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Issue #1725      April 6, 2016

Opposition to draconian legislation

Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment

(Debate, March 15, 2016, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

I strongly oppose the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016. This is a draconian piece of legislation that aims to curb the rights of people who protest peacefully against the environmental destruction caused by mining operations in the state and indeed will impact on those who protest peacefully for important social change.

This legislation aims to curb the rights of people who protest peacefully against the environmental destruction.

Healthy democracies encourage public displays of opinion and do not curtail dissent against government decisions and policies. Mining continues to be a contentious community issue, and many people feel their only option is to protest on site against mines.

People are understandably concerned about the impacts mining is having on food, air, water, biodiversity, climate change and green energy alternatives. There are a large number of examples where mining has destroyed the local environment and significantly impacted on local communities. The planning approval process has not prevented long-term environmental damage associated with many mines and much damage has been done that can never be remediated.

When first elected, the government attempted to empathise with community concerns on coal seam gas (CSG) and temporarily placed a moratorium on CSG development in the special areas of Sydney’s drinking catchments while the New South Wales Chief Scientist and Engineer investigated its impacts on water.

But a second term sees the government fed up and wanting to steamroll mining projects with a tough stance against anyone who actively opposes them. The bill will increase the maximum fine for trespassing on private property from $550 to $5,500 if there is interference, or an attempt or intention to interfere with a business, or where the trespasser does something that creates a serious risk to their safety or the safety of anyone on the land and that is according to the discretion of the police.

This is a tenfold increase to existing fines. Complying with the safety risk will be easy on mining sites where there is heavy machinery and heavy trucks. Anyone peacefully protesting against mines will be at risk of massive fines.

The government has a clear aim to punish and deter people who choose to show public dissent. Protesters against mines are often farmers, environmentalists or neighbours to the mine – their wealth is incomparable with that of mining companies. A $5,500 fine will have a significant negative impact. It is a disproportionate amount for the offence and other charges are available if criminal activity does take place, including mine operators suing for any losses they suffer as a result. In contrast, the government is introducing a new penalty regime for mining companies that do the wrong thing, with fines of just $5,000 for drilling without approval, which is a crime that can endanger land, water, flora and fauna. For multimillion dollar mining companies that stand to earn super profits from mining activities, this will be a mere running cost.

The bill gives police new search and seizure powers without a warrant if they reasonably suspect that someone or a vehicle is carrying an object that will be used to lock-on a person to a fence, tree or fixture in a way that will interfere with the conduct of the business and pose a safety risk. The ability to search a person and to also seize their belongings, such as bike locks, based on the subjective test of reasonable suspicion is an unacceptable approach to dealing with people exercising their right to protest. I share the concerns expressed by Stephen Banks, President of the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, who stated:

“Police powers which are based on their assessment of a person’s intention are very easily able to be abused and undoubtedly will be abused in many cases – police shouldn’t have those kinds of powers.”

Under the bill police directions in public places to prevent the obstruction of persons or traffic, or harassment or intimidation, will be able to apply in the case of demonstrations, protests, processions or organised assemblies. These limitations have applied historically to enable people the freedom to assemble in protest, which is essential to a free democracy. Police will be able to move people on if they believe it is necessary to deal with a serious safety risk or if the protest is obstructing traffic and was not authorised.

Again, police wanting to break up a protest will easily be able to claim safety risks on mining and logging sites because of heavy machinery, trucks and bulldozers. Distinguishing between authorised and unauthorised protests is a dangerous and anti-democratic approach given that protests can, and often must, be organised with little time as they respond to issues and incidents.

I was concerned to learn that despite the limitations this Parliament has placed on donations, mining company Santos, which has highly controversial CSG mining projects in the heart of the Pilliga forest with a number of ongoing protests, has donated $568,857 to the Liberal-Nationals Coalition since 2010.

I also find it ironic that a few weeks ago the House made a formal apology to the 78ers for heavy-handed policing that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and their supporters suffered while they protested peacefully against government policies affecting them at the first Mardi Gras in 1978. I am sure that the 78ers would agree with me that laws designed to prevent people from standing up against what they see as wrong, and to search and move on protesters even if their actions are peaceful are a human rights violation.

In fact, former Senator and leader of The Greens Bob Brown is contesting similar laws in Tasmania in the High Court on the grounds that they are contrary to the implied freedom of speech on government and political matters in the Australia Constitution. Brown was arrested when he was rallying against the logging of Lapoinya Forest. This House should not be considering these laws until the outcome of this High Court challenge is determined. I foreshadow that when the question is put “That this bill be now read a second time”, I will move to postpone the vote on the bill to the end of the year, by which time we should have more information on the outcome of the court case.

The government has failed to justify the need for these changes. Protests have not changed over the years and there are laws to deal with violence and trespassing on and destruction of private property. The bill is hard lined, unnecessary and undemocratic and I oppose it.

*Alex Greenwich is the Independent member for Sydney

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