Right to protest: If you don’t use it you lose it

The news laws could deem the anti-unconventional gas protest at Bentley in NSW a criminal act.

Whenever the Coalition and Labor stop bickering and agree in serious tones that something must be done in the “national interest” you can be sure they’re up to no good.

The “national interest” they're talking about is not the welfare of working people or the natural environment, but the long-term needs of Australian capitalism which they both serve. So it is with the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, both of which passed the Senate on June 28.

When it was first tabled, the legislation provoked a huge outcry because of its potential to incriminate journalists and whistleblowers. Some of the worst measures in this regard were removed in the course of secret negotiations between Labor and the Coalition before amended versions were sprung on the Senate with only a few minutes’ notice. However the bills still retain some of the most significant assaults on civil liberties in decades.

The new law describes any actions that cause “economic damage”, such as blocking access to a building, as “sabotage”; and “critical infrastructure” has been replaced with “public infrastructure”, which could be taken to mean any public building or privately owned infrastructure. The penalties include seven year’s jail for planning such action and 20–25 years jail for participating in it — more than you would get for murdering someone.

Ultimate discretion about whether to prosecute lies with the attorney-general. Well-framed and well-written laws clearly spell out what is and is not a crime. As the independent member for Denison Andrew Wilkie pointed out in parliamentary debate, leaving it up to the discretion of the attorney-general is exceptionally poor legislation.

Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to see that almost all effective non-violent protest could be captured by this wording. There can be no doubt that the Coalition was partly motivated by its desire to protect the unconventional gas, coal mining and other environmentally destructive industries from increasingly large and effective protest action.

The Coalition and Labor place their loyalty to the mining and fossil fuel industries above all else, and only a complete dill would trust the current or a future attorney-general to apply the new law in the general interest of the Australian people.

That said, it is vitally important that people are not so cowed by these terrible laws that they stop protesting — quite the opposite. In fact, it is by energetically asserting our right to protest that we will prevent the new law from being applied in the most draconian and oppressive manner.

The law and judicial system do not exist apart from society and social struggle, they are not the neutral and independent forces they pretend to be. Pro-capitalist governments will seek to give their actions the cloak of legal legitimacy wherever they can. They already selectively apply and interpret the law, but will also break the law where they deem it necessary.

However the reverse is also true. Repressive and unjust laws can and have been neutralised when faced with sustained and determined resistance. Every generation needs to learn the lesson of the huge struggle against anti-union penal powers that prohibited strike action.

In 1969, after a campaign that had been building for many years, the leader of the tramways union Clarrie O’Shea chose to go to jail rather than pay a fine. This was the signal for the largest post-war national strike, as one million workers stopped work over six days to demand “Free Clarrie and repeal the penal powers”.

On the sixth day the bosses anonymously paid O’Shea’s fine to bring the strike to an end.

Even though the anti-union penal powers were not repealed for some years, they had become unenforceable. Until we win the repeal of this latest round of repressive legislation, the best way to ensure that an attorney-general does not use their power to jail us for protesting is to protest. 

Finally, a word on the hypocritical nonsense about foreign powers supposedly trying to influence the Australian political process.

In the very same week the attorney-general authorised charges against “Witness K” and his lawyer Bernard Collaery, because the former exposed the fact that the Australian government had illegally bugged the offices of the East Timorese government under the cover of an aid program to gain financial advantage for Australian oil and gas companies in negotiations over maritime boundaries. The foreign minister at the time, Alexander Downer, went on to get a plum job with Woodside Petroleum.

Poor old East Timor, the country that lost about one-third of its population during the 24-year long genocidal occupation by the Indonesian dictator General Suharto, aided and abetted by Australian governments. It finally won its independence, but not before pro-Indonesian militia laid waste to the country in one last spasm of violence and destruction.

That history tells you what you need to know to understand the central logic of Australian politics. The big mining and fossil fuel companies don't just assert undue influence over Australian governments, they own them. Breaking their hold over our economy, society and politics is our only path towards a democratic, just and sustainable future.

[Sam Wainwright is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive.]