By Meredith Jacka
In March new laws were passed in New South Wales that make it illegal to effectively protest against environmentally destructive mining operations.
These laws were implemented at the behest of some of Australia’s largest mining corporations after Premier Mike Baird attended an industry dinner in 2014 and promised to crack down on anti-mining protesters.
The laws seem to be primarily targeted at environmental activists protesting against the Santos owned coal seam gas site in the Pilliga Forest. The existing offence of “interfering with a mine”, which can carry a seven year prison sentence, has been extended to include coal seam gas exploration and extraction sites.
Fines for illegally entering a mining site, which are separate and much harsher than regular trespass laws, are to be increased from $550 to $5,500. This is at the same time that fines for illegally operating a mine have dropped from $1.1 million to $5000!
Police will also have extended stop, search and seizure powers which will allow them to target any person that they believe intends to “obstruct a business or undertaking”. Police will also be able to seize any object which may be able to assist in a potential “obstruction” and that object could then be destroyed.
There is even an additional measure that will give police discretionary powers to break up a protest if it is obstructing traffic or preventing works from going ahead.
These laws will give the police powers to break up any picket or blockade and will result in the police essentially being used as private security guards for some of the biggest corporations in the country.
These laws follow a national trend where similar laws were implemented in Tasmania and Western Australia last year. Protesting against mining and deforestation in those states now also comes with the risk of hefty fines and possible imprisonment.
Former conservative governments in Victoria and Queensland had also passed similar laws, although some of those measures have since been repealed by incoming Labor governments.
Under pressure Labor was forced to remove some of the worst aspects of those laws, but they continue to retain other legislation in those states that give the police excessive powers when dealing with protesters.
The anti-protest laws in Victoria were primarily intended to be used against those who were picketing the preliminary works of the unpopular East-West road tunnel. If kept on the books those laws would have been used against other groups including trade unions and students in the future.
All anti-protest laws, including the ones recently implemented in NSW, are an attack on the rights of ordinary people. With governments and corporations preparing to push ahead with an agenda that is at odds with the interests of the majority of the population they are expecting more and more people to protest and resist.
If those protests are ineffective, and out of sight and mind, they will be allowed. If, however, they threaten big business’ ability to make profits they will be cracked down upon. That is the view of the establishment as we enter an era of cuts and austerity for ordinary people.
Increasingly we will not only have to fight against attacks on our living standards but also for basic democratic rights like the right to protest and assemble. The most effective way to combat anti-democratic laws is to defy them en masse.
If groups or individuals are targeted with these laws there should be a joint response from the trade unions and social movements. Mass joint action by workers, students, environmental and community activists could make anti-protest laws inoperable and help to push back against the rule of big business in Australia.