Another fundamental liberty of the people of New South Wales took a hit on July 1.
On that day a new regulation under the Crown Land Management Act 2016 took effect, granting the NSW government wide powers to disperse or ban protests, rallies and virtually any public gathering across about half of all land across the state.
The powers apply on any Crown Land — land owned by the state government, including town squares, parks, roads, beaches, community halls and more.
This legislation follows earlier attacks on the right to protest under former Premier Mike Baird in 2016. Those changes were primarily aimed at anti-coal seam gas and other environmental activists, whose methods were proving successful at stopping destructive mining projects.
Those laws allowed police to use the pretext of ill-defined “safety risks” to disperse protests and stop, search and detain without a warrant protesters suspected to be in the possession of “lock on” devices. Previous fines were multiplied by a factor of 10 to reach $5550, with jail terms of up to seven years.
Last year, the Sydney Public Reserves (Public Safety) Bill was quickly enacted to remove homeless people who were sleeping in Martin Place. One of the organisers of the “tent city”, Lanz Priestley, is involved in organising protests against the new regulations. “We won’t be asking for consent,” he said.
These laws have emboldened the police and are used to intimidate protesters. In late-2016, protesters against the WestConnex tollroad were encircled with wire fencing and charged with “remaining on enclosed lands”. The charges were later dismissed in court.
In recent weeks a member of the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) was arrested outside the ABC studios in Sydney for holding a banner on an otherwise empty footpath. The woman was dragged by two riot police into a paddywagon. RAC describes the new powers as “worthy of a police state”.
University law lecturer and activist Aidan Ricketts said the new regulations are worse than those imposed under the Jo Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland in the 1970s.
“This regulation is momentous because it removes an underlying common law right to protest in a public space,” he said. “We’ve always had a right to protest in public unless we were obstructing traffic or a pedestrian.
“It is absolutely fundamental to democratic culture that anyone should be able to go to a park, put down a soap box, stand on it and address a crowd of people. It’s an outrageous example of creeping totalitarianism where the government really takes it upon itself to make public space closable at its whim.”
Other forms of popular dissent are being clamped down on as well. Earlier this year the Fair Work Commission ruled out a planned 24-hour strike by Sydney train drivers. The ACTU condemned the decision and said the “basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead”. These rights were first limited by Labor under former Prime Minister Paul Keating, when enterprise bargaining was introduced.
The situation descended into farce recently when Greens MP David Shoebridge tried to move a motion in NSW parliament to disallow the new Crown Lands regulation. The Coalition government responded by gagging debate. This bears emphasising: not only will it be illegal to protest, but the law itself cannot even be debated.
Shoebridge said: “There is no doubt that these powers will be abused and will shut down protest. They are designed to increase police powers and whittle away civil liberties.
“These are the same powers that the police abused to evict Sniff Off and other protesters at the recent Above and Beyond music festival.
“Whether it is the Knitting Nannas, the Wollar Three or young people at a festival, the Greens will always stand against this government’s attempt to criminalise protest.”
Reaction on Shoebridge’s Facebook page was furious. “Outrageous”, “We’re becoming a police state”, “We are just around the bend from dictatorship”, “Disgusting laws from a disgraceful government” were just a few of the comments.
Resistance against the new regulations has already started with a Day of Defiance called for August 15, starting at 8am outside Parliament House. It is being organised by the Defend the Right to Protest Facebook group and Climate Action Sydney Eastern Suburbs.
Soon after the protest, Shoebridge intends to move a disallowance motion inside parliament to strip the authoritarian law from the statute books.