Criminalising activism: Woodside, protests and climate change

September 6, 2023
Protesters outside Woodside HQ. Photo: Disrupt Burrup Hub/Facebook

Since a handful of climate activists protested outside the home of Woodside’s CEO Meg O’Neill on August 1, the corporation and West Australian government have stepped up their attacks.

Woodside’s Burrup Hub project consists of the Scarborough and Browse Basin gas fields, the Pluto Project processing plant and various linked liquified gas and fertiliser plans found on the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region.

O’Neil was outraged they had found out where she lived, claiming the protest had made her feel “unsafe”.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of the business community, in professional athletics, or just a school kid … everybody has the right to feel safe in their own home,” she said.

Yet, the tactical response police had already been tipped off.

Matilda Lane-Rose, one of the protestors, came face to face with more than a dozen counter-terrorist police. Lane-Rose, along with three other members of Disrupt Burrup Hub, were subsequently charged with conspiracy to commit and indictable offence.

The howl of indignation over a peaceful protest from the corporation, and other quarters, has been huge.

Mark Abbotsford, Woodside’s executive vice president, said a line had been crossed. Alison Xamon, a former Greens MP, questioned the wisdom of the protest, saying there “is a sense that people’s homes should almost be off limits”.

Kerry Stokes’ media emporium went into a furious campaign against the “eco fanatics”. Seven West Media, owned by Stokes, even took the ABC to task for covering the protest as part of an intended program for Four Corners.

Stokes’ journalists suggested the ABC had overstepped, despite their own stable having done precisely the same thing on two previous occasions. Channel Seven covered a 2021 protest that blockaded Woodside’s facilities on Burrup, with live crosses into the market, ready for breakfast television.

Western Australian Premier Roger Cook also criticised the ABC, sending a letter to its chair Ita Buttrose to “express [his] serious concerns about the ABC crew’s actions and urge your organisation to reflect on the role it played in this matter”.

The prosecuting police painted a picture of a sinister domestic insurgency at O’Neill’s doorstep. WA Police prosecutor Kim Briggs said two of the protesters seeking bail, Jesse Noakes and Gerard Mazza “prepared their actions in detail including surveillance and reconnaissance”.

They also “parked near the residence and Ms O’Neill’s departure time was worked out to maximise disruption”.

Briggs alleged their intention “was to damage the property using spray paint and lock themselves [to a gate] with a D-lock to hinder the ability of Ms O’Neill to leave the property”.

Whatever the merits of the publicity-seeking exercise by Disrupt Burrup Hub protesters, Woodside had a devilish card to play: any option that might divert, or at least stifle interest in, its plan to produce billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2070, would be considered.

Despite protective bail conditions that prevent protesters from approaching O’Neill, let alone any Woodside property, the company wanted more: to effectively extinguish speech and coverage on the executive, the company and the protest.

The target, in other words, was publicity itself.

Woodside sought Violence Restraining Orders (VRO) against the protestors. A VRO is intended to restrain a person from: committing an act of abuse; breaching the peace; causing fear; damaging property; or intimidating another person.

Through August, VROs were served on Lane-Rose, Emil Davey and Gerard Mazza.

The relevant clauses state that the campaigners are not to “make any reference to [the Woodside CEO] by any electronic means, including by using the internet and any social media application” or “cause or allow any other person to engage in conduct of the type referred to in any of the preceding paragraphs of this order on your behalf”.

This could only be taken as an effort to stomp on free speech, especially the critical sort.

Barrister Zarah Burgess, representing Disrupt Burrup Hub, described it as “a transparent and extraordinary attempt to gag climate campaigners from speaking about Woodside’s fossil fuel expansion”. Never before had she seen the VRO system used in such a manner.

“The intended purpose for granting VROs is to protect people, predominantly women and children, usually in the context of family violence.”

Alice Drury of the Human Rights Law Centre was blunt: “Woodside and the multibillion-dollar fossil fuel industry are trying to send a chilling message to anyone who dares to speak out: you will be intimidated and silenced.”

The hype from O’Neill and Woodside about protester “intimidation” says everything about the fossil fuel giant’s entitlement.

The company advertises itself as being “founded in Australia with a spirit of innovation and determination” which provides “energy the world needs to heat and cool homes, keep lights on and enable industry”.

To such a bright mission, we can add that it will also seek to prevent, even criminalise, free speech and protest on the environment if permitted”.

The authorities in WA, at least pending appeal, agree.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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