Earlier this year NSW Labor MPs supported legislation that effectively criminsalised non-violent forms of protest. Now you can go to jail for 2 years and face a $22,000 fine if you obstruct pedestrians on any road that the Coalition Minister decides by regulation.
The Coalition has used Blockade Australia as a scapegoat to manufacture consent for anti-protest legislation that threatens the long-term integrity of the environmental movement. Coalition members described the climate protestors as violent and "terrorists. Eco-terrorists; Green terrorists" (Source). They weren't. Despite what you might think about the strategic value of their actions, the protestors at the centre of the debate did not engage or plan to engage in any form of violence. It is not surprising that the Coalition seized an opportunity to suppress the democratic freedoms of all citizens in perpetuity. Nor is it surprising that they tried to use the bill to undermine NSW Labor. What is chilling though is that the Opposition did nothing to stand in their way. In fact, the Hansard record shows that many Labor MPs were passionately in favour of the anti-protest bills.
In 2022 Labor stopped supporting the right to protest.
Some young people, fed up about inaction on climate action, blocked a few roads and chained themselves to cranes at Port Botany. The disruption was minimal. The protestors were fined and moved on by police. Traffic and commerce in Sydney continued as normal. It was not an issue on many voters' minds. In response, Perrotet’s government put up a bill to target the climate protestors. It was almost comically draconian. He proposed that the $220 fine for obstructing a major road be increased one hundred times to $22,000 and come with up 2 years in prison. Perrotet’s plan was to put up a bill so extreme that Labor could simply never support it. He apparently intended to portray Labor as soft on the climate protestors and in support of anarchy on our streets. It was a pretty lame strategy – and one Labor could have easily deflected.
Minns could have insisted on a Parliamentary inquiry into the new laws and delayed a vote on the legislation indefinitely. Instead, Labor voted up the laws and we now find ourselves in a hellscape where police permission is required to march on a major road and the penalty for disobeying is prison time.The new laws are an attack on the democratic rights of every person in NSW – we should all have the right to march down a street for a political cause. Every single member of the Labor Party has done this. The idea that it is now an imprisonable offence is outrageous.
For these reasons, 40 prominent civil-society organisations signed an open letter condemning the legislation as an attack on citizens' fundamental human and democratic rights. The list of signatories included Amnesty International, the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, the Human Rights Law Centre, The Australian Youth Climate Council, and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. You can read the letter and their statements opposing the bill here. Since then, civil-society organisations and trade unions have issued additional joint statements opposing the legislation.
What is clear is that many Labor MPs are completely out of step with Labor members, the union movement, and eminent civil-society organisations. Party leaders made a woeful 'captain's call' to support conservative attacks on our democracy and ordinary people are paying the price.
Here they are in their own words speaking in favour of anti-protest legislation:
Chriss Minns (Opposition Leader) said:
"The Opposition supports the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022. We think it is important to the safety and security of the State of New South Wales. We are glad the Attorney General has brought the bill to Parliament. We supported it here and we will support it in the upper House."'
John Graham MLC (Deputy-Opposition Leader in the Legislative Council) said:
“...we are opposed to violent protest...We are absolutely on the side of getting people to work. A person need only look at this Opposition and the issues it is engaged in, which are squarely aimed at suburban Sydney and at the real pressures people face balancing family and work. The Minister picked up the Opposition vibe in her contribution when she said that it is not just about getting to school and to work but getting to medical appointments. It is not that easy for older citizens of Sydney who are just trying to get around at the moment, in the middle of a pandemic, to get health care when they need it. It is not easy to do the ordinary things in life. We are on the side of those people...We do not support the Blockade Australia Protests because they are violent economic blockades.”
Michael Daley MP (Former Opposition Leader) said:
“This is a harsh bill. It does impose limitations on citizens...As I say, we have at times been a party of protest ourselves. But the activities which give rise to the bill are entirely different. People thought that it was acceptable to block the Spit Bridge in peak hour. People thought it was okay to disrupt the activities of Port Botany and shut it down as much as they could, not on one or two but three occasions. Port operations were shut down as a result of certain of those activities. There is a cost to all. There is a cost to ordinary people. There are many ways to protest. These protests targeted at maximum disruption are unacceptable.”
Rose Jackson MLC (Shadow Minister for Housing) said:
“If [the laws] are being used to target rogue individuals who completely disrupt peak hour traffic on the Spit Bridge, on our ports, while endangering not only themselves but also the workers who have to try to get them down and deal with these situations, it is an absolutely valid point to say it is extremely dangerous not only for them but also for the people who are trying to respond to it, and if these laws are being used to target that behaviour, I think that is acceptable.”
The law as it applied before this Act was set out in the Summary Offences Act. If you were organising a protest that would interfere with traffic or block a footpath, you had to provide notice under the Act to the police. Once notice was provided, protestors were protected from offences under the Roads Act including obstructing traffic. Permission was not required.
Police could take issue with protests once notice had been given by going to the Supreme Court. Often the police did go to court to cite disruption to traffic. In case after case the Supreme Court stated that this approach was fundamentally undemocratic and recognised that obstructing major roads or causing disruption or inconvenience was both lawful and important in a democracy.
The laws are also an attack on unions and their members. Minns “won” a carve out for unions to obstruct roads during strikes or “industrial campaigns”. It’s unclear what that means. The police are already arguing it doesn’t protect unions from participating in solidarity turn-out to the strikes of other unions.
What is clear is that Labor has voted to ban unions, just like every other person in NSW, from participating in major street marches for social causes in the interests of their members. If a union chooses to march in favour of the Voice to Parliament, or the rights for refugees, or for a worker-led response to climate change then its members and officials can be thrown in prison.
Union and party members need to do everything they can to make this the issue at State Labor Conference in October. Conference must change Labor’s platform to bind a Minns government to repeal the anti-protest laws. We must insist that Minns commit to laws which allow any person in NSW to participate in non-violent protest activity.
David Pink is a solicitor and the Secretary of the Leichhardt Branch of NSW Labor
Editorial Note: Mass-Meeting of Labor Members Who Oppose the Anti-Protest Laws
If you would like to participate in the campaign to overturn Labor's support for the anti-protest legislation RSVP here for Labor for Civil Liberties' mass-meeting on Sunday 21 August at 12pm.
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