Right to protest under attack in South Australia

The South Australian government has followed New South Wales and Victoria to undermine democratic rights. A bi-partisan bill has been rushed through parliament’s lower house, which proposes fines up to $50,000 or three months in jail if protesters “intentionally or recklessly obstruct the public place”.

The wording is so broad that it could outlaw such innocuous actions as blocking a footpath or place of business. If the bill passes the upper house, South Australia will have the country’s harshest financial penalties for protestingmore than double the $22,000 maximum fine that the Perrottet Liberal government legislated in New South Wales last year.

The trend of state governments introducing harsher financial penalties and jail time for disruptive protests is part of a disturbing nationwide crackdown on protesters, particularly climate groups such as Extinction Rebellion.

It took little more than a right-wing beat up in the press for this bill to be written, introduced and passed at lightning speed. The Advertiser, Murdoch’s South Australian masthead, last Thursday ran a smear against climate protesters who blocked a road to protest the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA) conference. The article quoted a police prosecutor saying that the protesters’ actions “warranted a prison sentence”, and Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, who wanted to “cut the rope and let them drop”.

This sentiment was echoed by Liberal Opposition Leader David Speirs, who on talkback radio floated the idea of $50,000 fines or jail time. A few hours later, the Malinauskas Labor government delivered.

Earlier in the week, Energy and Mining Minister Tom Koutsantonis told a room full of mining CEO’s and executives at the APPEA conference that the South Australian government is at their “disposal”. This has proven to be no mere flourish.

Speirs and Malinauskas feign concern over the “mass disruption” of protests. But when the climate crisis disrupts our lives, the state is nowhere to be seen.

When flood waters engulfed thousands of homes in Lismore, people had to organise to save themselves because underfunded government services couldn’t cope. In the aftermath, they were left without homes or support. It was a similar story after the 2019-20 bushfire crisis.

But when the wheels of fossil fuel extraction are threatened, governments are swift to act.

In Adelaide, the right to protest was won through disruptive protest. During the Vietnam war, anti-war groups organised a march that occupied the intersection of North Terrace and King William Street. The clashes between protesters and police led to a royal commission, which resulted in the confirmation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

If we are to defend those rights today, let alone stop the damaging practices driving climate change or stand up to many other injustices, we need to be willing to disrupt business as usual—because it is business as usual, not its disruption, that is the problem.

Socialists in Uni Students for Climate Justice organised a demonstration against the bill on 26 May. More than 500 people marched, closed down roads and blocked intersections. This was important to set the tone for the campaign against the proposed new laws.

The anti-protest legislation is expected to be discussed in the upper house on 30 May. SA Unions has called a rally for that morning; university students are planning a speak-out on parliament steps.

There is broad opposition to the new laws: from the Greens, environmental and human rights groups, and trade unions. This is clearly an unpopular bill. We must fight to repeal the legislation entirely and be willing to break the law if need be.

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