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Issue #1724      March 23, 2016

Corporate dictatorship

Crushing dissent

Since the turn of the millennium, we have had waves of anti-terror laws, anti-bikie laws, anti-union laws and now governments around the country are revisiting laws to prevent a variety of forms of non-violent protest. Tasmania led the way and has been joined by NSW with WA also moving to crush the resistance of the people. The attacks on opponents of the growing corporate dictatorship in the workplace and in the community are intensifying and must be resisted.

Photo: Anna Pha

Enforcing CSG, coal, logging

Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown has issued a High Court challenge to the Tasmanian government’s anti-protest laws. The legislation passed through the Tasmanian parliament in 2014 and allows for on-the-spot fines and draconian penalties for “repeat offenders”.

Mr Brown and others were arrested and charged in January, under the new laws, for protesting against the logging of Lapoinya Forest in Tasmania’s north-west. Non-violent resistance to environmental vandalism in the state has a proud history. Support for the movement to stop the construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam spread across the country in the early 1980s and saved priceless wilderness sites then under threat. This current legislation would have served to break up such protests.

Looking back on this people’s victory many years later, Bob Hawke (the PM at the time) noted the arguments used to justify the unjustifiable. “And as you look at the arguments and the positions of political parties today you see a complete replication of what we experienced back there in 1983. The conservatives: they never change, they never learn. What was their argument back then? You can’t do this, it will cost jobs. It will cost economic growth. You can’t do it, you mustn’t do it.” The same tissue thin arguments used for destroying priceless wilderness areas over 30 years ago are being used for this latest grab at the rights of people.

Common law rights

NSW Premier Mike Baird secured support for repressive anti-protest laws from moralising upper-house member, Fred Nile. The morning of the latest vote, Nile addressed a protest outside the NSW parliament and got a warm reception for the following contribution:

“God bless you, and let’s always make sure we have all our freedoms as citizens of Australia. We’re a free country and we don’t want to lose those freedoms. Thank you, God bless you. We fully support the right to peaceful protest, for farmers to protect their property, and lock their gates if they want to. Now, I met with the Lock the Gate people yesterday and I’m very pleased to support them.”

Later in the day, the Christian Democrat leader voted for the legislation after the most minor tweaking of its “move-on” provisions. The Enclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016, introduces a maximum seven-year jail sentence for protesters charged with some offences, such as “locking on” the mining equipment as well as sharply increasing fines.

Trespassing on a company’s property with the “intent” to interfere with business could set you back $5,500. That’s more than mining companies have been fined for operating on land without a permit.

The Baird government, like its federal counterpart, is owned by the coal industry and the legislation is clearly designed to break up the movement against coal seam gas. The issues are presented to the public as if protesters were engaging in a home invasion of a corporation pursuing its calling of providing jobs. The Lock the Gate campaign, however, is being waged by farmers and their supporters wanting to prevent coal seam gas exploration and production on their own property and surrounding agricultural land and the likes of the Liverpool Plains food bowl. The effectiveness of the Bentley Blockade, which drove coal seam gas company Metgasco from the NSW Northern Rivers region, clearly disturbed the planners of the unfolding corporate dictatorship.

The bill effectively negates 800-year-old common law rights to protest inherited from the British legal system. “Conservative” legislators have become radical right in the pursuit of profits for resource extracting corporations.

WA Premier Colin Barnett has jumped on the same reactionary bandwagon (see Guardian 09-03-2016). The WA laws would reverse the onus of truth and allow for fines of $24,000 and two years imprisonment to protect mining company profits and other powerful vested interests.

Official intolerance

Civil rights groups are outraged at the legislation but get little attention from the corporate media. NSW Labor leader in the Legislative Council and shadow energy minister, Adam Searle, has used a colonial era legal provision to appeal to the state governor to intervene on behalf of the people. “I recognise that this is a rare and unusual move, but it is important to convey to the community that the Baird government is taking away a fundamental right of all citizens: the right to protest the decisions of a government without fear of being arrested,” Mr Searle said.

The Enclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016 is just the latest attack on effective popular resistance. NSW attorney-general Gabrielle Upton and her federal counterpart, George Brandis, have been on the warpath against the NSW Environmental Defender’s Office and other opponents of the expansion of the coal industry. Brandis has called legal challenges to massively destructive projects like the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland “vigilante actions”.

Official intolerance is spreading and is now being backed up with the sorts of laws Australia hasn’t seen since the reactionary days of Queensland Premier Bjelke-Petersen. As with the raft of legislation designed to crush the right of workers to organise in a union, these bad laws must be defied and broken.

Next article – Editorial – Make black lung history

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