Friday the 13th — a bad day for democracy

Issue 

I am not the least bit superstitious, but I can get suspicious. Like when Victorian community group Your Water Your Say (YWYS) failed its court challenge against the federal and state government decision to build a monstrous and unnecessary $3.1 billion desalination plant in Wonthaggi.

Then alarm bells went right off on Friday June 13 when the Federal Court awarded costs against YWYS for its failed court bid. Unsurprisingly, Victorian Premier John Brumby was "delighted" with the court ruling.

The decision sets a dangerous precedent for any community group that dares to take on the government via legal avenues. It silences opposition and sidelines groups from the legal process by bankrupting them. The message is either shut up or pay up.

YWYS had become a major headache for the government, campaigning tirelessly — and increasingly effectively — against the desalination plant, which is to be built and operated by a private company that will control 40% of Melbourne's water supply. The group established a 24-hour community assembly to stop work on the pilot project and has been educating the public about the destructive nature of the plant.

YWYS was clear from the beginning of its campaign that legal action alone was insufficient to stop the plant, and that only broad-based community action and anger could do that. YWYS hoped that a successful challenge would stop work at the site for at least six months, giving it more time to garner public support and force a change in government policy.

Equally brutal and lacking in consultation was Brumby's decision to go ahead with the dredging of Port Phillip Bay, ignoring warnings by health and environmental experts that the channel deepening would destroy a fragile ecosystem and the livelihoods of many Victorians.

Anti-dredging group Blue Wedges also lost a Federal Court challenge to halt the bay dredging on the basis of its high risk to people and the environment. Blue Wedges is still awaiting a costs hearing for its court action.

The Plug the Pipe campaigning group has been accused by Brumby of having ulterior motives for opposing the ludicrous $1 billion north-south pipeline. Plug the Pipe claims the project is akin to environmental vandalism and would divert water critically needed by farmers to be flushed down Melbourne toilets when much cheaper and sustainable water solutions exist. Plug the Pipe could likely expect a similar outcome to YWYS and Blue Wedges if it decides to take legal action in its fight to stop the pipe.

The alliance of ALP federal and state governments, big business and the courts is attempting to silence opposition groups to Victoria's highly unpopular and environmentally destructive infrastructure projects. These projects are to be funded via private-public partnerships, diverting public funds to fill the pockets of the greedy business elite.

The experiences of YWYS and Blue Wedges show that the current legal system and the government continuously line up on the side of the wealthy and powerful against the interests of ordinary people and the environment.

However, using the courts can be effective if it's part of a broader political strategy based on mobilising people and public opinion against unpopular policies. We have to defend our right to use all avenues, including legal ones, to get our voices heard and stop such destructive projects.

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