Climate activist narrowly avoids prison sentence

Activists who block Sydney's streets now face significant penalties. Photo: Fireproof Australia

Climate activist Jay Larbalestier narrowly avoided jail time on July 1 when he was sentenced for blocking peak hour traffic on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge on April 13. Larbalestier was arrested with three other activists from Fireproof Australia, the group behind the protest.

New legislation, rushed through the New South Wales parliament weeks earlier, means that climate activists now face harsh penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to $22,000.

These draconian laws are designed to silence protest and intimidate those wanting to bring governments to account.

Larbalestier’s health condition ultimately saved him jail time, but the magistrate gave him the maximum sentence that could be served in the community: he received an eight-month Intensive Community Order with harsh conditions, a fine of $7196 and 350 hours of community service.

Larbalestier had already spent four days in custody and 42 days under house arrest prior to his sentencing. He told Green Left on July 2 that the harsh sentence and possibility of jail time came as a surprise.

“I narrowly avoided a custodial sentence. A two-year Community Correction Order was upheld, the conditions of which include a good behaviour bond and orders not to associate with five protesters, who I consider close friends,” he said.

“I realise that no one wants to be caught up in traffic on their way to work. But these new anti-protest laws and the severe repression of protesters in recent days ought to be of great concern to anyone who cares about democracy.

“We are experiencing first hand the carnage of inaction on global heating: the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires directly caused 33 deaths and almost 450 more from smoke inhalation. Billions of animals were killed and some plant and animal species were driven to the brink of extinction.

“Meanwhile 22 people lost their lives in the recent floods across eastern Australia. This is a prelude to what is to come.

“Moreover, while immense resources have been deployed against non-violent protesters, bushfire and flood survivors remain abandoned, stranded in caravans and makeshift housing.”

Larbalestier said that, like many, he was “relieved” by the recent federal election. “The message was unambiguous: Australians want swift and immediate action on climate. Any move in that direction is to be welcomed.” However, he said Labor’s pledge to reduce domestic carbon emissions by 43% by 2030 from 2005 levels “falls well short of Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the Paris Agreement … 43% likely does not even align with limiting warming within 2 degrees, much less 1.5°C.

“We must not be seduced by sophisticated PR campaigns,” Larbalestier said. “We need to demand far-reaching and transformational change to all sectors of society, in line with what science says is needed. We have technology and the solutions; what is lacking is political will.”

Fireproof Australia is demanding that the federal government: implement the findings of the Black Summer Bushfires Royal Commission and secure an Australian-based aerial firefighting fleet; ensure that all schools, aged care and disability services have effective protection from the impacts of toxic bushfire smoke; and take immediate action to rehouse those who remain homeless or in temporary accommodation more than a year after extreme weather events.

Larbalestier said the repression of nonviolent protesters “enables the ongoing plunder of our natural resources by wealthy and powerful multinationals”. He said he remained “undeterred” and “stood in solidarity with those for whom such efforts have taken an immense personal toll”.

[A Chuffed fundraiser has been set up to raise money for Larbalestier and the other Fireproof Australia arrestees.]