Despite more than 60 per cent of NSW voters opposing proposals to crack down on coal seam gas (CSG) mining protesters, the Baird Government passed the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill last week, increasing penalties for protesters and expanding police powers.
The reforms see fines skyrocket from $550 to $5,500 for the newly created offence of ‘aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands’. Anti-CSG protesters who interfere with gas sites face up to seven years jail and police will now have greater powers to search without a warrant, seize items and move protesters on.
As a law student, the daughter of a police officer, and someone who grew up in rural NSW, I strongly oppose these changes and the way they undermine our constitutionally implied right to assemble and protest.
The Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibility) Act (LEPRA) grants police the power to order people to do things in public places. However, section 200 of the Act places important limits on that power, stipulating that police cannot exercise such power in the following situations:
(a) an industrial dispute, or
(b) an apparently genuine demonstration or protest, or
(c) a procession, or
(d) an organised assembly.
The recent amendments eliminate section 200 of the LEPRA. The section has been replaced with a provision that grants police discretion over whether they can issue orders in these situations, removing an important check and balance and giving police unnecessary power.
The NSW Bar Association submits that the new laws erase protections for activities that have ‘properly been regarded as an essential part of the social, political and cultural life of any civilised society’.
Similarly, the Law Society of NSW claims that this ‘appears to encroach upon and limit fundamental rights to assemble and protest,’ and have strongly opposed the new laws and the way they seem to ‘expand police powers, without the safeguard of judicial oversight’.
My dad has been a police officer in rural areas of NSW for almost thirty years. As such, despite being a law student who is encouraged to be sceptical of authorities and their actions, I am generally supportive of police powers if it means keeping my dad safe at work and allowing him to better perform his job. But these laws don’t protect police and they don’t protect the community. They protect big mining companies against well-founded dissent and criticism.
Protesting isn’t frivolous or meaningless or unnecessary. Our protesting history demonstrates that: suffragettes taking the streets to demand the vote, the Aboriginal tent embassy, 500,000 people congregating in Hyde Park to oppose the Iraq invasion, disapproval of the Vietnam War, and Indigenous peoples’ actions in reclaiming native title.
Minorities in particular need access to their basic rights of civil dissent and peaceful protest. After all, it is minorities who are most often affected; no protests have been held for heterosexual marriage, male autonomy, or white rights. And for good reason: those with privilege don’t need to protest. Laws like the Inclosed Lands Bill only serve to stifle individual voices to benefit big companies.
Anti-CSG protesters include lawyers, climate scientists, doctors, students, local residents, Knitting Nannas and former Captain of the Wallabies, David Pocock, who was arrested during a protest at the Maules Creek coal mine.
Protesters have already been getting arrested. They know the risks – and continue to speak up anyway. Take Anne Thompson, a longtime conservative and National Party supporter turned ‘greenie’. Living on a farm just outside of Lismore, the grandmother of six is one of the founders of Knitting Nannas, a group that gathers outside of their local MP’s office every Thursday to knit in a peaceful act of protest against CSG mining.
‘I was even in CSG the Musical which filled the Lismore Workers Club for two nights, standing room only,’ she told Faces from the Gasfields. ‘The very thought of the area becoming a gasfield like the Darling Downs in Queensland fills me with dread. The children … get severe and constant nosebleeds, headaches, respiratory problems and even seizures.’
These new laws won’t stop protesters like Anne Thompson and Knitting Nannas, but they could affect the way they’re treated by police and the judicial system. Whilst police don’t make the law, they do have a say in how it’s enforced.
Police need to carefully consider the broader discretionary decisions they are now faced with and exercise that power in a way that reflects the public interest.
Mike Baird needs to stop portraying himself as the ultimate ‘nice guy’ – taking selfies at Taylor Swift concerts and live-tweeting The Bachelor even as he passes laws that endanger communities and stifle dissent.
And those of us who care about CSG mining and its affects, about civil liberties and political freedoms, need to contact our elected government and voice our opposition to these amendments.
This reform is designed to gag those who dare speak up, but we must continue to do so anyway. We can’t sacrifice farmland, Aboriginal land, and bush land to mining companies.
‘I can only hope that in the end,’ Anne Thompson says, ‘the power of the people is greater than the people in power.’
Take heed Mike Baird, the power of these people is stronger than you think.