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Issue #1722      March 9, 2016

Activists protest WA Anti-Protest Bill

On Tuesday February 23, over 400 protesters gathered outside the Western Australian state parliament to protest Premier Barnett’s Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015, which would place unnecessary and onerous restrictions on the right to peaceful non-violent protest.

Aboriginal Elder Ben Taylor, who did the welcome to country for the rally, remarked that he had been involved in campaigning on Aboriginal issues for over 30 years and would continue to do so. Another Noongar Aboriginal elder, Robert Eggington, recalled when he was 23 years old and was protesting the arrival of oil drilling rigs on sacred Aboriginal land on Noonkanbah Station to carry out the drilling, despite numerous protests at the site.

Natalie Banks, Community Campaigner for Sea Shepherd in WA, who spearheaded the successful No Shark Cull in WA campaign, called on West Australians to protect the kind of peaceful non-violent protests which community groups such as hers had used. Farmers against Fracking and the Say No to Roe 8 Freeway extension, had engaged in to persuade governments to consider a broader range of concerns in the community other than the ones that normally had the ear of the Liberal government of Premier Colin Barnett.

The proposed laws would reverse the onus of proof and allow for fines of up to $24,000 and two years imprisonment, which would criminalise ordinary protest. Conservative governments in Western Australia have a history of attempting to make laws to protect the interests of mining companies and other moneyed interests, from the 54B anti-association laws under Premier Sir Charles Court in the 1970s to Barnett’s more recent Stop and Search laws and now anti-protest laws.

Greens Upper House member Lynn McLaren told the rally of the personal letter which Premier Colin Barnett’s government had received from the United Nations which said in part that the proposed legislation granted police unnecessary powers. That they grant disproportionate power to punish legitimate protest and sought to protect the interests of business and government above those of other groups in the community.

McLaren congratulated the rally for “Standing up for our liberty and our rights.”

The broad range of unions, environmental, community groups and churches who attended the rally and who had been engaged to a range of other activities to date are not prepared to accept the assurances of Premier Barnett.

The Communist Party of Australia supports the campaign to resist the enactment of these harsh, disproportionate and unnecessary laws which will act to stifle dissent and put a curb on non-violent but effective protest.

Protect the right to protest

  • The bill applies on private land and on public land. This means that farmers “locking the gate” to fracking could be convicted of the offence of physically preventing lawful activity, for protecting their own farm.
  • The bill creates an offence of possessing “a thing” to be used for preventing lawful activity or trespass. This can apply to literally any “thing”. This criminalises the possession of ordinary everyday items, and is so broad it could apply to the possession of a pair of shoes.
  • The bill reverses the onus of proof. In “circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion”’, anyone charged would have to prove that they did not intend to prevent lawful activity. The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of our law, and should not be removed for peaceful protesters.
  • The legislation uses very broad terms to create new criminal offences. The offence relates to preventing any “lawful activity”, and to any “thing”. Criminal offences should be drafted specifically to target a crime, not as broadly as possible.
  • Current laws already give police power to charge people for trespass, to issue a move on notice, and to charge people for failing to comply with a move on notice. Move on notices can be issued pre-emptively if police are concerned an offence is going to be committed. There are already a range of offences specific to protesting in forests and on mine sites. Police can already charge activists with ‘conspiracy’ to commit offences.
  • The bill proposes that a Court can order an individual to pay the cost of police or others removing a physical barrier to lawful activity. Costs of policing are not passed on to people who commit serious crimes such as murder or rape, and peaceful activists should not face these costs.
  • The bill sets penalties at two years in prison and $24,000 fine. Many protesters have received spent convictions, after convincing the Court that they were motivated by the public interest, and were otherwise law abiding citizens.
  • The bill is badly drafted. As well as very broad undefined terms, it includes circular sections imposing higher penalties, and includes a definition of “physically” prevent which seeks to include things well outside the normal definition of “physical”.
  • Creating an offence of “possession of a thing” could lead to police routinely searching or strip searching peaceful protesters. This would be an oppressive response to peaceful protest.

Next article – #LetThemStay campaign continues

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