Mike Baird’s Anti-Protest Laws Will Come Back To Haunt Him

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OPINION: The Baird Government has raided and restricted the right to protest in New South Wales.

Their Bill was slammed by the New South Wales Bar Association, Law Society, Unions NSW, Lock the Gate, Labor and the Greens – among others – but it passed without even being taken to a committee late yesterday.

It’s designed to “crack down” on protestors who pit themselves against massive mining and coal seam gas companies, forestry companies, and any other company that the community dares take action to reject.

In her second reading speech, Labor Senator Penny Sharpe quoted Martin Luther King: “We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

Except that tensions around extractive industries and their impact on communities are not hidden. They are breaking out. They’re erupting too strongly for the thin skin of Mike Baird’s conservative government to wear.

So the government is targeting those who are working as an effective democratic counter to its indifference to environmental harm, and its denial of climate change. The Knitting Nannas Against Gas, the farmers who lock their gates, environmentalists and Aboriginal people: They now have a target on their foreheads.

Their rights are removed, or at least will be after the formality of the Bill passing is done. Mike Baird’s former Chief of Staff, Stephen Galilee, who runs the state’s mining lobby, no doubt thinks he’s won. And in a sense, the mining lobby has won. Galilee demanded these laws, and at an industry dinner in November 2014, Mike Baird promised to “throw the book” at those with the impertinence to be politically active for something other than their own selfish gain.

Soon, the community will be forced to take even more drastic action.

IMAGE: Pilliga Push camp. Bronwyn Plarre is arrested protesting against Pilliga CSG.
IMAGE: Pilliga Push camp. Bronwyn Plarre is arrested protesting against Pilliga CSG.

“Hindering” the operations of a coal seam gas company could land you in jail for seven years. Trespassing on a business’s land with a mere intent to “interfere” with their money-making could cost you $5,500.

The police will also be given extravagant new powers, degrading long-established safeguards.

Anyone can be stopped and have their vehicles or persons searched without a warrant, merely because police suspect they may intend to use some unknown object to ‘lock-on’ to something the miners don’t want them to.

To their credit, the Shooters and Fishers Party did acquiesce to one request from Unions New South Wales, which is threatening a High Court challenge to the anti-democratic laws. The minor party’s amendments put a small brake on the most far-reaching aspect of the proposed legislation.

The Bill had included a police power to move-on a whole peaceful assembly because just one person was obstructing traffic, or if the police formed a subjective view that just one person was creating a “serious risk” to safety. With the Shooters’ amendment, police are less able, although not always unable, to disband entire protests at whim, and more likely to confine any move-on order to the single person.

That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t make the overarching attack on democratic institutions any better.

The cynical might infer that the concession is designed to guard against a High Court challenge, because the Shooters and Fishers have made it obvious they do not respect peoples’ right to use their liberty of movement for political expression elsewhere.

In one particularly galling example, the Shooters attempted to compare direct action protest to a suburban “home invasion”. The whole reform has been argued for on this deranged basis – that mining companies have the same rights as people, which has had the affect of curtailing actual civil liberties to protect the ‘right’ to do business.

The Coalition, the Shooters and Fishers, and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, it seems, aren’t much concerned about undermining an 800-year-old common law right to protest. They have been wilfully blind to the fact that it is ordinary people, in fact, who feel that their homes, and their communities, are being invaded by unwanted multinationals.

That’s the reality, once you scrape away the spin. Conversely, it’s also why the Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts, proactively tried to denigrate protestors as “eco-fascists” when he announced these reforms via the Daily Telegraph.

IMAGE: Dan Lanzini. 'Climate Angels' block the road to hinder Santos CSG.
IMAGE: Dan Lanzini. ‘Climate Angels’ block the road to hinder Santos CSG.

Someone better call ASIO, because there’s hundreds – probably thousands – of these “eco-fascists”. At Maules Creek Mine, which is being built on a critically endangered forest, around 400 people have already been arrested protesting. They are climate scientists, lawyers, doctors, students, mums, dads, and the former Captain of the Wallabies.

Nearby at the Pilliga Forest, where Santos wants to sink 850 gas wells, a similar campaign is picking up speed. There have been arrests of Knitting Nannas. At the Bentley Blockade, which repelled coal seam gas company Metgasco from the Northern Rivers, there no doubt would have been if the government hadn’t bailed the company up in court.

There have been farmers arrested, and there will be more.

In its lusty pursuit of big business’ agenda, the government is either denying that this growing cohort of people exist at all, or is calling the Nannas, the farmers, and the rest of the conscionable folk who put courage to their convictions “eco-fascists”.

Not satisfied with legislating to silence them, the Shooters Party went as far as to brand them “idiots,” but the Nationals know better than that.

The so-called ‘farmers’ party’ stayed mum throughout a two-day long debate. Didn’t say a peep. Having had swings in the magnitude of 20 per cent against them in what were once electoral heartlands last year, all in areas which happen to be threatened by coal seam gas, they know that the people Mike Baird’s “throwing the book at” are not stupid.

Instead, they are political. They believe in something bigger than the rights of businesses  to profit from the destruction of the environment which they and their grandchildren have to live in. When I interviewed the Law Society’s Pauline Wright in early 2015, she offered an interesting observation:

“[Protestors] are a special kind of person, they are doing it in full knowledge of the fact that they’re likely to be arrested, and they’re usually well aware of the penalties that apply, but they’re willing to take that action because of their conviction.”

IMAGE: Protecting the Pilliga. Neil Kennedy, 73 year old farmer, 'locks on'.
IMAGE: Protecting the Pilliga. Neil Kennedy, 73 year old farmer, ‘locks on’.

People who engage in civil disobedience break the law out of conviction, not selfishness. Clearly, the Baird government simply doesn’t understand that concept. The Premier wants to ramp up coal production, even on fertile agricultural lands, and roll out a coal seam gas industry. To hell with what the community thinks.

Baird knows that the community is fed up with his mining mates despoiling ever more farmlands, Aboriginal culture and heritage, and the precious few forests that shelter our dwindling biodiversity. That’s why he needs these laws. They’re designed to subjugate, discredit, and gag dissenting voices.

The government just signed off on the arrest of Nannas, farmers and academics, a whole litany of ‘respectable citizens’, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to regret it.

*Eds note. This article originally inferred there were arrests at the Bentley Blockade. There were not.

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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