Conservation groups in broad coalition to defend the right to peaceful protest

Western Australia’s peak environment group has joined with churches, unions, WA Farmers, lawyers and other civil-society groups to defend the right to peaceful protest.

The groups have joined together in opposition to a Bill which has been introduced in State Parliament that would criminalise peaceful protest actions and reverse the presumption of innocence for people involved. Over 50 civil society organisations have backed a joint statement opposing the Bill.

CCWA Director Piers Verstegen said: "People's rights to peaceful protest have played a critical role throughout history in protecting things we take for granted today.  

“Peaceful protest action has helped achieve the protection of some of our most special places, including much of our old growth forests, Ningaloo, the Kimberley, and of course the Tasmanian World Heritage area.

"If this Bill were passed, it would mean that people who take peaceful protest action to stand up for their land, water and communities would be branded as criminals. 

"Anyone who values our environment or who relies on ground water should be deeply concerned by this legislation. 

“Right now we have a battle looming between farming communities and the gas fracking industry which have plans to drill thousands of gas fracking wells in our nature reserves, farms and groundwater aquifers.

“This Bill suggests that the State Government, including the National party is more concerned with the rights of fracking companies to pollute our ground water than they are with the concerns of farmers and communities protect their health, their environment and their water supplies.  

“The State Government has branded protesters as ‘radical activists’, but let’s be clear that the scope of these proposed laws would criminalise a farmer locking their gate to gas fracking rigs; a Traditional Owner fulfilling cultural obligations to protect country from uranium, or a Bishop praying in an MP’s office in support of refugees.

“These are not radical activists; these are ordinary people standing up for their land, communities the environment, workers rights and social justice. Under this new legislation they would be criminals.

“What is radical and unacceptable is the severe impact on endangered wildlife by native forest logging; plans to mine uranium on Aboriginal land against the wishes of Traditional Owners, and plans by the gas fracking industry to inject millions of liters of toxic chemicals at extreme pressure through our groundwater, in our nature reserves and in our farmland.  That is what should be made a criminal act, not peaceful protest.”

Comment: Piers Verstegen 0411 557 892

Protest-media-crop.jpg

Joint Statement - Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015

On behalfof our staff, members and communities we represent, we the undersigned organisations are gravely concerned by the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015 and the implications it has for advocates, activists and concerned citizens.

Our first concern is the criminalisation of protest. Australians have a long, proud history of peaceful demonstration, which has been instrumental in securing the rights that many of us now take for granted; the right to vote, to a fair wage for a fair day’s work, to a fair price for produce for farmers, and those longstanding campaigns to protect the beautiful places we love, from the Franklin River to the Ningaloo Reef.

We are concerned that the punishments defined in the bill, up to $24000 or 24 months’ imprisonment, will act as a deterrent to lawful and peaceful protests; inhibiting our ability and the ability of all Western Australians to stand up for the people, places and activities they love and to have their voices heard.

Secondly, reversing the onus of proof undermines the fundamental presumption of innocence. Concerned citizens taking political action should not be presumed to have criminal intent. We are concerned that the law is so broadly drafted as to be open to misuse. In criminalizing the possession of a "thing", this law creates a very wide crime and is a threat to civil liberties.

Peaceful demonstration has played an important role in shaping our modern society and we foresee dire consequences of stifling the right to engage in such activity. We are calling on all our parliamentarians to oppose this bill in order to protect our fundamental rights and values.

Signatories:

  • The Western Australian Farmers Federation
  • Community Legal Centres Association of Western Australia
  • Western Australian Council of Social Services (WACOSS)
  • Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University
  • Oxfam Australia
  • The Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission, Anglican Diocese of Perth
  • The Justice, Ecology and Development Office (JEDO), Catholic Archdiocese of Perth
  • The Uniting Church in Western Australia
  • The Church of Christ, Wembley Downs
  • BaptistCare Support Services
  • Unions WA
  • Alliance for a Clean Environment
  • Save Helms Forest
  • Save Mowen Forest
  • Save Our Trees
  • The Conservation Council of Western Australia
  • The Wilderness Society WA
  • Sea Shepherd Australia
  • Margaret River Regional Environment Centre
  • Environs Kimberley
  • Australian Youth Climate Coalition
  • 350.org Australia
  • Hands Off Point Peron
  • Grandmothers Against Removals WA
  • Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance
  • Refugee Rights Action Network
  • People for Nuclear Disarmament
  • Nyoongar Tent Embassy
  • Anti Nuclear Alliance of WA
  • WA Forest Alliance
  • Justice for Reza Barati
  • The Anti-Bigotry Response Team
  • Socialist Alliance WA
  • No Shark Cull
  • No Fracking WAy
  • Stop Live Exports
  • West Australia Nuclear Free Alliance
  • Ban Uranium Mining Permanently (collective)
  • Animal Liberation WA
  • Defending Public Space
  • Counteract
  • Save Beeliar Wetlands
  • Fremantle Refugee Rights Action Network
  • Action for Human Rights Tamil Eelam Sri Lanka (AfHRTESL)
  • Frack Free Kimberley
  • Greens WA
  • Deaths in Custody Watch Committee
  • Busselton-Dunsborough Environment Centre Inc
  • Frack Free Geraldton
  • Friends of the Earth Australia
  • Transition Town Guildford
  • Socialist Alternative
  • Our Land Our Water Our Future Inc
  • FOODwatch
  • Animal Justice Party WA
  • Fremantle Environmenatl Resource Network
  • Carnamah Landcare
  • Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses
  • Fremantle Road to Rail
  • Equal Love WA
  • WA Labor
  • Lock the Gate Alliance
  • Urban Bushland Council WA Inc

Summary of reasons why civil society organisations oppose the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015.

  1. This bill criminalises peaceful protest.  People all over the world and throughout history have engaged in non-violent direct action to establish rights and protect beautiful places. 
  2. This bill applies on private land and on public land. This means that a farmer ‘locking the gate’ to fracking could be convicted of the offence of physically preventing lawful activity, for protecting their own farm.
  3. This bill creates an offence of possessing “a thing” to be used for preventing lawful activity or trespass.  This can apply to literally any thing. This criminalises the possession of ordinary everyday items, and is so broad it could apply to the possession of a pair of shoes.
  4. This bill reverses the onus of proof. In ‘circumstances giving rise to a reasonable suspicion’, anyone charged would have to prove that they did not intend to prevent lawful activity.  The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of our law, and should not be removed for peaceful protesters.  If you were charged would have to prove a negative, about your own thoughts.
  5. This legislation uses very broad terms to create new criminal offences. The offence relates to preventing any “lawful activity”, and to any “thing”. Criminal offences should be drafted specifically to target a crime, not as broadly as possible.
  6. Current laws already give police power to charge people for trespass, to issue a move on notice, and to charge people for failing to comply with a move on notice.  Move on notices can be issued pre-emptively if police are concerned an offence is going to be committed.  There are already a range of offences specific to protesting in forests and on mine sites. Police can already charge activists with ‘conspiracy’ to commit offences.
  7. The bill proposes that a Court can order an individual to pay the cost of police or others removing a physical barrier to lawful activity.  Costs of policing are not passed on to people who commit serious crimes such as murder or rape, and peaceful activists should not face these costs.
  8. This bill sets penalties at 2 years in prison and $24,000 fine. Many protesters have received spent convictions, after convincing the Court that they were motivated by the public interest, and were otherwise law abiding citizens.  Peaceful protestors do not deserve jail.  This penalty is disproportionate to the crime.
  9.  The bill is badly drafted. As well as very broad undefined terms, it includes circular sections imposing higher penalties, and includes a definition of “physically” prevent which seeks to include things well outside the normal definition of “physical”.  Poorly drafted legislation can easily be misused.
  10. Creating an offence of ‘possession of a thing’ could lead to police routinely searching or strip searching peaceful protesters. This would be an oppressive response to peaceful protest.