The Ever-Increasing Authoritarianism of the NSW Coalition Government

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Perrottet Authoritarianism

The Perrottet government has just passed some of the most draconian anti-protest laws in any liberal democracy around the globe. These were seemingly in response to recent nonviolent disruptive actions taken by climate defenders, yet they have implications for all forms of protest.

Crafted by NSW attorney general Mark Speakman and roads minister Natalie Ward the amendment bill extended a pre-existing law and created a new one so that obstructing people or traffic on a roadway, bridge, tunnel or major facility can land a person in prison for up to two years.

As Speakman explained, this doesn’t affect the process of applying to hold a legal protest, but what it does do is open the way for authorities to choose which dissenting voices can go ahead, and if denied, threaten those who proceed with prison time, as well as a $22,000 fine that also applies.

But, as Greens MLC Abigail Boyd explained it wasn’t just the laws that astounded her. It was how the Coalition rammed such a substantial bill through, over a 48 hour period, which involved no chance of public input, next to no consultation or debate or the usual tabling of a bill five days prior to vote.

“Everybody should be concerned,” she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers last week. “Not just about the antidemocratic way that it was pushed through parliament, but also in terms of the very broad scope… to effectively prevent any protest or action that the government decides it doesn’t like.”

A gradual erosion

Yet, the Perrottet government’s form in assuming it held absolute power in passing these laws isn’t such an anomaly when looking back over the 11 years that the NSW Coalition has been in power, and an ever-increasing authoritarian creep that began at its inception in March 2011.

In his time, premier O’Farrell made serious incursions into the key democratic right to silence for certain offenders. While, on the social side, he enforced the Sydney lockout laws in 2014, which destroyed the city’s nightlife, and despite last year’s lifting, a certain spirit has been lost for good.

Then there was Baird. Becoming premier in 2014, it was in early 2016 that he came out swinging against the public’s right to protest and civil liberties in general.

In terms of protest, he created the new offence of aggravated trespass on enclosed lands, which meant that protesters could be fined $5,500 – a tenfold increase in penalty – for taking action on such property. 

And as he was on a roll, he also enacted bills that established public safety and serious crime prevention orders, which, when applied, place restrictions on an individual’s movements. Yet, the imposition of an order doesn’t require any proof of committing or even having facilitated a crime.

Not to be outdone by her predecessors, premier Berejiklian amended Baird’s aggravated trespass laws, so that animal rights activists found partaking in actions on agricultural land can be imprisoned for up to 12 months and receive a $13,200 fine, while reoffenders face up to 3 years inside.

And in another sign that the Coalition pays no attention to constituents, following a series of drug-related deaths over the 2018 summer, instead of rolling out pill testing, which was the public want, Berejiklian unsuccessfully tried to pass laws that would have destroyed the entire festival industry.

The worst is yet to come

Premier Dominic Perrottet is from the right faction of the NSW Liberal Party. He holds neoliberal values that saw him, as he took the top job last October, overturn months of planning around the approach to the pandemic, as he declared it to be an economic crisis, not just a health one.

And despite the onset of Omicron right before the fabled post-COVID Christmas period, he lifted all precautionary measures still in place after the lockdown was long over and ensured that the entire state enjoyed a holiday season fraught with illness.

Now the ultraconservative leader has passed anti-protest laws so drastic in reach that many of his fellow non-Coalition MPs are questioning their constitutionality.

While climate activists are increasingly being imprisoned under his watch, with police and courts punishing activists under pre-existing laws not usually applied to reach such extreme outcomes.

“It’s the most draconian thing I’ve ever witnessed in NSW parliament,” Boyd said of the Perrottet government’s actions on 1 April.

And considering the NSW premier’s general tendency towards the despotic, it’s likely the NSW Greens MLC is up for a few more shocks along the way.

Images:  VIP Lunch Hosted by Premier Gladys Berejiklian by Maryland GovPics, Day 2, The Hon Dominic Perrottet MP by CEBIT Australia and Mike Baird Day-1-Opening-Plenary-4091 by CEBIT Australia all licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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