"This is a law to protect the rich. We will need to break these laws to protect our democratic rights," Aboriginal activist and lead NSW Senate candidate for the Socialist Alliance team in the federal elections Ken Canning, said on March 15.
Canning was addressing protesters who had occupied the road outside State Parliament following a rally, called by Greens MLC David Shoebridge, against the state government's new laws attacking the right to protest.
The new law criminalising non-violent direct action, aimed initially against the growing movement to stop coal seam gas (CSG) mining, passed the NSW Upper House on March 16. It was backed by the Coalition parties, and supported by the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party and Fred Nile's Christian Democrats. This was a remarkable piece of hypocrisy by Nile, who had earlier joined the rally to speak against the bill outside parliament.
Despite pouring rain, more than 1000 people from across the state listened to speakers from the Greens, Labor, unions, the Aboriginal community, civil liberties and environmental groups. A number of legal associations have also come out strongly against the law.
Shoebridge said: "These laws have no social licence in NSW and if the police or the Liberal National parties try to enforce them, they will hit a wall of public protest that will stop them in their tracks.”
The new law is aimed at stopping non-violent direct action protests at coal and CSG sites by increasing the penalties from $550 to $5500 for those locking-on to mining or other equipment. Protesters could also face up to seven year's jail.
The law creates a new criminal offence: “aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands”. The NSW Bar Association notes that anything that interferes with a business activity could fall under that category. It noted too that “inclosed lands” included every building in NSW and every private or public area that is surrounded by a fence or wall or even by a natural feature.
President of the Law Society of NSW Gary Ulman said the new law “appears to limit protest and assembly rights, based only on an assessment by an individual police officer that interference is necessary on 'reasonable grounds' to deal with a 'serious risk' to safety”.
He is also concerned about the “continued expansion of police powers” that allow police to issue directions in the context of peaceful protests, particularly where failure to comply with such directions amounts to a criminal offence. He said there were already sufficient common law powers to restrain or detain people for their own or others' safety.
Currently, police can order people to remove obstructions to traffic or people in public places. But there are limits to that power: police cannot exercise that power in industrial disputes, genuine protests or organised assemblies. The new law gives police discretion over whether they can issue orders at such events.
Another concern of the Law Society is that the new law will give police the power to search and seize without a warrant items that are not inherently dangerous, such as a rope.
Coonamble farmer Don McKenzie told the rally: "As a 64-year-old famer, I never thought that I'd be forced to get involved in protest movements. But I have been forced to by the very same people who were elected to protect us."
Bogaine Spearim, a Gamilaraay traditional owner, reminded that protest that this and other such punitive laws lock Aboriginal people out of their own country and called for defiance. “We can't think about the risk of getting arrested, we have to think about the risk of a whole generation not having access to country, to song, to dance, to story”, he said.
Pip Hinman, president of Stop CSG Sydney, condemned mining and energy minister Anthony Roberts for saying the new law was need to counter “eco-fascists”.
“His labelling is completely wrong”, she said. “There's nothing remotely fascistic about stopping the contamination of sparse and unique water sources — whether that is the Warragamba Dam supplying Sydney with its drinking water or the Great Artesian Basin which Santos and the government seem to have no qualms about destroying.
“On the other hand, introducing a law to stop communities defending these public resources is fascistic!”
Anne Thompson, a founding member of Knitting Nannas Against Gas in Bentley, vowed to continue to protest despite the law. “We can't afford $5500 fines on our pensions: we'd rather go to jail. We're already making jailbird outfits.”
Naomi Hodgson, Newcastle Wilderness Society campaigner, wrote in the March 15 Sydney Morning Herald: "This is a slippery slope that gives police new powers to silence dissent and could turn NSW into a police state. Far from being a moderate, Baird is taking NSW down the sad road of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland.
"Protesters could be fined more for opposing illegal mining activity than miners could for operating illegally. People will face $5500 fines for protesting on business premises, while mining companies will face fines of only $5000 for conducting illegal mining activities. This new $5000 maximum has plummeted from the previous maximum of $1.1 million, which is a more realistic deterrent for a resource company.
"Protesters such as [former Wallabies captain] David Pocock who lock themselves on to mining equipment even face seven years in jail.”
She and others at the rally made the point that the new laws are aimed at stopping anti-CSG protests — which have been very effective in stopping the industry from setting up in NSW.
Right now, activists are involved in a battle to save the Pilliga Forest where Santos, with the active support of the NSW government, is trying to set up a mine. While Santos has been responsible for contaminating groundwater aquifers with uranium and other toxic heavy metals, it has received a fine of just $1500 and no Santos executive has been threatened with jail.
An opinion poll, commissioned by the NSW Nature Conservation Council, showed only 23% supported the new anti-protest laws. This compares to 61% who opposed the increase in police powers and fine hikes for protesters, and a massive 80% who opposed reducing penalties against mining companies.
Unsurprisingly, Stephen Galiliee, who used to be Baird's Chief of Staff and now heads the NSW Minerals Council that lobbies on behalf of coal companies, is very keen on the new law. He says the new law will mean “less people doing stupid things”.
Environmental, union and civil rights organisations will have to mobilise the widespread community opposition to these laws and challenge these new restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech. We can be sure that these bad laws will be broken and solidarity and support will be needed for those who do.
One placard at the rally summed it up: "You gotta fight for your right to fight for your right".