Anti-protest laws are climate preparedness

Australian Greens

The past decade has seen governments across the country start pulling apart the right to protest, empowering police and criminalising dissent. it’s getting worse – and as Senator David Shoebridge explains, That means it’s our responsibility to resist them.

By Senator David Shoebridge

It’s no coincidence anti-protest laws are increasing right as global temperatures are. Responding to threats of environmental catastrophe and social upheaval by more policing and harsher laws is a disturbing trend globally, and the creeping patchwork of authoritarian state laws are chipping away at a fundamental political right in Australia.

The past decade has seen governments across the country start pulling apart the right to protest, empowering police and criminalising dissent. And it’s getting worse.

These laws are limiting the right to publicly disagree with governments in real and meaningful ways, and we must resist them.

We all know that protest, strikes and other forms of collective action are how rights have been gained. That includes everything from the five-day work week and workers compensation, to voting rights and more recently key environmental protections and marriage equality. The streets have been places of political action and have shown politicians the strength of public will and the power of public opinion.

Protest isn’t incidental to democracy, but a necessary feature of the system. The right to freedom of assembly is contained in international laws that Australia is a party to and is, at least to some extent, ingrained in the Constitution through the implied freedom of political communication.

Anti-protest laws have targeted certain locations, expanded police powers to unprecedented levels, given more search and seizure powers, and imposed harsher penalties almost across the board. Those in major parties talk big on the crackdowns on protest overseas, but are steadily slicing away at the very same right here.

In 2020, when thousands of people in NSW took to the streets for a Black Lives Matter protest, we were told by police and the government the protest was illegal. This is despite the fact that at the very same time crowds were permitted to gather for extended periods in sporting venues and even shopping centres. The police and the government attacked the protesters through the press and in the courts. The demand for justice was too powerful, though, and we marched that day.

Since then, Labor and Liberal governments have ramped up their attacks. Laws from April 2022 in NSW were rushed through Parliament by the Liberal and Labor parties that will see protesters jailed for up to two years and fined up to $22,000 if they protest on the wrong street or too close to a railway station. The law covers 40 train stations and thousands of roads.

The reason given for these new laws was that climate-related protests on roads were causing inconvenience to drivers. Someone forgot to send those politicians the memo outlining how the purpose of protest is to disrupt and to draw attention to a burning issue that is otherwise being ignored.

In the lead-up to passing these laws, the NSW Police established Strike Force Guard in March 2022 to “prevent, investigate and disrupt unauthorised protests across the state.” Since then, police have arrested a number of climate activists – some for actual protests and some for planning future protests, and always accompanied by a media blitz. The message is clear: don’t even think of challenging the government.

In Victoria, Labor and the Coalition joined forces to pass the perversely named Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022. This imposes severe penalties for forestry protesters of up to 12 months imprisonment and fines of more than $21,000. The bill also expands police search powers, allows them to seize more things from protesters, and gives police the power to issue banning notices.

In Tasmania, laws passed in June 2022 in the Police Offences Amendment (Workplace Protection) Bill 2022 significantly increase penalties for so-called ‘public annoyance’ and create new offences for obstructing vehicles or pedestrians. Obstructing a business while trespassing now has a fine up to $8,650 or one year imprisonment. Again, this law is targeted at forestry and mining protesters.

In 2019, Queensland’s Labor Government rammed through the Summary Offences and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019. This made it an offence punishable by up to two years in jail to be in possession of a “dangerous attachment device.” A “dangerous attachment device” is basically anything that people can lock on to in order to slow down their removal by police when protesting. This law was so offensive that it resulted in four United Nations mandate holders writing to the Australian Government with serious concerns that it was “inherently disproportionate” and breached Australia’s international human rights obligations.

The end result is protesters are being corralled into ever smaller areas where dissent is permitted and only if it doesn’t create a fuss. In short, you can protest but only with permission and only in a way that doesn’t put pressure on the government or corporation you are targeting.

The organisations that have called out these anti-protest laws include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, the Australia Institute, the UN, and the High Court. Rabble-rousers, one and all.

This is happening for two connected and powerful reasons: first, state governments are too close to their police forces. State police forces and their unions are often the most powerful operators in their state, with the biggest budget and enormous institutional power. It’s almost impossible even for well-meaning state governments to take a rights-based approach to these matters in the face of overwhelming pressure from police and right wing shock jocks.

The second reason is that governments are looking forward to the pressures, the protests and the disruption that is coming from their inaction on dealing with climate change. It’s worse than ironic that their failure to keep coal and gas in the ground – to listen to the science on climate – is motivating governments to find new ways to criminalise protest. Having refused to address the causes of climate change, the back up plan from State Labor and Liberal governments is to criminalise people’s response to it.

This is why we need to move towards federal protection for the right to protest. With the states doubly captured by the fossil fuel and police lobbies, more and more pressure is growing on the Federal Parliament to act.

On a warming planet with an economic and political system unwilling to take the action needed to save the future, protest is going to be essential. If we don’t fight to defend and restore it now it will erode further, and the chance of using mass peaceful protest to spur action and save our only planet risks being lost forever.

Senator David Shoebridge is the Australian Greens’ spokesperson for Justice.

Hero image: Pexels.

” Back

/Public Release. View in full here.