Perth rally defends the right to protest

Issue 
Perth protest on February 23. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

More than 1000 people rallied on the steps of Western Australia's Parliament House on February 23 to protest against the Western Australian government's anti-protest laws.

The Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill passed the upper house on February 16 but has not yet gone to the lower house. These laws are considered so draconian that three United Nations Human Rights experts have written an open letter to the WA Colin Barnett government urging that the laws be scrapped. They said the laws are so draconian that they could be considered to be in violation of the implied right to freedom of expression in the Australian Constitution.

Under the proposed amendments two new offences would be added to the criminal code. First, “An offense that applies when a person physically prevents a lawful activity from being carried out”; and second, “An offence to prohibit the manufacture and possession of things intended to be used to prevent lawful activity ... to make, adapt or possess an item to assist in committing an offense of trespass or physical prevention of lawful activity”.

If passed, the laws would make it a criminal offence to physically block lawful activity or to carry a "thing" with the presumed intent to block lawful activity. It opens the possibility of two year prison terms for peaceful protest.

The government claims that these laws are needed to clamp down on what it claims to be "extreme protest movements" but it is obvious that acts of peaceful political protest and civil disobedience are being targeted.
Premier Barnett cited recent campaigns such as those against the proposed James Price Point gas hub and building of the Perth Freight Link and Roe 8 freeway in which tactics such as blockading and picketing were used. Under the new laws these protests could be considered to be preventing “lawful activity”.

The trade union movement is concerned that activities that unions carry out during industrial disputes such as strikes, pickets and stop work meetings could be targeted by the authorities under the new laws.

After giving a welcome to country, Nyoongar elder Uncle Ben Taylor told those assembled that he had been campaigning on the steps of Parliament house for 30 years and would continue to do so till the day he died.
He was followed by State opposition leader Mark McGowan who denounced the laws, saying “they are too broad" and that they will impact ordinary protests by ordinary people.

"There can be no compromise, there can be no amendment, there can be no fiddling at the edges," he said. McGowan promised that a future Labor government would repeal the laws.

Father Chris Bedding from the Anglican Church and Love Makes a Way told the crowd that in order to do the right thing you sometimes have to defy unjust laws. He cited the church leaders who were staging a sit in in the Victorian Parliament that very day in support of the 267 refugees in danger of deportation to Nauru.

Kate Davis from the Community Legal Centres Association noted that the proposed laws would remove a person's presumption of innocence, which is a bedrock of the legal system. This means that instead of the prosecution having to prove you are guilty, you have to prove that you are innocent.

She also spoke of concerns that the bill was poorly worded and too broad in its powers. Davis pointed to a wide range of trade unions, political parties, community groups and activists that had come out in opposition to the law saying: “We're concerned that this bill undermines fundamental protections in our criminal justice system, infringes on our human rights and should be opposed.”

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