Three protesters charged under a new section of the NSW Crimes Act have pleaded not guilty at a preliminary hearing in Mudgee on May 17.
The “Wollar Three” are challenging the draconian new law aimed at criminalising those who protest at coal and gas mine sites. If convicted they could face a maximum penalty of seven years’ jail.
The three, Bev Smiles, Bruce Hughes and Stephanie Luke, who are being defended by the Environmental Defenders Office, want to challenge the unjust new law. "We have to highlight to the people of New South Wales how unbalanced the decision making is and how unfair it is to ordinary people in this state," Smiles said.
The Wilpinjong coalmine, owned by Peabody Coal USA, has been operating in the Wollar district, near Mudgee in mid-western NSW, for 10 years. Over this time it has all but destroyed the Wollar community, through its noise and toxic fumes and by Peabody’s buy up of local properties.
As the mine crept closer to Wollar, the community has dispersed. Today, fewer than 30 residents remain in the area. As people moved away, services and social support that had made village life viable have been withdrawn.
The last straw for Wollar came on April 11, when the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) approved Peabody’s mine extension. This will allow it to expand to within 1.5 kilometres of the town. The few remaining private landowners will be left with worthless land, with no compensation offered by the state or the mine.
The day after the PAC’s decision, about 25 members of the Wollar Progress Association and supporters attended a peaceful blockade of the site’s entrance, preventing mine workers from entering. Police were called and the three were arrested.
Last November, the NSW Coalition government amended anti-protesting laws, adding provisions to the “Interfere with a mine” section of the Crimes Act. The “Wollar Three”, as they have been called, are the first to be charged under these controversial anti-protest laws.
Smiles said the trio are law-abiding citizens who were using peaceful protest as a last resort to protect their community.
“We have reached a crisis point when the vested interests of mining companies are so favoured over communities that the state government not only removes our right to appeal unfair planning decisions but now threatens us with new draconian laws designed to prevent peaceful protest,” she said.
Hughes said: “My home is threatened. I’ve lived in that area for 30-odd years and I just had to stand up and say no, this should not be allowed to go ahead. I’m no criminal. I had no choice. I felt the only way I could get the government to see the injustice that is taking place was by taking action. All I wanted was to protect my home.”
Greens MP David Shoebridge, who joined supporters outside the Mudgee Court, said the prosecution of the three would show how illegitimate the legislation was. He said people's rights to peacefully protest had been stripped from them and the case would put the laws to the test.
"What this case will show,” he said, “is the deep illegitimacy of laws that seek to criminalise protests. This is three citizens of New South Wales who are standing up and protecting their homes and now they potentially face seven years in jail for it. That's an illegitimate law that needs to be scrubbed off our statute books."
He warned there would be overwhelming community backlash if they were sent to jail for protesting.
"If ever these laws end up taking someone's liberty because they were doing nothing more than expressing their right to oppose a poor law or to oppose a community destroying coalmine, well that will be a very sad day for New South Wales, and it will be one of the last days for a government that would see someone in jail for that reason."
The fate of the “Wollar Three” will be determined on June 21 at the Mudgee courthouse.
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