Peaceful protesters can face up to two years in prison. Legislation rammed through parliament by lawmakers that increases fines for protest activity to tens of thousands of dollars. Activists attending a protest can be charged for the costs of police and emergency services.
Unfortunately, this is happening right now in Australia.
Activists across the country have continued to raise the alarm at the worsening climate emergency, government approvals for massive new gas and coal developments, and the logging of native forests. However, rather than taking the urgent measures needed to reduce fossil fuel production, state governments have responded by imposing harsh and disproportionate measures to punish activists, stymie protest, and deter the climate movement.
In April 2022, the New South Wales state government introduced laws and penalties specifically targeting protesters who blocked roads and ports, threatening them with up to two years in prison and AU$22,000 fines. Our review of decisions in New South Wales courts found that people committing violent common crimes like assault were avoiding custodial sentences, while peaceful activists were given months in maximum security prison.
The state of Victoria followed in August 2022 with harsh new measures targeting environmental protesters at logging sites with up to 12 months in jail or $21,000 in fines. In Tasmania, environmental activists now face fines of $13,000 or two years in prison, while nongovernmental organizations that have been found to “support members of the community to protest” face fines of over $45,000.
On May 16, as the annual gathering of Australian fossil fuel executives got underway in Adelaide in South Australia, an “Extinction Rebellion” protester abseiled off a bridge, temporarily blocking traffic, two days later other activists spray painted the headquarters of a local fossil fuel company.
The Labor Party state government quickly responded from what is now a depressingly familiar playbook.
The government introduced harsh new anti-protest measures in the South Australian lower house in the morning and then rushed them through after lunch with bipartisan support after just 20 minutes of debate and no public consultation. The bill would increase the punishment for “public obstruction” 60-fold, from $750 to $50,000 or three months in jail, with activists also potentially facing orders to pay for police and other emergency services responding to a protest or action.
And it’s hard to ignore the fact the new bill was proposed just two days after the state’s energy minister told the fossil fuel industry at a conference that the state was “at your disposal.”
While there is still time for the government to accept amendments and reduce the proposed penalties, local activists fear the bill could soon pass the state’s upper house.
International law recognizes peaceful protest as a basic human right. And government responses against protesters who violate the law must be proportionate, not overbroad, and directed toward meeting a lawful governmental aim.
This politically motivated crackdown on protest by successive Australian authorities appears designed to intimidate the climate movement and create a chilling effect on those thinking of taking to the streets.
It would be a mistake to conclude that the impact of these laws would be limited to the climate protesters now under threat. The authorities could use these new laws to prosecute anyone who is deemed to be obstructing a public place.
Australia is also sending a dangerous message to the region, where authoritarian governments regularly slap jail terms on peaceful activists. If Australia’s democratically elected governments can get away with treating peaceful protesters like this, then why should any leader in Asia worry about the consequences of locking objectors away?
Instead of targeting those peacefully drawing attention to the worsening climate crisis, Australian authorities should focus their efforts on phasing out the use and production of fossil fuels and turning the country into a renewable energy superpower.
It is critically important for citizens to be able to express their concern about the climate emergency and be able to weigh in on the debate, in whatever peaceful way they would like to do so.
Australian authorities are trying to prevent a full debate on the issue by using legislation that denies people their rights to free expression. In doing so they are putting the environment and climate at risk and, more broadly, democratic debate as well.