Opinion //

Activists are unfairly targeted by new protest laws 

Last year I was fined for leafleting at a protest against the International Mining Resources Conference.

Courtesy of Mika Baumeister via Unsplash

Last year, I was fined for leafleting at a protest. The protest was against the International Mining Resources Conference, a meeting place and expo of hundreds of the world’s number one polluters and mining bosses. While some of the conference sessions, such as “Powering Mines with Renewable Energy Sources” and “Electrification and Technologies for Decarbonisation” attempted to signal moves towards environmental sustainability, the real underlying message of the 3 day event was that mining has a bright and prominent place in Australia’s economic future. 

The statistics speak for themselves: Australia is the 12th largest producer of gas and the 2nd largest exporter of gas worldwide. Mining is one of Australia’s most profitable industries and the new Labor government is clearing the path for 114 new projects to be opened, with some commentators even dubbing the current period a new mining boom. 

Instead of the radical change we need to combat climate change, our government is focusing its energy on repressing activists who want to call them out. In NSW last year, the government passed new laws that, within 48 hours of being introduced, directly targeted activists. The new anti-protest laws state that it is illegal for protestors to ‘enter, remain on or near, climb, jump from or otherwise trespass on or block entry to any part of a major facility,’ and see them facing fines of up to $22,000 and a two-year prison sentence. 

Major facilities could be defined as including railway stations, public transport, facilities, private ports, infrastructure facilities that provide water, sewerage, energy manufacturing or other services, as well as bridges, tunnels or roads (as added by Parliament). The breadth of the legislation could see any protest that is constituted as disruptive, be deemed unlawful and see activists facing these disproportionate penalties. 

Violet Coco was the first person to be sentenced on these charges. Her direct action saw just one lane of traffic on the Harbour Bridge shut down for a whole of 25 minutes. For that, she was sentenced to 15 months jail time and fined $2500. The comparison with how the Harbour Bridge was shut to film Ryan Gosling’s new movie Fall Guy  is stark. For Gosling, the Bridge was shut for 8 hours, and the NSW government gave the production company $14.5million in subsidies. 

The NSW laws are not unique, and mirror laws have passed nationwide. In Victoria, a law passed last year could see a maximum of 12 months in jail or $21 000 in fines for obstructing or interfering with timer harvesting operations. Laws in Tasmania target protests protecting forests, with a penalty of over $13,000 or 2 years in prison for obstructing a forestry site. In Queensland, protestors are facing jail time over a climate protest, in a precedent not seen since the repressive Joh Bjelke Peterson government. 

The anti-protest laws have given the police the green light to intimidate our protests. At the IMARC protest, 500 riot cops mobilised around the location of the conference. They kicked over our stall, and then fined me over $400 for leafleting to passersby. All of these new laws have seen Australia’s civil rights rating to be downgraded, from an “open” freedom rating to a “narrowed” one.

This is not good news for activists. It demonstrates how the government is increasing authoritarianism to deter activism and protesting. But their targets for repression should tell us something useful. The new laws are targeted towards protestors because protests work. Their specific focus on disruptive protests also convey how protests are powerful when they do interfere with the general day-to-day running of the system. 

We can’t be cowed by the efforts of the government to repress us. Instead, we need more activists to come out and fight. The way to combat repression is through everyone getting involved. Illegal protests during COVID showed us that when people come out, the police are unable to stop them. More people coming out on the streets will give more support to activists like Violet Coco, staunchly engaging in direct action. We’re going to need a whole swathe of tactics if we’re going to win demands that address climate change.

I’m going to fight my fines, but I’m also going to be out on the streets for the next climate protest on March 3. I encourage everyone to do the same. We’re going to need more people on the streets, to fight back these anti-protest laws and to win a habitable planet for all.