The Australian Services Union (ASU) and Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) put a motion to the New South Wales Labor Conference on October 16 calling on the party to “scrap the New South Wales government’s anti-protest laws” if it wins government in the March elections.
To huge applause, Angus McFarland from the ASU NSW & ACT told the conference: “Progress comes from protest: the eight-hour day; the campaign for equal pay; Medicare; native title; marriage equality; the [National Disability Insurance Scheme]; action on climate change; the right to vote; the right to have a voice. We should have pride, not shame, in protest.”
But, in yet another blow for the right to protest, a significantly watered-down motion was voted up.
Deputy opposition leader Prue Car’s amendments to the unions’ motion — which changed its original content — were passed.
The amended motion said: “Conference notes that NSW Labor fought for changes to the protest legislation introduced by the Government that included protecting industrial action and the right to peaceful protest.
“Conference recognises that destructive and violent protest actions cannot be condoned by government.
“Conference notes the Supreme Court proceedings currently underway relating to the legislation and respects the separation of powers, judicial process and decisions of the court.
“Conference further notes that the laws are subject to review.”
The Coalition government’s Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 passed with Labor’s support in April.
The law made it a crime, punishable by up to 2 years in jail and/or a $22,000 fine, to even briefly obstruct a road or block the entrance to train stations, ports and public and private infrastructure.
It was no secret that the laws were a thinly veiled attempt to stifle climate protest. The laws have already been used in relation to protests organised by Fireproof Australia and Blockade Australia.
The laws have undoubtedly had a chilling effect on those wishing to take their message to the streets, just when there is an urgent need for a stronger response to the climate emergency.
The ASU and AMWU motion gave Labor an opportunity to restore confidence that a vote for it in March would put an end to the war on the right to protest.
Instead, the amended motion signalled to climate-conscious voters that we can expect more of the same.
Given the climate emergency, we know there will be more protests, not less. We also know that protests are inherently disruptive. To stifle disruption is to stifle the right to protest itself.
Instead of taking the opportunity to repeal the Coalition’s anti-protest laws, Labor is hiding behind a court case, brought by the Environmental Defenders Office for the Knitting Nannas, to determine whether the anti-protest laws are valid.
Delegates from the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) told the conference that unjust laws should be dispensed with and that we should not need a court to strike them down.
Union delegates from the ASU, AMWU, MUA and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, along with other Labor delegates, articulately put the case to repeal the anti-protest laws. But they were voted down.
The successful amendments, moved by Car, reveal much about the Labor leadership’s attitude to the right to protest. The amended motion’s references to “violent protest” are nothing more than a dog whistle.
Violence is already prohibited by law, meaning that the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 was not needed, except to stymy peaceful disruptive protest.
What would Labor do in government if the courts upheld the validity of the anti-protest laws, but otherwise made negative comments about? The amended, upturned motion does not instil confidence that Labor would move to narrow or repeal the law.
We must remain alert to further attempts to curtail the right to protest and continue to resist the anti-protest laws.
Given the establishment media’s outrage at young climate activists emptying milk bottles and soup on a glass-protected Vincent van Gogh painting in London and others gluing their hands to Pablo Picasso’s painting Massacre in Korea in Melbourne, we can be sure government will seek to further curb the right to protest.
[Josh Pallas is the president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.]