As Alan Glover was driving a small truck towards the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 13 April 2022, the volunteer firefighter of four decades told those watching a livestream that he and his fellow Fireproof Australia protesters were taking park in the action to raise awareness on the climate crisis.
Glover, Violet Coco, Karen Fitz-Gibbon and Jay Larbalestier made up the group of climate defenders taking over one lane of the iconic thoroughfare, which lasted for about 25 minutes.
This act of nonviolent civil disobedience was part of an uptick in such actions that had been taking place the month prior, and it came just weeks after the Perrottet government enacted an extreme antiprotest regime, which meant the activists were risking real prison time for demonstrating.
In their opposition to these rising protest actions, AM radio shock jocks and conservative politicians had been warning that an ambulance trying to attend an emergency may end up being blocked by such a demonstration.
So, when NSW police announced in the wake of the Harbour Bridge action that an ambulance with sirens blaring had been blocked, it seemed everything had slipped into place.
An inconvenient truth
Violet Coco was the first Harbour Bridge protester to go before the courts. The 32-year-old was slapped with 15 months prison time in December, as Magistrate Allison Hawkins chastised the well-known climate defender over the inconvenience she’d caused the patient waiting on the ambulance.
However, at Glover’s trial on 7 March, barrister Felicity Graham revealed that the assertion made by NSW police regarding an ambulance being blocked by the action was a falsehood. Yet, this all too convenient “fact” had made up part of the prosecution case against the climate defenders.
Glover and his co-accussed Fitz-Gibbon were sentenced to an 18 month community correction order (CCO) and fined $3,000, with both climate defenders having appeared in court over being charged with criminal offences for the first time.
And last week both Glover and Coco appealed their sentences together. Coco had hers quashed and she was placed on a 12 month conditional release order (CRO), and Glover received the same penalty, with a CRO being a lesser punishment than that of a CCO.
A greenslide’s a-coming
Since the Harbour Bridge action Fireproof Australia has rebranded to Stop Fossil Fuel Subsidies. And the antiprotest regime, which can see a person imprisoned for up to 2 years for taking such actions, has had a serious chilling effect on local climate protest.
And following Glover and Coco’s appeal last week, instead of taking heed of the climate message, both major party leaders have vowed to continue the harsh crackdown on climate defenders if they take out this weekend’s NSW election.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to firefighter Alan Glover about NSW police relying on a falsehood, the reasons why he obstructed the Sydney Harbour Bridge and how green and teal votes are the way to go this weekend if you care about climate.
On 7 March, you and co-accused Karen Fitz-Gibbon stood trial in the Downing Centre Local Court over charges relating to the April 2022 Sydney Harbour Bridge Fireproof Australia nonviolent direct action that also involved Violet Coco and Jay Larbalestier.
You were both sentenced to an 18 month community correction order (CCO) and a $3,000 fine.
However, on appeal, alongside Coco, in the NSW District Court on 15 March, a judge overturned your conviction and imposed a less severe punishment, which consists of a 12 month conditional release order (CRO).
How are you feeling about the outcome of the appeal?
I’m feeling very happy with the outcome, mainly because I don’t have a conviction recorded, which means no criminal record.
That was important, as I’m sure it would be to most people if you’ve never committed a crime or been charged with a crime in your life. You certainly don’t want to have a criminal record just for one transgression.
But the really important thing for me was to be reactivated as an RFS member, and it wouldn’t help if I had a criminal record.
I haven’t heard from the RFS yet. But I’m hoping they will say I can go back onto to active duty, as there’s no conviction.
I know my brigade has already passed a motion in a general meeting to have the RFS reinstate me.
So, I hope to hear from them soon.
Your initial appearance in the Local Court saw barrister Felicity Graham expose the police claim that the Harbour Bridge action had resulted in the blockage of an ambulance trying to attend an emergency was false.
What are your thoughts about NSW police having provided these false accusations to the court, which if left unchallenged, may have resulted in steeper punishments?
I’m pretty angry that the police would do that. They’re the upholders of the law, and they knew it was a falsehood – they must have known – because they spoke to the ambulance service.
I’ve got the transcript from the ambulance service, and the police said they didn’t need an ambulance.
They knew no ambulance was dispatched. They knew that we hadn’t blocked any ambulance. We could see the traffic flowing around us for a start, so we knew we hadn’t blocked an ambulance.
So, for them to allow that falsehood to be used in court against Violet Coco and Jay Larbalestier, which, without a doubt, gave them the penalties that they were sentenced to, is a travesty.
I am just shocked that the police would let that happen.
Now, I understand why they might say it because it works well for the shock jocks and the media in general to say, “These hooligans blocking the road, stopping an ambulance…”
But to let it go into court? Mmm, no… that’s no good, particularly when the magistrate specifically refers to it and it no doubt had a bearing on the sentence given.
The action you were part of came just weeks after the NSW government enacted a severe antiprotest regime, which has been accompanied by a police crackdown on climate defenders that has seen bail conditions weaponised.
How do you consider the current crackdown on protest in NSW?
It’s going about it the wrong way. Of course, the government doesn’t want the people to be alerted to their inaction on climate and the climate emergency.
But the way to go about that is not to try and silence the messengers, it’s to do something about it and then there won’t be any need to protest.
If they would just stop fossil fuel subsidies and stop approving gas and coal mining, then they won’t get any protests.
It’s disgusting. It’s a clear example that they’re working for industry and not for the public who elect them to take care of us. They’re just completely ignoring their duty of care.
Why did you feel compelled to take part in the Fireproof Australia Harbour Bridge action last year? How bad is the climate crisis that it necessitates such action?
I took part because I have been an active environmentalist for 45 years. And I’ve done all the democratic things.
I’ve participated in our democracy. I’ve written the letters. I’ve made the phone calls. I’ve signed the petitions, and I’ve done the marching.
We have known about the greenhouse effect for decades. And it’s just been head in the sand from governments.
The fossil fuel industry themselves have not just ignored it, they have actively tried to confuse the public and to deny that climate change is now here.
I’d just had enough. Particularly after the 2019 bushfires, where I, as a crew leader, led 30 or 40 crews over weeks and weeks to fight those fires: the biggest fires I or any other firefighters had ever seen. And I’ve seen some big ones.
It shocked me. It shocked everybody. The whole of the East Coast of Australia on fire was just unbelievable. And something drastic had to be done.
So, I did something drastic. It was not something I contemplated doing before. But now I feel like I should have done it earlier. I wish I’d done it 10 years ago, because we are in a terrible situation now.
We are in an emergency and still, we’re not getting the action we need. That’s what forced me to do it, to try and bring it to a head.
It is a desperate emergency we are experiencing throughout the world.
Not enough is being done. There’s an IPCC report out and it says what it has been saying for years: we must leave the fossil fuels in the ground, and we have to reduce the carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere, because we’re heading easily to 1.5 to 2°C for sure, if not more.
You’ve been volunteer firefighting in this state since 1979. You spoke out about the extent of the climate-driven 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires in their wake. But since the Harbour Bridge action, the NSW Rural Fire Service has stood you down.
How do you feel about this, especially as many in the firefighting sector have spoken out prominently about the climate crisis in recent years?
I feel terrible that I was stood down. I didn’t mention that I was in the RFS during the action, which was quite deliberate.
But I had to mention I am a volunteer firefighter because that gave credibility to my words about the need for a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet.
To be stood down for almost a year now is a terrible thing, because my community service in the RFS is very much a part of my life. I’ve done it all my adult life. And it’s necessary and important.
Now the minister for emergency services outed me. And I have very little doubt that the minister put pressure on the RFS to stand me down to make sure I was being punished appropriately, or inappropriately, I might say.
And it’s punishing the community. It’s not just punishing me. Why should the community be deprived of an able-bodied, highly trained and highly experienced firefighter – crew leader, in fact – for one protest. It’s punishing too many people.
If you have a look, the other prominent firefighters who have spoken out, they’re mostly retired. They’ve left, and so they can speak up without it affecting the service that they represent.
So, Greg Mullins would never have spoken the way he does in public when he was the commissioner. It wouldn’t be allowed. It’s a sackable offence, as far as I know.
You can’t embarrass the government who is paying your way. So, that is why they have spoken up.
But for those people to be ignored, that is the most shameful thing Scott Morrison ever did. When twentysomething highly experienced people said an emergency was about to come, Scott Morrison wouldn’t speak to them.
That’s why he got the sack. He is a shameful person and should never be listened to or spoken to again, as far as I’m concerned. He compounded it by taking a holiday to Honolulu, while the fires were happening.
Would you say amongst firefighters that there is an appreciation of what you’re raising around climate?
Yes. Certainly, in the two brigades that I’m most closely associated with. With the Fire and Rescue people that I know, yes. They all appreciate what I am saying, and they all think the message needs to be said.
We are all dealing with it. We have all seen it. And we are worried about the coming fire season.
We have had three years of calm and rain, which means there is a lot of growth in the bush and that means the coming fire season is going to be the same as 2019, more than likely: huge fires with lots of fuel on the ground. It will be very difficult to deal with.
And lastly, Alan, this Saturday, NSW is going to the polls to vote on a state government. However, both sides have vowed to continue the crackdown on protest since your appeal, while the federal government is forging ahead on climate policies that won’t work.
In the face of such long-term and ongoing resistance to take responsible climate action and bring a halt to fossil fuel expansion on the part of the majors, how do you consider viable action on the crisis is going to come about?
I hope this election people realise that there is no more time to waste. There hasn’t been for a long time.
Whichever government we put in place this Saturday, we know they’re going to be there for at least three years, and if they’re going to carry on with business as usual, we’re going to be in even deeper trouble than we’re already in.
The Greens are doing the right thing in federal parliament, saying that they have to stop fossil fuels and that they’ve got to be kept in the ground. And we need a state government that’s doing the same thing.
We need all the governments in tandem on this, and I can tell you Perrottet will be thrown out. There is no way he’s going to be returned.
We’ll see more teals and we’ll see more Greens elected. They will have the balance of power and that will push the state government to where it needs to be to deal with the climate emergency.