When Donald Trump was elected US president in November 2016, current NSW premier Dominic Perrottet proclaimed, it was “time for a conservative spring”, and following from that, one can only imagine that right now the Liberal leader feels he’s basking in the summer of authoritarianism.
The premier told reporters on Monday that imprisoning a nonviolent climate defender to 15 months gaol time for an act that might be described as guerrilla theatre was “not excessive” but instead “pleasing to see”.
Violet Coco was sentenced to at least 8 months inside on 2 December for her part in an act of civil disobedience last April, which involved blocking one lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a van for 25 minutes and setting off a flare to draw public attention to the mounting climate crisis.
And in a display of how far the Coalition’s demonisation of climate activists has progressed, Perrottet was able to state that “if protesters want to put our way of life at risk, then they should have the book thrown at them”, without the overwhelming irony underpinning the comment preventing it.
A more honest reckoning of Coco’s incarceration would be that NSW authorities have succeeded in silencing her and sending a message of deterrence to others attempting to raise awareness to the ongoing government greenlighting of fossil fuel projects despite their destroying “our way of life”.
A political charade
“I continue to be shocked and horrified by what comes out of Perrottet’s mouth when it comes to climate change and climate protesters,” said NSW Greens MLC Abigail Boyd. “It’s just complete nonsense.”
“They keep going on about how we need to keep people in Sydney from being inconvenienced, but they still have their heads clearly in the sand when it comes to how inconvenient climate change and its impacts will be on every single one of us,” she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
Boyd pointed to the absurdity of the NSW government raising the inconveniencing of the public for brief periods as necessitating such draconian responses when it shut down the Sydney rail network on a Monday in February, and it continues to disrupt public life via the construction of new tollways.
The Greens politician added that as soon as protesters block a road or even one lane of traffic for a brief period “to make a peaceful statement about the existential crisis we’ve facing”, the government starts banging on about people being blocked from medical treatment and even dying.
“They’re spinning the climate protesters out to be doing the wrong thing to avoid people identifying the real villains, which are, of course, the coal and gas companies and the politicians who are enabling them when it comes to destroying the planet for profit,” Boyd underscored.
A feigned rush
Climate defenders were increasingly mounting unauthorised nonviolent direct actions last March, with Blockade Australia conducting demonstrations at Sydney’s Port Botany and Fireproof Australia doing so on city streets. Coco’s blocking one lane of the Harbour Bridge was a part of the latter.
In the midst of the pickup in public protests calling for greater climate action from government, NSW roads minister Natalie Ward appeared on 2GB on 14 March, stating protesters had made her late to work and at host Ben Fordham’s prompting she agreed to pass more “severe” penalties.
And three weeks later, it was done. After having tweaked the regulations a week prior, the Perrottet government passed legislation on 1 April, which sees those convicted of the unauthorised blocking of roads, bridges, tunnels or major facilities liable to up to 2 years prison and/or a $22,000 fine.
Boyd commented at the time that the Coalition rushing through the laws over a two day period was “the most draconian thing” she’d witnessed in parliament, and this was further backed up this week by an article based on government documents she secured in the upper house earlier this year.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday that obtained emails reveal that the staff of senior ministers were chasing down NSW governor Margaret Beazley to have her return to Macquarie Street after 11 pm at night to give assent to the laws.
The Greens member explained that the documents display a bunch of politicians and senior police officials rushing to bring these laws in, so that they could show that they were immediately cracking down on the protests. And she puts this all down to theatrics.
“It’s part of that alarmist rhetoric about the climate protesters,” Boyd added. “If they’re going to make them out to be this incredibly serious threat, which, of course, they’re not, then they had to look like they were acting decisively to bring in the new laws as soon as possible.”
Fostering a callous attitude
The coming of the new anti-protest regime has bolstered the tactics being used by NSW police to combat local climate defenders, which has seen excessive use of force on the streets and the carrying out of two raids upon and a stakeout of a property, along with a sweep of an activist picnic.
“The overreach has extended to bail conditions, non-association orders, refusing bail and stakeouts trying to catch those ancillary to the offence,” Boyd made clear. “All of that is incredibly concerning, and then there’s the recent attack on Danny Lim.”
Lim is a well-known social justice and climate activist in Sydney. His presence in the street and at demonstrations wearing sandwich boards with “cheeky” messages that speak truth to power has become a symbol of nonviolent resistance in this city.
And on 22 November, two police officers approached him after a complaint in a CBD shopping mall. The officers grabbed the 78-year-old man, who is slight in stature, kicked his legs out from under him and slammed him face first into the tiled floor. Danny now has serious long-term injuries.
“A callous attitude to the safety of protesters has been encouraged,” said Boyd. “We saw a bunch of protesters being rammed by a car earlier in the year. This gives a kind of endorsement for police officers to act harshly towards demonstrators.”
“I really do think that the harsh treatment of Danny Lim is a direct result of irresponsible politicians saying self-serving things ultimately to protect their vested interests.”
Stripping their humanity
The NSW Labor Party has supported the Liberal Nationals in its rush to roll out a regime designed to stamp out anyone who raises the issue of extreme weather events now occurring regularly on this continent and happening continuously around the globe.
However, there are those within the Labor ranks that oppose these laws.
The City of Sydney has this week spoken out against Coco’s imprisonment, after it passed a late November motion, calling for the protest laws to be revoked and noting that “NSW police has formed a militarised police unit Strike Force Guard, which has targeted environmental campaigners”
“Labor is completely out of step with this, with the unions and the rest of civil society. And I would love them to grow a spine and remember what they stand for,” Boyd said, adding that the party’s support for the anti-protest regime means it can no longer expect the progressive vote.
The campaign over the last year to cast climate defenders as the chief public enemy makes it easier for people to look the other way when incidents, such as the assault upon Danny Lim or the locking up of a woman in her early 30s simply trying to draw attention to a crisis, occur.
“At the moment, Labor and the Coalition are scrambling to outdo each other when it comes to being as tough as possible on people who are certainly not being violent,” the Greens MLC concluded. “It’s a really bad sign of how rapidly we’re turning into a police state.”