The West Australian government has eschewed the alarm of not one, not two, but three United Nations Special Rapporteurs, and is pressing ahead with a bill that will criminalise legitimate protest activity.
As New Matilda reported in March last year, the Coalition government is moving to criminalise – quite literally – the possession of a “thing”. Overnight the draconian anti-protest bill passed through the Legislative Council. It will now proceed to the Legislative Assembly.
If passed, the laws will reverse the onus of proof, giving police extraordinary powers. It carries penalties that would land peaceful protestors in prison for one year, along with a $12,000 fine, or two years and $24,000 in “circumstances of aggravation”.
Collin Barnett’s Coalition government controls both houses of the West Australian Parliament, leaving Labor and the Greens impotent in their virulent opposition.
Earlier this week three UN Special Rapporteurs – David Kaye, on freedom of expression; Maina Kiai, on freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and Michel Forst, on human rights defenders – slammed the bill in its entirety.
“The proposed legislation will have the chilling effect of silencing dissenters and punishing expression protected by international human rights law,” Kaye warned.
“Instead of having a necessary [and]legitimate aim, the Bill’s offence provisions disproportionately criminalise legitimate protest actions,” he said.
The West Australian government has made clear that the law was inspired by the effectiveness of protest methods at James Price Point and in anti-logging campaigns in the state’s south-west.
In their strident criticism, the three United Nations Special Rapporteurs outlined their concerns.
“If the bill passes, it would go against Australia’s international obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of opinion and expression as well as peaceful assembly and association,” they said in a joint statement.
“The bill would criminalise a wide range of legitimate conduct by creating criminal offences for the acts of physically preventing a lawful activity and possessing an object for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity.”
“For example, peaceful civil disobedience and any non-violent direct action could be characterised as ‘physically preventing a lawful activity.’”
The government openly admits it is trying to criminalise the use of objects – like ‘thumb locks’, ‘arm-locks’, ‘tree-sits’, or chains – to prevent big developers from conducting their legally approved business.
This is not made clear in the bill, though, which refers only to a “thing” which could be used to prevent “a lawful activity”. The President of the West Australian Law Society, Mathew Keogh has previously told New Matilda this “represents a breakdown of the rule of law”.
Because of this broad drafting, the bill could be applied to activities other than those the government claims to be targeting, like a union picket line. According to Keogh, “the legislation is so broad it is almost impossible to say how they may be applied down the track”.
In addition, anyone who falls foul of the legislation could be forced by the courts to pay police and developers’ “reasonable expenses” for the removal of the physical barrier.
According to Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai, “it discourages legitimate protest activity and instead, prioritises business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of individuals”.