack on our civil liberties and the core values of any good democracy. The freedom to protest opens up an important dialogue between the people and our chosen representatives. There is no denying that the safety of protestors is important, but it has not been demostrated how these laws will mitigate any danger.

Only this mid-semester break, even after these laws had been assented to, Usyd Environment Officer Lily Matchett locked on to a coal conveyer belt with Hannah Grant. Matchett and Grant mounted a conveyer belt owned by Whitehaven coal, and, hanging 30 metres above the ground, pulled the emergency stop buttons and proceeded to shut the entire mine down.

By the time police rescue arrived with the appropriate equipment to remove them five-and-a-half hours later, Matchett and Grant had both sucessfully stopped 6000 tonnes of coal from being mined and processed.

Matchett and Grant were charged with hindering property, trespass and remaining on inclosed land. Echoing Walker’s words, Matchett is not deterred by Baird’s scare tactics.

“I’m 100% positive it will fail. The climate is in a state of global emergency so the activist community is responding with “up yours.” If anything we are more angry, more energised and more justified in pursuing our “unlawful” yet moral agendas.”

The verdict is clear: fining protestors more who are trying to save our water, land and climate will not stop them.  These laws protect mining interests and profit margins at the expense of basic freedoms, but passionate activists will not surrender to them.