The Guardian • Issue #2039

The right to protest should be law

International Women’s Day, Sydney. Photo: Josephine Donnolley

Human rights and freedom are very popular terms at the moment, and it’s not hard to guess who is accused of violating them in Australian media, usually “autocracies” such as China and Russia. India, right next door to China gets less attention on the human rights score, Egypt, which has a military dictatorship, doesn’t come up very much either.

Closer to home, is a government you might have heard of. It’s called New South Wales, and it has been soundly criticised in a report by Human Rights Watch for anti-protest laws set up in April of 2022. Anyone protesting “without permission” can come in for heavy punishment.

Violet Coco, a climate protestor was sentenced to 15 months in prison for blocking a lane of the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes. To put that in perspective, the same bridge was closed for seven hours on 30th January so that Ryan Gosling could film scenes for a movie, presumably posing 16.8 times the threat to the NSW “way of life,” as Dominic Perrottet put it, that Violet Coco did. Ryan Gosling gets to carry on being a successful actor, but for trying to get some action on carbon emissions and protect our actual lives, Coco was refused bail.

This heavy-handed reaction to a traffic disruption was alarming to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly, Clement Voule who said that peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned.

NSW isn’t alone in increasing the severity of its response to peaceful protest. Both Tasmania and Victoria have increased jail time and fines for people who engage in the kind of protests that Violet Coco has been locked up for.

In Tasmania people who shut down a workplace can get a 12-month sentence, while in Victoria, deliberately getting in the way of logging can also put someone inside for a year.

Federal Greens Senator David Shoebridge has announced that he will be introducing a bill to enshrine a right to protest in law. In an interview with Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Shoebridge argued that the “ability to gather must not be dependent upon a green light from the police.”

Rather than seriously inconvenience their paymasters in the mining and logging industry, Australian politicians pass laws making it easier to persecute protestors, and as Shoebridge points out, these laws can and almost certainly will be used against First Nations protesters (and we would add, workers).

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