WA Premier Colin Barnett aims to bring in anti-protest law

March 20, 2015
Anti-gas protesters face West Australian Premier Colin Barnett in the Kimberley in July 2013.

The Western Australian government has introduced new legislation aimed at criminalising protesters.

Police minister Lisa Harvey said the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code are specifically aimed at protesters who use devices like thumb locks. However, the bill criminalises “presumed” intent to commit a crime and “possessing a thing for the purpose of preventing lawful activity” during peaceful protests.

Kate Davis, from the Community Legal Centres Association of WA, told Green Left Weekly that the law does not define what a “thing” actually is. She is concerned that the bill would “have a chilling effect on West Australian activism”.

If a protester is suspected of intending to commit a crime, they can be arrested and fined up to $24,000 or imprisoned for up to two years.

Human Rights Law Centre Executive Director Hugh de Krester has urged parliament not to pass the law. “This new legislation goes too far,” he said. “The offences are vague and will be prone to misuse. There are real risks they could criminalise peaceful protest in breach of our international human rights obligations.”

Davis, who is also a member of the Greens, agreed that the bill would hinder people’s human rights of free speech and participation in the democratic process.

She said: “The proposed bill ignores that direct action has played an important role in establishing and protecting human rights that we take for granted in Australia and around the globe. We need to recognise the importance of protesters putting their bodies on the line as a matter of principle, which is vital to the democratic process.”

The vague restrictions and harsh new penalties will reverse the onus of proof, meaning protesters would have to prove they were not intending to commit a crime.

The presumption of innocence, rather than guilt, is a fundamental part of Australian law that must remain to allow people to protest safely and peacefully.

Socialist Alliance co-convener Alex Bainbridge told Green Left Weekly: “This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta from which the fundamental legal principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' is derived. Yet the proposed law reverses the onus of proof and forces an accused person to prove their innocence. How disgraceful that Barnett wants to take our democratic rights back literally to the middle ages.

“The police minister is making a big fuss about protecting 'lawful activity'. However, these laws would also target protesters 'locking on' to prevent unlawful activity as well. How many times have developers moved in the middle of the night to demolish heritage buildings for instance? Only the naive assume that all corporate activity is 'lawful'.”

Police already hold considerable powers to move people on and charge people with “conspiracy” to commit a crime.

Police also have the power to break up protests and charge people with trespass. Not only are these new laws unnecessary, they are also an incredibly dangerous assault on the democratic freedoms all Australians deserve.

Almost 10,000 people have signed an online petition and more than 50 organisations have signed a joint statement against the laws.

“In the end,” said Bainbridge, “it comes down to a decision about what kind of society we want.

“Barnett is on the side of the corporations who are destroying the planet. We are on the side of honest and committed activists who want nothing more than to save the world."

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