Lockouts, hefty fines for cycling without ID, threats to ban live music festivals because people take drugs. Maybe it's a coincidence but the Baird Government's plan to "rebuild the state" of New South Wales does seem to centre largely around policies that put big business profits above personal freedoms.
Take the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016. Recently passed into law, despite opposition from more than 60 percent of NSW residents, the bill creates a new offence called "aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands." This means protesters found interfering with business on "land in which a business or undertaking is being conducted" now face fines of $5500.
This is largely geared towards people protesting mines, evidenced by the amendment also broadening the definition of a mine to include coal seam gas (CSG) projects. Protesters could now face seven years in prison for chaining themselves to mining machinery. As will farmers if they lock their gate and bar CSG companies from drilling on their property.
Former Wallabies captain David Pocock and Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham have both made headlines recently for their opposition to the mining industry in NSW. Neither was slammed with a seven-year jail sentence or even a conviction, but their good luck shouldn't be counted on as the norm for protesters who do not have the public standing or legal resources they do.
Some have dubbed the anti-protest package #SantosLaw because of how much the Australian oil and gas producer, Santos, stands to gain from suppressing protest activity. The Narrabri Gas Project, a plan to dig 850 coal seam gas (CSG) wells in the Pilliga forest about six hours north of Sydney, is just one example. For years Narrabri has been delayed by community protesters, who fear the project will contaminate groundwater and harm the local environment.
At the same time, the Inclosed Lands bill also reduces fines for mining companies, that were previously liable for up to $1.1 million for operational misconduct, such as mining without authority. Now they will only have to pay $5000. You read that right, the penalty is now higher for individual protesters than it is for multi-billion dollar mining companies.
National Convenor of the Australian Student Environment Network, Marco Avena, was arrested during a conservation protest three months ago in East Gippsland. He is one of the anti-CSG protesters NSW resources minister Anthony Roberts recently labelled "eco-fascists." Avena anticipates a "long, exhausting" legal battle, with multiple trips interstate because he has been served with five charges. In the face of these new laws, he says he'd be hesitant to do another protest in NSW.
George Woods, NSW coordinator for Lock the Gate, argues protesters aren't resorting to civil disobedience for laughs. "They do it because the system gives them no choice: it is stacked in favour of the mining companies," she says. Because of how destructive mining is to livelihoods in these vulnerable rural communities, locals feel they have no choice but to fight back.
Despite the fact that "nobody wants to protest," as Woods puts it, protest remains one of our most important civil rights. These reforms significantly broaden police powers, allowing police unprecedented discretion to search, detain, arrest, charge, and move people on. They now have the power to stop protests before they even happen.
This is what stands out as most alarming about the new laws—how sweeping they are, broadly restricting the right to protest if these actions interfere with business, which is often the point. The Law Society of NSW came down on the anti-protest amendment like a tonne of bricks, denouncing the expansion of police powers as "an erosion of long-standing democratic institutions and individual rights."
As did Australian Lawyers for Human Rights president Nathan Kennedy, who believes the legislation violates Australia's obligations under the UN'sInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) "I query whether this legislation is even constitutional… [it] may well limit the ability of individuals to engage in legitimate political communication, which is one of the few human rights protected under the Australian constitution."
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