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Anti-protest laws highlight political hypocrisy across the board

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Protesters have been copping serious penalties for speaking out against government climate inaction (Screenshot via YouTube)

Governments are punishing protesters for speaking out against the very issues our politicians won't fix, writes Joanna Psaros.

WITH SYDNEY COMMUTERS gearing up for yet another day of interrupted services amid NSW’s transport workers' protracted industrial campaign, protesters of a different kind await sentencing to what could be up to two years imprisonment and fines of more than $20,000.

That’s thanks to the state’s tough new anti-protest law – the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 – which passed Parliament in April this year in response to activities carried out by eco-action groups such as Blockade Australia.

With this Bill, both the NSW Government and Opposition have drawn a clear line in the sand. But their self-serving and unconvincing justifications for doing so serve only to highlight bipartisan political hypocrisy while compromising the future of activism itself and the rights of individuals caught in the crosshairs.

So with these changes, what exactly is the legal status of protesting in NSW? Frustratingly, there seems no simple answer. To start with, while Australia’s Constitution arguably confers a right to protest under the implied political communication protections, there have always been restrictions as to the form that such protests can take, particularly where public safety is affected.

As well as the ability to detain and charge participants acting violently or criminally, police officers had the power to move protesters on and redirect traffic where necessary. Sounds sensible, no?    

Controversially, the new laws take a far broader approach to the extent that they could represent a blanket ban on all activity that could disrupt “a major facility” such as a public road. And as anyone who’s seen an even moderately well-attended rally must know, that’s all but inevitable. (The 2020 Black Lives Matter march and the 2019/2020 bushfire rallies are but two historic events that would have breached this standard.)

Good news, however, because there are still provisions stating your rally may be permitted in certain circumstances — pending pre-registered permit approval, which local police have total discretion to reject without reason. Let’s hear it for a robust participatory democracy!

These changes have left a bad taste in the mouths of many due to their disproportionate (or put more finely, draconian) nature, with legal experts, human rights groups and advocacy campaigners calling for their repeal. But supporters of the legislation are insistent that it’s a case of ends justifying means.

After a peaceful protest in Port Botany in March, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet promised to throw the book at offenders, who he accused of acting “at the expense of people trying to get to and from work, trying to get their kids to school, stopping people earning a living wage”.

Police Minister Paul Toole echoed these sentiments in as many words, while the Acting Assistant Commissioner has claimed the groups “want to cause this inconvenience to good people”.

It’s a message that perhaps many of us could get behind. But even ignoring the far greater cost and inconvenience caused by the very issues that are being protested against (by all reports, climate change is set to be a real doozy) evidence suggests actual widespread disruption caused by groups Fireproof and Blockade Australia’s actions has been relatively minimal.

We might question whether the extensive police resources and punitive lawmaking around these activities have more to do with the choice of target than Aussie battlers driving their kids to school. And let’s face it, expecting a Liberal government to encourage climate action awareness is about as likely as the NRA sponsoring a gun control campaign. In this case, though, perhaps Labor has just as much to answer for.

In giving the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 a free pass and refusing to join the Greens' efforts to see this legislation repealed, the NSW Labor Party’s silence speaks volumes, as do the fearmongering comments of MPs including Deputy Opposition Leader John Graham who told Parliament, “We do not support the Blockade Australia protests because they are violent economic blockades”.

Presumably, “violent economic blockades” are only okay with the pro-union party when they’re occasioned by transport workers walking off the job to the tune of $45 million a day.

Whether Australians choose to fight for better wages and conditions or the future of the planet, can we put a price on the right to protest? Perhaps. But the cost of stifling freedom of speech and non-violent activism is far more than Australia can afford to pay.

Joanna Psaros has a background in law and international affairs. She writes on women's issues, culture and politics at girlslockerroomtalk.com.

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