Two ‘Knitting Nannas’ – members of a renowned and growing international activist organisation set up to protest inaction on climate change – were back in the NSW Supreme Court this week challenging repressive anti-protest legislation passed last year by the Perrottet government.
Dominique Jacobs and Helen Kvelde, through their lawyers at the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), launched a constitutional challenge to s214A of the Crimes Act 1900 in October 2022, claiming it breaches their right to free speech implied in the Australian Constitution.
Following highly publicised protests in Sydney earlier this year, the NSW Government pushed through changes to the Road Amendment (Major Bridges and Tunnels) Regulation 2022 and introduced the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2022 to parliament without public consultation.
On behalf of on Ms Kvelde and Jacobs, the EDO has launched a Constitutional challenge to section 214A of the Crimes Act 1900 that makes it an offence to remain “near” any part of a “major facility” if that conduct “causes persons attempting to use the major facility to be redirected”, on the basis it impermissibly burdens the implied freedom of political communication.
Ms Jacobs and Kvelde say the new laws are so broad that a group of people could face serious criminal charges, including up to two years in prison, simply by protesting near a railway station and causing people to be redirected around them.
EDO’s clients will also ask the court to find the definition of “major bridge, tunnel or road” under s 144G of the Roads Act too broad.
Ms Jacobs and Kvelde contend the Crimes Act amendment was unconstitutional because it “impermissibly burdened the implied freedom of political communication”, and that to uphold the Australian Constitution, the NSW Government must allow communities to peacefully protest government policy in public spaces.
The Crimes Act amendment introduced a number of offences relating to major facilities including making it an offence to remain “near” any part of a “major facility” if doing so “causes persons attempting to use the major facility to be redirected”.
Major facilities include train stations, such as Central, Town Hall and Martin Place, places that historically have been synonymous with peaceful protest. The reforms also increased maximum penalties for peaceful protest to two years’ prison and $22,000.
Ms Jacobs and Ms Kvelde have been at the frontline of Australian climate impacts, experiencing trauma and loss from drought, fire and flood in the last four years alone.
“Australians like us shouldn’t have to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy to participate in our democracy, and the Government should not be taking away our democratic freedoms,” Mr Jacobs said.
Ms Kvelde added: “There’s a long, proud history of peaceful protests in Australia, and our democratic freedoms are critical in pushing the Government to do the right thing and take climate action seriously.”
CEO of the Environmental Defenders Office, David Morris said the challenge to the laws by the ‘Knitting Nannas’ was an important one for democracy.
“If successful, this case will aid in the preservation of our democracy,” Mr Morris said. “It will see the worst excesses of these new laws struck out. It will provide clarity for all NSW citizens seeking to avail themselves of the democratic freedom to protest.”
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