Threats to right to protest signal continuation of war on charities
6 July 2022 at 5:07 pm
Advocates have issued a call to action for charities to protect the right to protest before it’s too late.
The right to protest is under threat again in multiple states.
Tasmania is the latest state in Australia set to pass laws to make it more difficult for non-violent protestors to advocate for their position, with the Police Offences Amendment (Workplace Protection) Bill 2022 passing its second reading in Tasmania’s Legislative Council late last month.
The bill is expected to also pass its third reading and come into effect in August.
If passed, the bill will impose substantially higher penalties on people who are found to commit an action that obstructs a business. Those people would face a fine of up to $8,650, double what the previous penalty was, or up to 12 months in prison.
That increases to $12,975 or 18 months in jail if the person’s actions are found to have caused “serious risk” to themselves or another person.
Those who are found to have committed an offence of public nuisance will now face a fine of $1,730, up from $519.
And Tasmania isn’t the only state debating new laws against protesting; the Sustainable Forests Timber Amendment (Timber Harvesting Safety Zones) Bill 2022 was introduced to the Victorian parliament in May, and seeks to further criminalise logging protests.
It comes just months after New South Wales also passed new anti-protest laws through the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2022, which could see protestors who disrupt roads, train stations, ports and infrastructure hit with up to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine.
This last example seems particularly pertinent given the recent headlines about environmental activists Blockade Australia being allegedly surveilled and raided by NSW police.
Advocates question police response
Since the raid, Blockade Australia has held a week of action, in which protesters marched through Sydney to draw attention to their cause. They were met with a heavy police presence.
One woman locked herself to the steering wheel of her car and blocked the harbour tunnel. She was later arrested.
A statement signed by 40 civil society organisations and released by the Human Rights Law Centre “expressed alarm” at the initial police surveillance and raid of Blockade Australia.
“The extensive covert surveillance and pre-emptive policing sets a disturbing precedent for protest rights,” the statement said.
Are we still fighting the war on charities?
The federal assistant minister for charities, Dr Andrew Leigh, was unable to comment on the state-based laws.
After Labor’s election win, Leigh declared the war on charities to be officially over, but the latest swathe of anti-protest legislation has some questioning whether that’s really the case.
Ray Yoshida, campaigner at the Australian Democracy Network and coordinator of the Hands Off Our Charities alliance, criticised the latest attacks on advocacy through protest.
“The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy,” he told Pro Bono News.
“Throughout our history charities have played an integral part [in] protest movements in achieving important social and environmental reforms. Indeed, community members involved in peaceful protests often seek support from charities in advocating for change.”
But he said the anti-protest laws in NSW, and the potential new laws in Tasmania and Victoria, would make protesting more difficult.
“While their details vary, all of [the bills] include new penalties for protest activities of 60 penalty units or more – the threshold for potentially falling afoul of ACNC Governance Standard 3.
“And in the Tasmanian bill one provision allows the courts to apply a penalty of 600 penalty units to body corporates, and seems explicitly targeted at one of the state’s most prominent environmental charities.”
Reflecting on the Tasmanian laws, Bob Brown, environmentalist and patron of the Bob Brown Foundation, painted a bleak picture of safe protest if the bill is implemented.
“They want worried citizens to wave placards uselessly from the footpath while they drive their log trucks, coal trucks and gas rigs up the highways to more riches and planetary ruin,” he said in a statement released by the Human Rights Law Centre.
“As life on Earth is pulverised by global heating, habitat destruction and species extinctions, the exploiters know they can’t win the debate, so they aim to put environmentalists out of action through vilification, legal sanctions and unprecedented punishment.”
Adrienne Picone, CEO of TasCOSS, said the new laws would “make it harder for Tasmanians to have their voices heard”.
Yoshida urged charities to oppose all anti-protest laws being debated or legislated.
“We must protect our rights to protest before it’s too late,” he said.
Australian response to protest reflects broader trends
In its 11th annual State of Civil Society Report, global civil society alliance CIVICUS warned that protests “usually follow” rising costs of living – and as people around the world feel the pinch, frustration has spilled onto the streets.
“An increase in the cost of essentials is the most predictable indicator of protests,” the report states, where “people push not just for different economic policies and new political leaders but also to change the system.”
It added that states often respond through violent crackdowns.
The report said the change of government at Australia’s recent federal election “offers hope for progress in advancing rights”, but warned that the pendulum could also swing the other way as the rejection of the incumbents brings out “regressive… outcomes”.
In Australia, climate change has become a priority for voters as the nation feels the impact of the climate crisis, the report said. This was reflected in the election of several female independents, the society wrote, who offer “an alternative to the country’s prevailing macho politics and the toxic nature of mainstream political discourse”.
Meanwhile, the report said “civil society pressure” is also contributing to actions taken on climate change around the world; Australia’s recent climate protests, fuelled by people who have lived through the impact of the climate protest, are part of a growing trend.