[author]Story and photo Luis Feliu[/author]
Federal energy minister Martin Ferguson wants the Australian Federal Police and ASIO to target groups campaigning against coal and, by implication, coal-seam gas, Northern Rivers Guardians (NRG) spokesperson Michael McNamara said.
Mr McNamara has described the secret push for increased surveillance by federal police intelligence officers of environmental activists protesting peacefully at coal-fired power stations and coal export facilities as ‘ridiculous’.
Documents released recently under freedom of information laws confirm police are ‘continually monitoring anti-coalmining and other environmental groups with much of the intelligence collection carried out for the federal police by a private contractor.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Mr Ferguson, prompted by lobbying from energy companies, had urged stronger criminal penalties against protests that disrupt ‘critical energy infrastructure’.
‘Local groups likely to be the subject of AFP attention would have to include those hotbeds of environmental radicalism Tweed Shire Council, Rous Water and Northern Rivers Tourism since they have all taken a strong stand in relation to coal-seam gas mining,’ Mr McNamara said.
‘If it wasn’t so serious it would be laughable. Local community members who actively campaign in defence of their communities are not the enemy, they are the heart and soul of a healthy democracy,’ he said.
‘As an example, the farmers and other community members at Gloucester who recently held a blockade to stop AGL from commencing CSG exploration drilling are ordinary community members taking an extraordinary stand against vested interest running rampant over public interest.’
Greens leader Bob Brown said it was ‘intolerable that the federal Labor government is spying on conservation groups’ and wanting to ‘criminalise political protest’.
The documents from the minister’s department revealed that Mr Ferguson wrote to the then attorney-general, Robert McClelland, in September 2009 to raise concerns of ‘issues-motivated activism, and the possibility of disruptions to critical energy infrastructure sites’.
Mr Ferguson sought advice on whether intelligence gathering services of the federal police could be used to help the energy sector and police to ‘manage the increasing risk of disruptions’.
The documents show the energy security branch of Mr Ferguson’s department warned Macquarie Generation and Transgrid of a ‘peaceful mass action’ at Bayswater power station in the Hunter Valley in December 2010 where police arrested 73 protesters who had occupied a railway line used to take coal to the power station. Most of the convictions were overturned on appeal.
Image: Peaceful demonstrators such as these during Murwillumbah’s huge anti-coal-seam gas rally last year could be targeted by federal spying agencies and charged if such protests are deemed to disrupt ‘critical energy infrastructure’, such as coal-seam gas wells on the Northern Rivers.