NSW anti-protest laws will damage democracy

NSW anti-protest laws will damage democracy

NSW parliament should not pass a proposed law that would unfairly and unreasonably impact on peoples’ freedom to peacefully protest, the Human Rights Law Centre told a parliamentary committee charged with reviewing the proposed Right to Farm Bill 2019.

Emily Howie, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the proposed law strikes at the heart of our freedom to stand together in a democracy.

“It’s absolutely critical to our democracy that we can stand together with others and speak out on issues that we care about. Australians have a proud history of this. From winning the right to vote for women to saving the Franklin River, the power of peoples’ movements has been vital in achieving positive change in Australia. We must defend our precious space to protest,” said Ms Howie

Although touted as a law to protect agricultural activity, the impact of the provisions is significantly broader. The Bill would increase the penalty for "aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands" from $5500 to $22,000 and add a three-year prison term for people who merely "hinder" a business while trespassing.

“These laws are so broad they could see knitting nannas slapped with $22,000 fines or even jail just for protesting to protect farmland from gas exploration. They could see community members jailed for protesting the forced removal of refugee children. There’s no doubt these penalties would have a significant chilling effect on people’s willingness to participate in actions on issues they care deeply about,” said Ms Howie.

The proposed law raises significant questions concerning the implied freedom of political communication in the Australian Constitution, many of which were considered by the High Court in Brown v Tasmania. The Human Rights Law Centre intervened in that case in support of the freedom to protest and of political communication.

“It’s absolutely critical to our democracy that we can freely share ideas on political issues. This is a bedrock principle – without free political communication, how can Australians be expected to make an informed choice on election day? The High Court rightly struck down Tasmania’s anti-protest laws for shutting down vital and vibrant debate. NSW’s laws are in danger of doing the same,” said Ms Howie.

“We are seeing a clear and worrying wave of state-based laws that restrict the ability of Australians to stand together and speak out on issues that they care deeply about. The government may disagree with protesters' views on a particular issue, but shutting down peaceful assemblies only serves to weaken our democracy,” said Ms Howie.

Read the Human Rights Law Centre’s report on the proposed Right to Farm Bill 2019 here.

Media contact:

Michelle Bennett, Communications Director: 0419 100 519

Photo: Kate Ausburn