The state’s new Labor government needs to do more to protect citizens’ right to protest, stop conflating passive resistance with criminality, and end increasingly draconian tactics that include efforts to censor free speech, Greens MP Kobi Shetty has said.
In an interview with Central News, the member for the NSW seat of Balmain called for an end to the war on protest rights that has seen a dramatic increase in punitive action for civil disobedience.
“We’d love to think that Labor is still the party of the workers and the party of the protest movement, but what we’ve seen in recent years from both the South Australian Government and the New South Wales government, is that Labor has supported cracking down on protestors, and has supported really draconian harsh penalties on people who protest,” she said.
Last year, in NSW, the previous Liberal government increased the maximum fine for protesting to $22,000 and two years in jail. The Bill passed with bipartisan support from the Labor opposition, now in government.
The SA Labor government followed suit, last month, passing new laws that increased the maximum fines for protestors from $750 to $50,000. Premier Peter Malinauskas described the change as ‘modest’.
And, in Tasmania, last week, Colette Harmsen, a 47-year-old veterinarian and an activist working with the Bob Brown Foundation, was sentenced to three months in prison on counts of trespass, obstruction and failure to comply with a police officer.
I've been sentenced on July 14th, 2023, to jail time for peaceful environmental protest. I believe that takayna must be made into a national park and all native forest logging must cease immediately. Colette Harmsen. Colette's website https://t.co/TYfoiiCf95 pic.twitter.com/p8aXBepda3
— Bob Brown Foundation (@BobBrownFndn) July 14, 2023
Speaking in front of supporters before her sentencing, Harmsen said: “The reason I commit these offences is because I am terrified of the worsening climate crisis.
“It is frightening that the government continues to ignore scientists and the impacts of climate change. I am not thumbing my nose at the judicial system, I am standing up to the system, because it is failing our environment and it is negatively impacting human life.”
Climate protests are increasingly becoming more disruptive, with organisations like Extinction Rebellion, Blockade Australia, and Just Stop Oil disrupting major roadways, public events and corporate meetings to raise awareness for their causes.
This month in the United Kingdom, Just Stop Oil disrupted the first night of the BBC Proms, the second Ashes Test, two matches at Wimbledon, and the live taping of Australian comedian Adam Hills’ TV programme, The Last Leg.
Blockade Australia, last month, held consecutive days of coordinated climate protests in Melbourne, Brisbane and Newcastle, with protest action targeting major roads and railways. Protestors tied themselves to coal trains, and hung off beams in the path of traffic, with their actions live-streamed on social media.
What they should be paying attention to is that the scale of protest is proportionate to the crisis we are facing.
Shetty said that while these protest actions were disruptive, they were also necessary to influence parliamentary change on climate policy.
“I think that what they should be paying attention to is that the scale of protest is proportionate to the crisis we are facing,” she said.
“It’s an existential crisis to life as we know it, and to pretend that you can just kind of chip away, business as usual, ‘oh we might tweak something here, we might do something small over there, it’s sufficient’ is just ridiculous.”
However, despite the recent change in government, sentiment towards climate protest does not seem to have changed, with the government even discussing censoring filming of live demonstrations.
NSW Premier Chris Minns recently told The Daily Telegraph he intended to meet with social media giant Meta to discuss banning protestors from live streaming their actions on Facebook.
Minns claimed activists “business model relies on social media to broadcast their protest”.
“We will sit down with police and Facebook about what more can be done to stop the broadcast of illegal acts,” he said.
Those in favour of greater curbs on protest rights say protesters are increasingly more obstructive, and are both a nuisance to Australians and a cost to taxpayers.
In some cases protesters have been accused of endangering the lives of others through commuter disruptions blocking emergency services.
The charge of obstructing emergency services was brought against climate protester Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco, last year, when she, with three others, blocked one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes during peak hour traffic.
Violet Coco has been sentenced to 15 months in prison.
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) December 10, 2022
Coco was initially sentenced to 15 months in jail, prompting criticism from organisations around the world, including the United Nations over the disproportionate penalty.
But information provided by NSW Police that Coco had blocked an ambulance, potentially endangering lives, was later found to be false. Her original sentence was quashed and she was given a 12-month conditional release order.
According to Shetty, the government and opposition are fighting a broader battle to convince average citizens that climate protestors are the enemy.
“They don’t want the wider public to be onside with this kind of protesting behaviour because that starts to put the pressure on them to make more and more urgent decisions around law-making and around cracking down on all of these corporate interests that are exploiting the environment,” she said.
We saw how different it is when the Sydney Harbour Bridge is closed by Ryan Gosling filming a movie for hours and hours, which is obviously a disruption, but [the government feels] that is OK.
She added that governments were conflating disruption and criminality.
“We need to delineate between criminal damage and disruption,” she said. “Disrupting traffic is an annoyance for a lot of people but it’s not criminal damage, it’s a totally different thing.
“We saw how different it is when the Sydney Harbour Bridge is closed by Ryan Gosling filming a movie for hours and hours, which is obviously a disruption, but [the government feels] that is OK.”
The right to protest in Australia is protected by common law that dates back to the Magna Carta, and is implied in the Australian Constitution through the protection of freedom of expression.
Shetty says without protest, and robust protection of protest rights, Australians would not, and will not continue to have many of the rights celebrated today.
“We know that most of the freedoms and the good things that we enjoy about our lives today were won through protest,” she said. “It’s interesting as a female politician talking about how not that long ago women weren’t even afforded the right to vote and that that was won through the suffragette movement.
“We know the working week, which is slowly being eroded as well, but those working conditions that we enjoy were all won through protest.
“When we look at particularly environmental causes, something like the Franklin River campaign that was won down in Tasmania, that beautiful piece of pristine nature that is so important, and we understand now more than ever how important something like that is, that wouldn’t exist without protest. That was only saved because of protest.”
Main picture supplied; Kobi Shetty pictured in centre with Greens senator David Shoebridge.