Turning peaceful protesters into criminals—again

So the Summary Offences (Obstruction of Public Places) Bill 2023 has been passed by South Australia’s Legislative Assembly and will become law. Fifteen hours of debate in the upper house, led by the Greens and SA Best, could not overturn the bill that was reportedly rushed through the lower house in just twenty-two minutes a fortnight ago.

Brought in by the Labor government under Peter Malinauskas and supported by the Liberals in opposition, the new law greatly increased the penalties for disruptive protest in South Australia. The maximum penalty was inflated from a $750 fine to one of $50,000, as well as a possible three-month jail sentence. As the Human Rights Law Centre notes, these penalties are the most severe in Australia.

What spurred the Labor government into action was a protest by Extinction Rebellion (XR) that delayed traffic entering the city of Adelaide a few weeks ago. XR activists demonstrated outside the Adelaide Convention Centre on North Terrace, where the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association were holding their conference. One activist also abseiled from the Morphett Street bridge over North Terrace, which delayed traffic and made it difficult for the police to move them on. The following day there was a further XR protest with activists throwing paint on the Santos building in the Adelaide CBD. It was spurred by the South Australian Labor government’s enthusiastic support for the oil and gas industry, with the Minister for Energy and Mining, Tom Koutsantonis, even telling the APPEA conference that his government was ‘at your disposal’.

Faced with a climate crisis, but also with climate change activists calling for more action, the South Australian government has chosen to work with the oil and gas industry while clamping down on disruptive protest. This is a choice also made by several other state governments in recent years. Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania have all introduced legislation to crackdown on protests, including penalties for trespass, disruption of traffic and using ‘locking on’ devices to inhibit protestors being moved on.

Sophie McNeill from Human Rights Watch shows that the motivating factor for these new protest laws is particularly to deal with climate change activists. Although Australia has had a long history of environmental activism and protest, Extinction Rebellion’s strategy of disruptive protest as spectacle has angered authorities across Australia (and the world). While XR protests—such as blocking traffic or public transport infrastructure, are peaceful—these disruptions are portrayed as an attack on ordinary Australians going about their business. Protest, the argument goes, is fine as long as it is not disruptive—which defeats the whole purpose of protest.

In fact, peaceful disruptive protest has been at the heart of social change in Australia for many years. The anti-Vietnam War movement in Australia was involved in several such protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including one in South Australia in September 1970, when thousands of protestors occupied a busy intersection in the Adelaide city centre. Malcolm Saunders writes that the police descended on the protestors with horses and arresting teams, apprehending over 140 people that day.

At the same time, Australia’s anti-apartheid movement was growing. Infamously, protestors disrupted rugby matches in 1971 between the Wallabies and the Springboks, including at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

In 1969, workers across the country went on strike and began a wave of protest against the jailing of trade unionist Clarrie O’Shea after the Victorian Tramways Union refused to pay fines issued by the Industrial Court. Describing these protests, Grace Brooks has written:

Trains and trams ground to a halt. Electricity workers cut off power and logistics workers severely restricted the delivery of goods. Media workers disrupted TV and radio broadcasts.

On a smaller scale of protest, but still with profound effect, Zelda D’Aprano chained herself to the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne in 1969 to protest for equal pay. These are just a few examples from the history of activism in Australia that show how disruptive protest has been a strategy used by many social and political movements to help achieve their aims.

And when these disruptive protests have occurred, the authorities have often attempted to deal with them in a heavy-handed manner. When anti-Vietnam War and anti-apartheid protests descended on Canberra in late 1960s and early 1970s, the Liberal government under Billy McMahon introduced the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971 in an attempt to stop sit-ins in Commonwealth buildings and prevent disruptive protests in the Australian Capital Territory. In the week after the Act was passed, in May 1971, it was used to arrest protestors who demonstrated outside the South African Embassy and blocked a major road in Canberra’s Civic area.

In Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen during the 1970s and 1980s, protests were heavily restricted, with a state of emergency declared in 1971 when anti-apartheid protestors threatened to disrupt the Springboks match in the state. Another state of emergency was declared in 1982 when Indigenous activists protested at the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. In more recent times, events such as the APEC summit in Sydney in 2007 led to an expansion of police powers to deal with potential protestors and setting up parts of Sydney as restricted areas that were heavily policed.

Despite the restrictions that governments and the police have put upon protest around the country over the years, protests keep happening because things keep happening that demand protests. For example, the climate change crisis is not going away and more drastic action needs to be taken (or to convince the government that more drastic action is needed). While people will still make it out onto the streets to protest on a range of issues, each legal restriction put in place will have a chilling effect on the potential forms of protest that people will choose to engage in. In South Australia, a possible $50,000 fine and jail time will definitely make people think twice about causing a disruption to make a political point—especially when what constitutes ‘disruptive protest’ can be so vaguely construed by the authorities.

We don’t yet know how the new laws in South Australia will effect protest, but a look to New South Wales and the prosecution of climate change activist, Violet Coco, last year (now overturned) should be enough to worry us. Activist groups and trade unionists are still figuring out the next steps now that this legislation has passed—but it is not likely that protests and protestors will be going away any time soon.


Image: Matt Hrkac

Evan Smith

Evan Smith is a Lecturer in History at Flinders University in South Australia. He has published widely on political extremism, social movements and policing in Australia, Britain and South Africa.

More by Evan Smith ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *