New NSW anti-protest laws will protect the indefensible

The powers-that-be in NSW have deemed that there are so many examples of “unsafe protest activities” across the state that, to make everyone safe, we need new laws that will protect “lawful business activity”.

Protesters will be able to be jailed for up to seven years for “intentionally” or “recklessly” interfering with a “mine” — the definition of which has been changed to include an exploratory or test site.

Mining and energy minister Antony Roberts, who has been given the job of cleaning up the unconventional gas industry in an attempt to relaunch it, delivered his second-reading speech on the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement (Interference) Bill 2016 on March 7, in which he attempted to argue the new law was all about “public and worker safety”.

The motivations reveal that this draconian move by the Mike Baird Coalition government is an attempt to criminalise peaceful protesters taking non-violent direct action.

It is a direct response to the success of the broad anti-coal seam gas movement that has risen up against the industry's efforts to set up shop in NSW over the last few years.

It is also aimed at intimidating those considering getting involved in social movement campaigns to change, or stop, bad government policy. Beware of holding an illegal protest at a mine site — when is it legal? — because you will risk a fine of $5500 for “aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands”.

Now, for the purpose of criminalising any and all protests at unconventional gas sites, the definition of “mine” now includes “test” sites — meaning that the Pilliga Push protest group in the Pilliga Forest against Santos would fall foul of this new law as would the six-month protest camp at Bentley in the Northern Rivers against Metgasco.

This new draconian law is a response to the success of non-violent direct action protests, led by the Knitting Nannas, farmers and many thousands of others, which successfully unmasked the unconventional gas mining corporation's lies.

And there lies the hypocrisy.

Without this powerful movement, most of NSW would still be at risk of being exploited for unconventional gas.

As Minister Roberts put it before the state election in 2015: “Under Labor, almost half of NSW was covered with PELs [Petroleum Export Licences] or PEL applications, for just a $1000 fee with no protections in place for our water, agricultural land or environment.

“The NSW Gas Plan has reduced this area to 15% [from about 60%].”

Now the gas and coal mining corporations are fighting back, and the Baird government is keen to help out.

The new laws are designed to give police additional “search” and “seizure” powers by “removing limitations” on previous “move on” orders. It specifically targets those who “lock on” to machinery being used to set up infrastructure for a mine or gas plant.

Right now, the WA state government is also pushing for new anti-protest laws in which the offenses are similarly vague and will be prone to misuse.

The “right” to peacefully protest in NSW is an implied right, which means that it rests on a judge's ruling, rather than being a constitutional right, as in the US.

This makes it even more important to vigorously oppose any moves to make it harder for people to take part in protest actions.

Capitalism relies on the machinery of the state — the justice system, the police and the armed forces — to provide a secure environment for capitalists to make their mega profits. The two major parties are usually complicit in maintaining this status quo, although mass movements can and sometimes have pushed them back.

Social and ecological movements using non-violent direct action have, throughout history, been the driving force for progressive changes. Non-violent direct action was a critical tactic for the anti-apartheid movement, the women's rights movement and the movement to save endangered old-growth forests.

We must resist any anti-protest policy which seeks to demonise farmers, nannas and others “eco-facists” and “extremists” and give more power to the state apparatus.

The real extremists are those who want to make it easier for profit-hungry corporations to make a buck at the expense of our health, our livelihoods and our communities. It is heartening that so many can see the hypocrisy and are still prepared to protest.