In March this year, the NSW government passed legislation aimed at intimidating anti-coal seam gas protesters, joining a growing trend toward restricting environmental activism in Australia. This legislation, The Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016, follows similar legislation targeting Tasmanian anti-logging protesters and Western Australian environmentalists. The two primary purposes of the bill are to confer expanded powers on police and to severely enhance penalties for protesters.
Expansion of Police Powers
Under this legislation, police are empowered to give directions to protesters if they find the directions necessary to avert a serious safety risk. Because coal seam gas protests often occur on fracturing sites near heavy machinery, it will not be difficult for police to produce pretextual safety-related justifications in order to give directions to protesters, including directions to disperse. It is an offence to fail to heed these directions. The legislation also confers the power to stop, search, and detain without a warrant those protesters whom the police suspect are in possession of devices used to “lock on” or secure a person to fracturing equipment.
These changes give police wide discretion to control the activities of protesters, and even potentially to disperse or preemptively prevent protests based on police assessments of “safety risks,” which are left undefined by the law. They also allow police to search and detain people on the mere suspicion that they possess completely lawful and harmless items such as rope or glue. As the NSW Law Society warned in their submission opposing the bill, these expansions of police power are not offset with increased judicial oversight.
Anti-coal seam gas protesters should comply with police directions if they want to avoid legal consequences, but should also ask police to provide a safety-related justification for any directions, to check that police are operating within the contours of the law. Protesters should be aware that they may be searched or detained on suspicion of possessing securing devices and that these devices, if seized by the police, are forfeited to the government.
Measures to Deter Dissenters
This legislation also significantly increases the penalties associated with anti-coal seam gas protests. Prior to the bill’s passage, it was illegal to trespass on enclosed lands and such trespass was punishable with a maximum $550 fine. The bill increases this penalty by ten times for trespassers who “interfere with…[a] business.” The increased penalty also attaches to trespassers who merely intend to or attempt to interfere with business activities. This means that anti-coal seam gas protesters who are judged to intend to interfere with fracturing activities can be slapped with a $5,550 fine. For organizations which send many protesters to engage in collective action, the combined impact of these fees, assessed against each protester, could be massive.
Perhaps the most serious change enacted by this law is the redefinition of the crime of “interference with a mine” to include actions in which many anti-coal seam gas protesters regularly engage. This crime is punishable by up to seven years imprisonment, providing a serious deterrent against participating in anti-coal seam gas protests. The new definition of “mine” includes all extraction, exploration, construction and decommissioning sites for petroleum, gas and minerals. The crime encompasses intentionally or recklessly hindering the working of the equipment of a mine. The practical effect of this change for anti-coal seam gas protesters is that many of their most effective protest strategies – such as locking on to fracturing equipment or blockading to prevent the movement of such equipment – now constitute the serious crime of “interference with a mine.” These changes heighten the risks that anti-coal seam gas protesters must take to express their dissent, imposing heavy fines and jail time for even the slightest interference with the profit-generating activities of energy corporations.
These changes are an expression of the NSW government’s frustration with anti-coal seam gas protesters, who have been successful in deterring energy corporations’ extraction of coal seam gas through direct action campaigns. Although there have been some cases of minor injuries involved in such environmental protests, they have mostly been associated with police activity in the course of arresting protesters. The concurrent introduction of legislation reducing fines for energy corporations which engage in unlicensed exploration demonstrates that business interests are at least as salient for the NSW government as the “safety” interests which purport to justify these laws. Because the activities which are given heightened penalties in this bill were already prohibited before this law was passed, it is clear that the government intends to send a chilling message to anti-coal seam gas protesters.