Governments back fossil fuel criminals with attack on right to protest

Governments across the country are targeting climate activists with draconian anti-protest laws, at a time when climate protest is desperately needed.

On 31 May, South Australia introduced laws imposing fines of up to $50,000—increased from $750—and up to three months’ jail for any protester who “intentionally or recklessly obstructs the free passage of a public place”. Introduced by the SA Labor government, these are the most severe fines for protesting anywhere in Australia.

This was a response to Extinction Rebellion protests against the gas industry’s Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) conference. The laws were introduced to parliament just a day after an XR activist abseiled off a bridge to block traffic.

Last year the then NSW Liberal government passed its own anti-protest laws with the support of NSW Labor. Climate activists in NSW now face up to $22,000 fines and two years in jail for blocking or disrupting major roads or train stations, ports, and other infrastructure. This followed disruptive actions by Blockade Australia and Fireproof Australia.

Anti-protest laws aimed at forests activists in Victoria came into force in May, threatening fines of $20,000 and a year’s jail for entering restricted logging areas. Activists entered the areas in defiance on their first day in operation, carrying out a mass “citizen scientist” survey.

In Western Australia, activists involved in the Disrupt Burrup Hub campaign have been the focus of a severe police crackdown, with their homes searched and personal belongings seized for participating in protests against fossil fuel company Woodside’s plans to destroy Aboriginal rock art at Murujuga for their Burrup Hub project. This includes the Scarborough gas field, a carbon bomb that would release the equivalent every year of 15 new coal power stations.

Direct action protests for climate action in Europe are also facing increased police repression. In Italy and Germany, the group Last Generation have been subjected to police raids and are treated as criminal organisations.

The UK government has recently introduced unprecedented police powers in an attack on climate group Just Stop Oil. Police can now stop any protest if they believe it could cause “more than minor disruption to the life of the community” and arrest those involved.

The main target has been small-scale direct action protests against the fossil fuel industry. Whether the actions involve blocking coal trains or traffic, it has become increasingly clear that governments are willing to attack fundamental democratic rights to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry and ensure business as usual—even in the face of climate catastrophe.

SA Labor’s Minister for Energy and Mining, Tom Koutsantonis, told the APPEA conference that “The South Australian government is at your disposal, we are here to help”.

United response

The attacks on the right to protest have pushed unions and civil liberties groups to oppose the repression of climate protesters—in a model for how to respond.

Unions expressed outrage at the laws in SA. The union peak body SA Unions as well as the United Workers Union, Australian Services Union and Australian Education Union joined protests against the laws. SA Unions Secretary Dale Beasley criticised Labor’s decision to pass the legislation, calling the bill “a mess of overreach and unconsidered consequences.”

Amnesty International, Human Rights Law Centre, the Conservation Council of SA and others also signed a statement against the laws.

In NSW when Violet Coco was handed a 15-month jail sentence under the laws, there was opposition from unions, civil society groups, and the climate movement.

More than 230 organisations signed a statement condemning the sentence, including Unions NSW, Amnesty International, and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. Rallies brought hundreds onto the streets, including significant union contingents.

Following this, Coco was released on bail after 11 days in prison, and the jail sentence was dropped altogether on appeal. Another 18 people arrested under the laws who have faced court have escaped with fines.

Some people are understandably looking to more drastic forms of action as a response to government inaction and the scale of the climate crisis. But disruptive action involving small numbers of activists does not have the power to stop the fossil fuel industry.

Governments are not introducing anti-protest laws because there is any major threat to the industry.

Anyone facing repression for such actions deserves solidarity. The real criminals are the fossil fuel bosses and the governments that aid them.

We need forms of protest that can draw larger numbers of people into action. Mass demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people, alongside mass civil disobedience of hundreds, should be the aim.

Action on this scale can encourage workers to go on strike for the climate. That is the sort of power that could strike down these rotten laws and hold the climate criminals to account.

By Angus Dermody


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