HRLC condemns state-based law changes to peaceful protests

Proposed laws by two state governments to criminalise peaceful protest tactics would infringe on free expression, the Human Rights Law Centre urged.

user iconNaomi Neilson 10 October 2019 Big Law
Emily Howie
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NSW and Queensland have plans to pass two separate bills that “[strike] at the heart of our freedom to stand together”, and would “unfairly and unreasonably” have an impact on Australian’s right to peacefully protests.

Legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) Emily Howie said: “It’s critical to our democracy that we can stand together with others and speak out on issues that we care about. Australians have a proud history of this.

“From winning the right to vote for women to saving the Franklin River, the power of people’s movements has been vital in achieving positive change in Australia. We must defend our precious space to protest.”

The NSW parliament is touting the law as a way to protect agricultural activity and the impact of the provisions is significantly broader. The bill would increase the penalty for “aggravated unlawful entry on enclosed lands” from $5,500 to $22,000 and will add a three-year sentence term for people who hinder a business while trespassing.

Ms Howie said the laws are so bad it could see “knitting nannas” slapped with a huge fine or jail “for protesting to protect farmland from gas exploration”. She said penalties will have a “chilling effect” on people’s willingness to participate in protests.

“It’s absolutely critical to democracy that we can freely share ideas on political issues. This is a bedrock principle – without free political communication how can Australians be expected to make an informed choice on election day?” Ms Howie said.

Queensland’s Summary Offences and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 would criminalise the use of devices commonly used in peaceful protests and impose a two-year prison sentence, even if devices are only causing minimal disruption.

Lawyer at the HRLC Alice Drury said the proposed law changes “have gone too far”: “Devices like sleeping dragons, monopoles and tripods are currently used in peaceful protests across Australia. Our criminal laws already adequately cover their use when they cause major disruption. This proposed law could impose harsh prison sentences.”

HRLC said Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk refused to produce evidence to support claims that in recent protests, people have deliberately created devices that could harm police and emergency services attempting to remove them.

With Queensland currently experiencing daily protests by many environmental groups, Ms Drury said the disruption is a symptom of a deeper cause.

“Protesters are responding to the implications of a climate change. So long as we have policy paralysis when it comes to dealing with the climate crisis, governments expect people will continue to come together to voice their concern and demand action, she said.

“Politicians should resist the knee-jerk response of criminalising conduct because it’s frustrating, and recommit to facilitating peaceful protest for the health of democracy.”

Ms Howie added there is a “clear and worrying” wave of laws from governments across Australia that are restricting people’s ability to protest.

“We are seeing a clear and worrying wave of state-based laws that restrict the ability of Australians to stand together and speak out on issues that they care deeply about. The government may disagree with protesters’ views on a particular issue, but shutting down peaceful assemblies only serves to weaken our democracy,” Ms Howie said.

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