Unions NSW Threatens Constitutional Challenge To Baird’s Anti-Protest Laws

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Unions New South Wales is threatening to mount a constitutional challenge to controversial anti-protest laws announced yesterday if the reforms go too far and “restrict the rights of people to voice political and industrial concerns over issues that can affect their everyday lives”.

The Baird Government flagged the reforms yesterday, and is expected to table a bill in Parliament later this afternoon, but already the proposal has attracted criticism from the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties and the Environmental Defender’s Office.

Now Mark Morey, the Secretary of Unions NSW, has joined the fray. “The State Government’s proposed anti-protest laws are deeply concerning and unions will consider a constitutional challenge to the bill if it goes ahead,” he said.

The legislation is ostensibly aimed at environmental protestors, and particularly those railing against the coal seam gas industry, but Morey said Unions New South Wales has “deep misgivings” about what it sees as “the attempt to restrict peaceful protesters’ activities in public places”.

He has accused the Baird Government of “seeking to silence those it disagrees with” and is understood to have particular concern about a proposal which many fear would bolster the ability of New South Wales Police to disband protests in public places.

“Public protesting has been a socially important and influential part of New South Wales’ history for over 200 years and is a crucial element of democracy and ensuring collective voices can be heard,” Morey said.

“These laws will only serve to target and disband peaceful protesters who join together over common causes impacting heavily on the people of NSW’s right to political expression and communication,” he said.

The legislation contains three main components: Increased fines for unlawfully accessing mining sites; enhanced police search and seizure powers; and a third, less clear, discretionary power for police. The last component of the proposed reforms appears to be what’s worrying Unions New South Wales.

In a media release published by Energy and Resources Minister Anthony Roberts yesterday, the government flagged its intention to slacken “limitations to allow police to give direction in public places to prevent obstructions of persons or traffic for a demonstration, protest, procession or organised assembly”.

It’s a power that would clearly extend beyond the bill’s ostensible intent of further criminalising civil disobedience protests which involve the use of ‘lock-on’ devices used to prevent mining companies from carrying out government-approved business.

A picket member sleeps overnight in Sydney. Image: Thom Mitchell
A Maritime Union member sleeps at a Sydney picket. Image: Thom Mitchell

If the bill becomes law, it would also grant police new search and seizure powers based on police suspicion that an individual ‘intends’ to engage in certain types of protest activity, and escalate fines for trespassing on miners’ property by a factor of 10, up to a maximum of $5,500.

In flagging his concerns that the bill could have a more general impact, Morey said Unions New South Wales has previously brought successful legal actions against governments for legislation that would restrict peoples’ right to freedom of expression

“In 2012 The NSW Liberal Government sought to restrict the voice of working people through their electoral funding laws,” he said.

“These laws were knocked down by a High Court challenge mounted by Unions NSW which found the laws to be a restriction on the right to freedom of political expression.

“We will happily march back to the streets and the High Court to defend the entitlement of any protester to exercise their democratic right to freedom of political communication,” Morey said.

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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