Australian Anti-Protest Law Targets Environmental Activists With Fines And Jail

CREDIT: Associated Press

People hold placards during a protest against Western Australia's state government's shark killing policy.

Australia’s state of Victoria passed the Summary Offences Act Tuesday, giving police extraordinary power to disperse protests, imprison and fine those who don’t comply, and ban repeat offenders from certain areas. Police would be able to order protesters to disperse if they are blocking the entrance to a building, blocking people or traffic, or if they are expected to turn violent, which would apply without much difficulty to most protests.

The law appears to have been targeted at long-running environmental, labor, and public lands protests, though proponents pointed to the law’s ability to limit anti-abortion activists from harassing patients and staff outside of clinics. But some of the highest-profile recent protests in Victoria have been against construction of the East-West toll road tunnel, a project that opponents say would be “environmentally devastating” on a Facebook organizing page. They say the project would do little to ease congestion in Melbourne, and that the AUS $8 billion cost would be better-spent on rail, which would ease congestion and help the climate by getting cars off the road.

Even without the new law, police have responded to East-West blockades with force and been accused of heavy-handed tactics.

Another particularly vociferous protest movement is taking on an attempt by McDonald’s to build a 24-hour outlet with a drive-thru in a small rural town known for its scenery. A poll of 80 percent of the adult residents of the town of Tecoma found 88.2 percent oppose the McDonald’s coming to town, and residents have taken a variety of actions directly blocking the construction amidst heavy police opposition. In 2012, 600 people took to the proposed restaurant location, planted a community garden, and remained with a 24-hour presence for a month before police removed them. The new law would make it a crime for protesters to block the construction site if police tell them to “move along,” carrying penalties ranging from a AUS $720 fine to arrest and imprisonment.

Four protesters were arrested for disturbing the legislative proceedings for the passage of the law, and amidst public outcry from political parties and human rights groups.

A large march through Melbourne against the laws brought together Tecoma’s anti-McDonald’s protesters and East-West Link opponents, as well as members of a variety of unions who see a threat to their right to picket in the new laws. “They want to restrict our ability to protest against unfair work conditions,” Trades Hall secretary Brian Boyd told the Herald Sun.

Business rights organizations like the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry were among the few to publicly support the new laws, celebrating the improved ability to move projects forward without having to deal with opposition from the people affected by them.

“It seems to be that this law is about the East West tunnel … about people who are turning up day after day, week after week, to protest about that tunnel,” Sue Pennicuik, a Green Party member of Parliament told the Herald Sun. “But you don’t make laws just to try and shut down a massive protest about a bad idea.”