In 2014, Premier Mike Baird told a mining industry dinner that his government would “crack down” on civil disobedience and “throw the book” at people who “unlawfully enter mining sites”. This week, he appears to have made good on that promise, with the announcement of a new set of penalties for mining protesters, alongside a raft of new powers for police.
The announcement comes just weeks after a group of three UN Special Rapporteurs issued a warning about similar laws passed recently in Western Australia. The Baird Government appears to be following their example, claiming the new laws are being put in place to protect the safety of protesters and workers in demonstrations at mining sites and coal-seam gas plants.
“Unlawful activities put the safety of protesters and workers at risk and are costly for businesses and the public,” Anthony Roberts, Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy, said.
“Communities also suffer, with the deployment of Police resources reducing the capacity to respond to critical incidents.”
However, critics have their doubts. They claim the reforms are part of a renewed attempt by the Government to block protests against the fossil fuel industry, by drastically increasing penalties for protesters who use ‘lock-on’ devices to disrupt their business. In NSW, courts have been loath to impose heavy penalties for protesters that use these devices, instead tending to impose small fines or section 10 dismissals.
Environmental groups have a long history of using objects such as ‘thumb locks’ and ‘arm-locks’ to disrupt mining activities. The tactic has also been adopted recently by farmers in Northern NSW who want to protect their land from coal-seam gas exploration.
Under the proposed amendments, protesters who are caught entering a mining facility will face a new ‘aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands’ offence, which carries a maximum penalty of $5,500. The new laws also extend the meaning of ‘mine’ to include petroleum worksites.
Police will also be given additional “search and seizure powers to deal with people who intend to ‘lock-on’ to equipment or interfere with business,” and further discretionary use to issues “move-on” orders in public areas, in situations where protesters are blocking people or traffic.
New laws “draconian,” “unconstitutional” say critics
The changes have already been met with significant opposition from a range of groups, who’ve labelled the new laws a “draconian” attack on the right to protest. They say the laws are being introduced to please the fossil fuel industry and increase police powers generally. They believe the expansion of police ‘move-on’ powers will be used not just against fossil fuel protesters, but activists across the state.
“This is part of a pattern from the Coalition of evermore aggressive policing and constantly expanding police powers to crack down on protest and attack our civil liberties. NSW must not become a police state.” David Shoebridge, a Greens MP, told the media.
“These expanded police powers go well beyond coal seam gas protests and will extend across the state to clamp down on protests as diverse as WestConnex, recreational hunting and Forestry.”
Mark Morey, the Secretary of Unions NSW, has also joined the fray. “The State Government’s proposed anti-protest laws are deeply concerning and unions will consider a constitutional challenge to the bill if it goes ahead,” he said.
Mr Morey announced on Thursday that Unions NSW would challenge the new laws if they are passed later this year. The group are particularly concerned about the impact an expansion of police ‘move-on’ powers would have on the right to protest outside workplaces and on roads.
“Public protesting has been a socially important and influential part of New South Wales’ history for over 200 years and is a crucial element of democracy and ensuring collective voices can be heard,” Morey said.
Government accused of hypocrisy
Within hours of announcing these changes, the Government also announced it would be reducing the penalties imposed on coal seam gas companies found to be illegally exploring or mining land without permission.
Penalties for mining without authority currently attract a potential fine of $1.1 million dollars, plus an additional $110,000 for each day the mine is in operation, if successfully prosecuted in court. The Government’s new scheme would see this reduced to just $5000.
Jeremy Buckingham, another Greens MP, has been particularly vocal in his opposition to the proposed change, accusing the Baird Government of acting as the lackey of the minerals resource industry.
“This is the action of a government determined to make life easy for their mates in the mining industry, while they introduce draconian penalties for those protesting to protect farms or the environment,” he said.
“Does Mike Baird care more about paying back his political donors in the mining industry… than he does about farmers and communities in regional NSW?”
The Government says it still reserves the right of a full prosecution, under the current regulatory scheme, but will allow the regulator to “to choose the most appropriate action based on what has taken place … “