Perth hosted a protest against anti-protest laws. Thom Mitchell reports.
Hundreds have protested at the steps of the West Australian Parliament demanding (without irony) that the Barnett government abandon anti-protest legislation condemned by three separate United Nations Special Rapporteurs.
Labor, the Greens, and a coalition of over 80 community groups including a suite of domestic legal centres and unions, have condemned the proposed law as deeply undemocratic. It criminalises the act of physically and intentionally preventing a lawful activity from being carried out.
It also criminalises the possession of a “thing” that police need only suspect the ‘thing haver’ intends to use to physically prevent a lawful activity. The bill would reverse the onus of proof, meaning the person in possession of the “thing” would need to prove they didn’t intend to use it to prevent a lawful activity.
Those who fall fowl of the legislation would face penalties of 12 months in prison, or a $12,000 fine, or two years or $24,000 in aggravating circumstances.
Minister Ruth Vertigan was at yesterday’s protest with the Uniting Church. She told New Matilda that “it was a large crowd, hundreds, maybe 1,000 people, and a huge range of different groups all on the same page.
“It filled up the forecourt and steps of Parliament house.”
At the thing-themed protest, “there were even people saying ‘my wheelchair is a thing’, and we had a couple of kids walking around saying ‘thing one, thing two’,” she said.
— Lynn MacLaren (@lynnmaclaren) February 23, 2016
It’s a light spin on a heavy-handed piece of legislation. The bill has been slammed by three United Nations special rapporteurs: David Kaye, on freedom of expression; Maina Kiai, on freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and Michel Forst, on human rights defenders.
In a joint statement last week, they said that the bill lacks “a necessary [and]legitimate aim” and would criminalise “legitimate protest actions”.
“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,” the three United Nations watchdogs said.
Kaye warned it would have a “chilling affect of silencing dissenters,” while Kiai said it “prioritises business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of individuals”.
Ahead of speaking at the protest, Greens MLC Lynn Maclaren told New Matilda that the bill has exposed the Barnett’s government’s “agenda to serve the interests of big business”.
“This is about recognising that our rights are at risk: Our simple basic rights to dissent from public policy – to stand up and speak our minds and peacefully protest against government decisions – is at risk,” Maclaren said.
She said that as awareness of the legislation grows, Premier Collin Barnett is “losing social licence to operate in this way”. West Australian Labor leader Mark McGowan told New Matilda the party will “stand with the community” and would repeal the “extreme” laws if elected.
“They have potential to see Western Australians treated as criminals for attending peaceful protests, or locking their gates to prevent mining exploration on their property, or simply being in possession of a ‘thing’,” McGowan said.
Simone van Hattem, the head of community engagement at the Conservation Council of Western Australia, said civil society “will make this an election issue” if the government doesn’t drop the “undemocratic bill”.
“Today we want to show the diversity of the campaign, that real people are opposed to this and to engage the wider community on this issue,” she said.
Such a campaign appears to be the only way to stop the bill, which last week passed through one chamber of Parliament. The Barnett government controls both houses, and has staunchly refused requests from Labor and the Greens to narrow the scope of the bill.
The President of the West Australian Law Society, Mathew Keogh has previously told New Matilda that the broad drafting of the bill “represents a breakdown of the rule of law, that the law applies to all people”.
He said “the legislation is so broad that it is almost impossible to say how they may be applied down the track,” and that it “may erode fundamental aspects of our criminal justice system”.
In contrast, the state’s Attorney General Michael Mischin has suggested the bill is actually “very precisely and well drafted”. He’s insisted that the police will only use the legislation to go after protestors who use devices like thumb locks, arm locks, or tree-sits, which were used in protests against the James Price Point gas hub.
Critics of the bill say there’s nothing in the legislation to suggest this motive, given it refers only to physically preventing a lawful activity or the use of “a thing” used to prevent one.
Minister Vertigan said that at the protest “there were farmers who were opposed to fracking on their land, and could be imprisoned for ‘locking their gate’.”
Personally, she is concerned that actions like those of religious leaders who have offered shelter to asylum seekers the Federal government wants to return to Nauru may be captured by the anti-protest law.
“We need to be able to protest peacefully,” Minister Vertigan said. “We have always done so: Every now and then governments do act unjustly, and we do need to defend our democracy.”
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