Laws designed to directly target protest groups such as the Knitting Nannas and ageing farmers who lock on to mine equipment passed parliament late last night with the support of the Nationals, Fred Nile and the soon-to-be renamed Hunters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
The bill, which includes a massively increased jail term of up to seven years for activity including lock-ons, passed the upper house after midnight by 22 to 17 votes with Labor, the Greens and smaller parties, including the Animal Justice Party opposing it.
Byron Bay resident and National Party north coast spokesperson Ben Franklin, who was seen to be leaving the chamber during one fiery exchange, was said to be ‘scurrying like a cockroach’ by shadow north coast spokesperson Walt Secord.
And members of the anti-CSG protest group the Knitting Nannas, who say they have been directly targeted by the bill, told ABC this morning that they were ‘knitting jailbird outfits’.
Meanwhile, polling commissioned by the NSW Nature Conservation Council shows only 23 per cent of people support the Baird government’s anti-protest laws.
Miners’ finances first
Extraordinarily, during his speech introducing the bill in the upper house, MLC Scot Blair (Liberal) admitted that a key government motivation was the financial welfare of the mining industry.
‘By community standards there are some actions which should clearly not be supported…and causing disruption to legal business activities [is] clearly in this camp,’ he told the house.
‘Government hears loudly and clearly concerns about mining and petroleum projects. These include loss of jobs in the mining and petroleum sector as well as concerns about environmental impacts,’ he added.
‘Unlawful disruption by protesters is also costly for business,’ Mr Blair said.
It was a point that was raised again by the opposition in their attack.
‘We are seeing the party of big business talking, because this provision… would elevate the rights of business over the rights of any other property owner. Nothing could speak more clearly to that than this provision,’ said Labor’s Adam Searle.
‘The idea of business rights taking precedence over civil or political rights or even over other private property rights is a new and retrograde development in our democracy and should be rejected by this House and by this Parliament,’ he added.
And it was reinforced even more strongly by north coast spokesperson Walt Secord.
‘The primary effect of the bill is to jack up fines for legitimate protests tenfold. This bill targets non-violent protests and can even extend to those who attend protests as observers. The new laws being proposed by the Liberal-Nationals Government will increase fines for protesters from $550 to $5,500. That is a massive increase and, given that there has been no sudden outbreak of riots or protests in New South Wales, this is clearly a tool to silence protestors—and a tool to silence the north coast,’ he said.
Treated like terrorism suspects
‘The police will be given powers to issue move-on orders if protestors obstruct persons or traffic.
‘In addition, the police will be given additional search and seizure powers without the need for any warrant—a waiving of rights that is more apt for terrorism suspects in my view than north coast families protecting their unique quality of life.
‘Furthermore, it determines that gas exploration operations will be treated as mining under New South Wales law. Make no mistake: This bill was drafted with the Bentley blockade, the Knitting Nannas Against Gas, and the Pilliga in mind. It should be feared by north coast communities and the Pilliga.
‘I wish to formally add my voice in strong opposition to this bill. Labor will be voting against this bill. We stand in this Chamber to fight this bill; unlike the Nationals, who say one thing to the community in the country and do another in Sydney.
Nationals’ demise predicted
‘The Nationals walk into the Legislative Assembly and vote for the bill—but they tell families on the north coast that they are with them in the battle against coal seam gas [CSG] and unconventional gas,’ Mr Secord said.
‘The Nationals are liars. They lied to the North Coast at the 2015 election. Like so many things coming out of the Baird Government, this bill has an ugly underside. Peaceful Australians with an environmental conscience are in the cross-hairs of the Baird Government. This is because, given a choice between the interests of north coast communities versus the corporations which want to explore for CSG and unconventional gas, premier Baird picks and sticks,’ he added.
Greens mining spokesperson Jeremy Buckingham said the new law would ultimately spell the demise of the National Party.
‘When a farmer is dragged from a protest, put in court and jailed, the Nationals will be dead on arrival. This outrageous legislation will be the death warrant of the Nationals,’ he told the house.
‘I cannot believe that people who are against coal seam gas extraction and coalmining have been described as eco-fascists.
‘Bill Ryan, a Kokoda veteran, who stood against real fascists in the jungles of New Guinea and defended democracy and totalitarian regimes, has been called an eco-fascist.
‘It is outrageous. He is a war hero and someone who understands how damaging these proposals will be. If he acts in the interests of his community, as he did in Kokoda, through peaceful and non-violent blockades he will be condemned to seven years jail.
‘It is disgraceful that Don McKenzie, a farmer from western New South Wales, will be condemned to seven years jail if he spends two hours locked onto a gate, peacefully protesting against coal seam gas because he is terrified of the impact it will have on our water.
‘It is disgraceful that David Pocock, captain of the Wallabies, and farmer Rick Laird from Maules Creek could go to jail for seven years and face thousands of dollars of fines because they had the temerity to stand up against coalmines that are destroying their country.
‘The Knitting Nannas, the embodiment of care, nurture and consideration of our future generation, get together peacefully to protect their country. What has the Government done? It is a disgrace that it has called them Nazis and fascists and wants to throw them in jail.
‘I have never been more proud of being a member of The Greens in opposition in this Parliament. This Government embodies all that is wrong when it is captured by corporations doing the bidding of its mining and coal seam gas mates. It is a disgrace. New South Wales is not run by oligarchs and corporations like Putin’s Russia,’ Mr Buckingham said.
Mark Pearson of the Animal Justice Party recalled his own experience on the wrong side of the police lines as one of the now-famous 78ers in the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
‘It is rather ironic that only last month the Government was giving an apology to the 78ers who were dealt with extremely severely for peacefully protesting,’ he said.
‘At the age of 19, I was one of those 78ers. Thirty-eight years ago the government of the day gave a directive to police to deal with people who were protesting against extremely draconian laws,’ he added
‘We are in a similar situation today. This bill is one of the most draconian pieces of legislation I have seen. It is taking us back to the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland. ‘
‘When all other avenues are pursued to finality and harm of whatever nature has not been stopped people are compelled out of utter frustration to risk their personal liberties. That has been an instrument of protest for hundreds of years.
‘Protests for the rights of women, children, workers and slaves have been referred to in this debate. We cannot strike out the fundamental principle of people’s right to protect beings and the environment from harm,’ Mr Pearson said.
Coalition voters opposed
Meanwhile, polling commissioned by the Nature Conservation Council reveals that even more Coalition voters are opposed to some of the Government’s measures than Opposition supporters.
The poll, which was conducted by Reachtel on Monday, March 14, has found 61.4 per cent of people opposed to increasing police powers and fines for protest action, while only 19.4 per cent support the measures. The other 19.2 per cent were undecided.
The polling also showed the overwhelming majority of people opposed reducing fines for mining companies (81.6 per cent), another contentious element of premier Baird’s package of pro-mining, anti-activist changes.
Surprisingly, Coalition voters (80.6 per cent) were slightly more likely than Labor voters (79.3 per cent) to oppose these changes.
Nature Conservation Council CEO Kate Smolski said, ‘the overwhelming majority of people oppose these anti-democratic measures because they place unnecessary new limits on our political freedoms.
‘Mr Baird’s decision to push these laws through parliament without community consultation reinforces the perception that he is doing the bidding of coal and gas companies rather than responding to genuine community concerns,’ she added.
‘Not even Coalition voters support these anti-democratic reforms because they recognise that they will further limit people’s ability to protect the environment and to express their opposition to damaging development,’ Ms Smolski said.