February was the hottest month on record, prompting Australia’s Chief Scientist to declare, “we are in a climate emergency”.
But the Baird Government in NSW is working overtime to clear the way for unfettered expansion of fossil fuel mining, introducing serious new penalties, including a potential of seven years in prison, for protestors disrupting mining or fracking operations and new police powers that could be used to crack down on demonstrations across NSW.
Hundreds of people rallied against the new laws, in heavy rain, outside NSW Parliament House in Sydney on 15 March, with speakers from unions, Labor and Greens MPs and Aboriginal and environment groups.
The laws passed through the parliament later that night.
A Unions NSW briefing paper explains, “Currently, the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act provides an unqualified right to industrial action, protest, processions and assembly without police direction. The amendments empower police officers with discretionary powers to disperse protests and give ‘move on’ directions.”
These changes will have less effect on protests in NSW where police are given seven days’ notice through a “Schedule 1” form, outlining any planned march route. But if no “Schedule 1” has been submitted, or if a protest deviates from its original plans, police will have greater powers to shut it down as an “unauthorised assembly”.
A number of changes have been introduced specifically at the behest of mining and fracking companies such as Santos, facing determined opposition to their attempt to establish 850 gas wells in the Pilliga forest in North West NSW.
Amendments to the Inclosed Lands Protection Act will see a 1000 per cent increase in fines and potentially long jail time for anyone “locking on” to equipment or disrupting operations.
At the same time, Baird has reduced the maximum fine for companies caught “mining without authority” from $1.1 million to just $5000.
Union representatives addressing the rally also said changes to the Act could be used against workplace action. Damage to any “structure” associated with a mine now carries stiff penalties, a broad power that could potentially include putting posters on a mine fence, according to a Unions NSW briefing paper.
Other changes include the introduction of an offence to “interfere with the conduct of a business” on any “inclosed land”, including shops, schools or factories, a power that will clearly impact on industrial action and other forms of civil disobedience.
Bogaine Spearim, a Kooma and Gomeroi man, traveled to the rally from a protest camp on his country, attempting to stop destruction of sacred sites by the Whitehaven Coal Mine.
He said the Inclosed Lands Protection Act has always operated to stop Aboriginal people accessing their lands. He helped lead protestors onto the road at the conclusion of the speeches, calling for a campaign of defiance to stop the new laws, “we can’t be thinking about the risk of getting arrested, we have to think about the risk of not having a generation that has access to country, song, dance and story”.
The proposed laws in NSW come as Liberal governments across the country move to crack down on the right to protest.
Draconian laws proposed by the Barnett government in WA could see a year in prison for anyone participating in peaceful civil disobedience found to be “physically preventing a lawful activity”.
The laws will also allow police to arrest people simply on the “suspicion” that they were going to act “unlawfully” and places the onus on the person arrested to prove they had no such plans.
The laws have been widely condemned, including by the UN office of Human Rights. Former Greens Senator Bob Brown was arrested and is currently challenging in the High Court laws passed in 2014 in Tasmania which are very similar to those proposed in NSW.
As it has in the past, defiance can make these laws a dead letter and defend our right to protest.
By Paddy Gibson