The anti-protest protest defending democratic rights

The WA State Government’s proposed ‘anti-protest’ laws were first debated in parliament over a year ago. Since then, a growing movement of passionate advocates have voiced their concerns, including the Uniting Church WA.

The State Government’s original intention for the laws in question, the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015, was aimed at environmental protests, mostly against the mining industry and acquisition of land. It’s main motivation is to prevent the time, energy and resources used during an environmental protest where methods may be used which get in the way of business, such as chaining people to a gate or using concrete to keep barricades in place.

The NSW State Government has recently passed similar laws, in March this year.

Anna Copeland, clinical director at the Murdoch Law School, has been following the WA bill since it was introduced in 2015. She believes protest is vital for our democratic process. She said there are major problems with introducing such laws, the main one being that it reverses the onus of proof onto the suspect.

“The main problem with the legislation is that it’s using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Its that overreach of the legislation that I think is the worst problem legally,” she said.

The legislation states that a person can’t make, adapt or possess a ‘thing’ which could be used to prevent lawful activity. And if a person is suspected to have such a ‘thing’, rather than police having to prove their intention, the person would have to prove their innocence.

“As long as there’s a suspicion, you then have to prove you didn’t have the intention,” Anna said. “And that’s actually quite hard to do, very hard to do in fact.”

There is also the question of what constitutes a ‘thing’. Anna believes that, while the legislation is aimed at a certain type of protest, the wording is way too broad and restricts the public’s democratic right to protest.

“It could be anything,” Anna said. “You could have a farmer with steel cap boots in the back of his ute. Those boots could be considered a ‘thing’ if the police officer suspects that he might wear them to a protest. Within the definition of the legislation, that’s possible.”

Part of this concern is that the laws will allow people to be targeted for other reasons, for example race or status.

“What you can see from across the world and also in Australia, time after time after time, that when you give police broad discretionary powers, is that it results in racial profiling, it results in discriminatory policing practices, and it results in inequity.

“If you give a huge discretion, police are going to bring to that assessment their own values, their own assumptions.”

We’ve already seen examples of this in WA, such as with the ‘move on laws’ which were brought into effect 2004. Anna said that the anti-protest laws have similar discretionary powers as the move on laws, which have been disproportionately used against Indigenous people.

The Uniting Church has a long history of protest. Responding to a call to follow Jesus in pursuing justice and love for our most vulnerable, Christians in WA have spoken up on all sorts of issues – from environmental, to Indigenous rights, to refugee rights. Some have been arrested for their actions.

In recent years, the Christian Love Makes a Way network has made headlines across Australia with their prayerful sit-ins, occupying the offices of politicians around Australia demanding that asylum seeker and refugee children be released from indefinite detention.

With the threat of criminalising a ‘thing,’ nonviolent Christian protest will be affected under these laws.

“Because it’s been so broadly drafted,” Anna said, “[a ‘thing’] could include, for example, a banner. Or if you’re using the Bible to read from, and the allegation is that ten people reading or singling a hymn interferes with lawful business because someone can’t answer phone calls, that could be in the act. It’s way too broad for what it’s trying to do.”

Rev Ruth Vertigan is the rural ministry co-ordinator for the Uniting Church WA. She’s also a member of the Uniting Church WA Social Justice Board and an active protester, as demonstrated at the recent Protect Peaceful Protest rally held at WA’s Parliament House in February this year. She was also arrested in February at a Love Makes a Way sit-in at the office of Michael Keenan MP, federal member for Stirling, minister for Justice and minister assisting the Prime Minister for counter terrorism.

Ruth believes that the anti-protest laws are simply a hard-line response, which Australians need to take note of.

“It’s not needed because all the powers to prevent unruly protest are already there,” Ruth said. “It’s over the top for what’s needed.”

“I think we get compliant in Australia and believe that our democracy will just be, but we need to guard it. You need to be alert and be engaged if you value your democracy.”

It’s a stance the United Nations (UN) has taken too. On 15 February, three UN human rights experts from the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) released a statement urging the West Australian State Parliament to abandon the legislation.

David Kaye, Maina Kiai and Michel Forst, from the OHCHR, agree that the proposed laws take away democratic rights, with over-the-top penalties – an offence could carry a year in prison and a $12 000 fine, with an aggravated offence carrying 2 years in prison, with a $24 000 fine.

“If the Bill passes, it would go against Australia’s international obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of opinion and expression as well as peaceful assembly and association,” they said.

As a Christian, Ruth believes that our right to peacefully protest enables Christians to live out their calling of standing up for others and creating a just world for all of us – and it needs to be protected.

“From a Christian point of view – and it’s also a Jewish and Muslim point of view – what the prophets called us to was to care for the other, the alien, the disadvantaged, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst,” Ruth said.

“The prophets were continually calling the nations to live more openly and generously.

“It’s certainly what Jesus calls us to.”

Inspired?

  • You can read the full statement from the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on their website at www.ohchr.org.
  • For more information on the Protect Peaceful Protest campaign visit http://protectpeacefulprotest.com or contact the Uniting Church WA Justice and Mission Unit on 9260 9800.
  • To take action in protecting peaceful protest, contact your local MP to discuss why this bill should not get through Parliament. It has already passed the upper house, and is expected to be brought to the lower house of Parliament in the coming weeks, at the time of going to print.

Heather Dowling

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