Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan penned the enigmatic phrase “the medium is the message” in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. McLuhan asserted that the medium in which information is communicated is of more significance socially than its overt contents, and that often the literal interpretation of its contents can serve to obscure the true meaning.
“The ‘content’ of a medium,” McLuhan provocatively stated, “is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” To fully comprehend something’s meaning and significance, don’t look at just what is being said, consider also the method by which it is being delivered.
This holds true when considering the recent shameful events in New South Wales Parliament.
As is common during election cycles, protests by activist groups have been increasing. Blockade Australia (BA) and Fireproof Australia (FA) have been organising peaceful direct actions calling for greater action on climate change mitigation and adaptation and causing temporary disruptions to traffic and commerce across Sydney.
Responding to the right-wing media, NSW Minister for Metropolitan Roads Natalie Ward on March 24 amended a pre-existing law that had applied only to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She imposed a punishment of two years’ imprisonment and/or a $22,000 fine on anyone obstructing any bridge or tunnel in Greater Sydney.
This crackdown was enacted through the delegated legislation process: a minister, at their discretion, can write a regulation into law with no parliamentary scrutiny or vote.
Then, late on March 30, the Coalition government introduced a bill that further restricted the right to protest: it made the blocking of a “major road” or “major infrastructure facilities” a jailable offence for up to two years and subject to a $22,000 fine. What constitutes a “major road” or “major infrastructure facility” is up to its discretion.
With no warning as to its contents, the bill was shared with only Labor MPs until hours before it was tabled in parliament as a “matter of urgency”, meaning it could override the requirement that a bill has to be tabled at least five days before it is debated and voted on.
Seeking to rush the bill through on the same day it was made visible, human rights groups and unions were prevented from scrutinising it. Despite this, 39 human rights and campaign organisations released an open letter condemning it as “incompatible with the democratic right to protest”. The Legislative Assembly voted on the bill within hours of its introduction, its passage only shortly delayed through the valiant attempts of Greens MPs and independent MP Alex Greenwich.
I attempted to overturn the ministerial direction on March 31 and the government attempted to prevent parliament from debating the bill. Labor and most of the crossbench rejected the attempt to silence debate but, unfortunately, NSW Labor leader Chris Minns had already committed his party to supporting it. Labor’s capitulation set the stage for the abrupt restriction on the right to peaceful protest.
March 31 was scheduled as the final parliamentary sitting day until May and, under the Legislative Council’s rules, it would have had to adjourn at midnight, at which time the business would have had to be held over until May.
The Greens MLCs, along with Emma Hurst of the Animal Justice Party, resolved to prolong debate to prevent the bill from going to a vote, to win time for unions and advocacy groups to petition Labor to oppose or amend the legislation. We also wanted to prevent restrictions on protest from being imposed in a federal election campaign.
The government used every trick in its arsenal — including attempting to gag debate and ignore or override our proposed amendments — but it was largely unsuccessful. Debate continued to the end of the night.
However, shortly before midnight, a deal was struck to recall parliament and resume debate the next day, when the government did manage to pass the bill, with Labor’s support.
The government showed a determination to ram through a dangerous anti-protest bill, in contrast to its foot-dragging approach to the Voluntary Assisted Dying bill currently before parliament.
The Legislative Assembly was called to vote on the bill minutes after it passed the Legislative Council. After it was tabled, the new law had taken less than 48 hours to be enacted.
The bill that was passed with the support of Labor and the conservative crossbench MPs now forces organisers to get police consent before holding a protest. This overrides the long-standing process that merely required organisers to inform the police before conducting an activity.
The bill criminalises protest on any road, bridge or tunnel, only carving out a narrow exemption for union-organised protests revolving around an industrial action. In practice, this means people will now not be permitted to protest unless they are in a state-sanctioned place, on a state-sanctioned topic, with the prior permission of the state.
Returning to McLuhan, the method by which the government imposed its restrictions on the right to protest is as instructive as the language of the law itself. Just as it stifled political dissent and criticism on the streets, the government also bullied and harangued any MP who spoke out against the bill.
Disruptive protest conveys a message. The BA and FA protesters sought to disrupt the business-as-usual operations. Business, as usual, was vigorously and robustly defended by the major parties, who labelled protesters “terrorists” and “economic vandals” conducting “anarchy for anarchy’s sake”.
On the eve of a federal election and 12 months out from a state election, the NSW Parliament has made it clear that the only “legitimate form of protest” is one that doesn’t challenge the economic or political orthodoxy and status quo.
While parliament was debating the bill on April 1, Ward again used arbitrary powers to expand the locations captured in this anti-protest law; with a stroke of the pen, she prohibited protests in the City of Newcastle and the City of Wollongong, as well as any bridge or tunnel that joins a main road, highway or freeway anywhere in NSW.
What is classified as a major road or infrastructure facility in the newly-passed Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 will be similarly guided by arbitrary decisions imposed through ministerial regulations.
The message is clear.
[Abigail Boyd is a NSW Greens member of the NSW Legislative Council.]