Rushed SA protest penalties an ‘assault on our democracy’

The state’s peak union body has called on the Malinauskas Labor Government to halt rushed legislation sparked by climate change protests, saying it was designed to “intimidate people out of challenging those in power” amid a growing backlash over the action.

May 19, 2023, updated May 19, 2023
Protestors on the steps of Parliament House yesterday. Photo: Brett Hartwig/InDaily

Protestors on the steps of Parliament House yesterday. Photo: Brett Hartwig/InDaily

SA Unions secretary Dale Beasley called for the government to show “maturity”, saying the passage of “hasty and reactive legislation” rapidly introduced to the Lower House yesterday after an Extinction Rebellion protest hit city traffic should be immediately halted.

The legislative amendments, introduced after midday and passed a short time later, lift the current fine for public obstruction from $750 to $50,000 – 66 times higher – and introduce a penalty of three months jail.

“The government needs to deal with this issue with maturity and should not progress this legislation until the entire community has had an opportunity to understand the impacts,” Beasley said.

“With this legislation, the government is telling South Australians that public assembly and protest are only legitimate when it is convenient for the people in power. That is fundamentally wrong.

“Our rights to assembly and protest exist so that people can disrupt injustice – disruption is the point. Those rights must be upheld. Peaceful but disruptive protests and demonstrations have been integral in achieving so much of what we now take for granted in our society, like the right to vote and elect our leaders.”

The Summary Offences (Obstruction of Public Places) Amendment Bill 2023  includes provisions to allow prosecutors to apply for a court order that the defendant pay the reasonable costs and expenses of the emergency services if required.

It will also update the offence by changing the term “wilfully” to “intentionally or recklessly”, and to make clear that the obstruction can be caused directly or indirectly.

The teacher’s union added its own concerns, saying there had been no consultation and questioning whether peaceful protests blocking traffic in King William Street would now be considered an offence.

Greens MLC Robert Simms said he was “aghast by this assault on our democracy”.

“The Leader of the Opposition calls ABC talkback to announce he has a new bill to crackdown on protests, a moment later the Premier calls in to match it and announces there’s a unity ticket,” Simms said.

“Just a few hours later, a bill has passed the House of Assembly – with Labor and the Liberals waving it through.

“What consultation has there been? What has driven this reform? It’s just pure populism and the implications haven’t been explored by the Lower House at all. “

One woman from Extinction Rebellion was arrested after abseiling from the Morphett Street bridge on Tuesday and affecting traffic, others from the group protested about climate change at the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association national conference in Adelaide.

Yesterday, demonstrators also threw paint on the offices of oil and gas company Santos as they called for more action on climate change.

Their actions led to the Opposition Leader branding the abseil protestor a “greenie, leftie, loser” and drafting the Bill that was later introduced by Malinauskas to State Parliament.

It is another example of governments wrongly thinking they can make problems go away simply by ‘getting tough’.

“We live in a strange world where it’s acceptable for the government to close off parts of the city for months to hold a car race, yet blocking a lane of traffic to protest the climate crisis is apparently a bridge too far,” Simms said.

Human Rights Watch researcher and author Sophie McNeill sent out messages to her more than 64,000 followers on Twitter yesterday condemning the Malinauskas government for its action.

“Even more outrageous: the bill is being rushed through today! 50k fines or 3 months jail This is shameful behaviour by the SA ALP state gov. And it sends a terrible message to our region where authoritarian leaders regularly jail peaceful protesters,” she said.

While UniSA Emeritus Professor of Law Rick Sarre described the legislation as regrettable from a civil libertarian point of view.

“It is another example of governments wrongly thinking they can make problems go away simply by ‘getting tough’,” he said.

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“I fear a knock-on effect that will stifle future public discourse and deter protests by those seeking to bring public attention to their legitimate grievances.”

Sarre said that on the same day the legislation was in parliament, “ironically” the World Meteorological Organisation said there was a 98 per cent chance of the hottest year on record coming within five years, with a 66 per cent chance of exceeding the critical 1.5°C warming threshold for at least one of those years.

More concerns were raised by Conservation Council of SA chief executive Craig Wilkins who said the bill “rushed through the Lower House of State Parliament with extraordinary, unseemly and unnecessary haste, is designed to intimidate community members seeking to protest on public streets”.

“It is intended to have a chilling effect on community action at a time when community concern about human and labour rights and the lack of action on climate change is growing,” he said.

“Throughout history, direct action and street protest has been an essential step towards changing society for the better, whether it is fairer pay for workers, voting rights for women and Aboriginal people or to stop destructive projects like the Franklin dam. 

“However inconvenient it is for the oil and gas industry, and the state government and opposition, climate protesters like Extinction Rebellion calling attention to the climate emergency are on the right side of history.”

This morning on ABC Radio Adelaide, Premier Malinauskas said that legislation was rushed through quickly as there was a “pattern of behaviour” from “offenders” that was impinging on the public, meaning many could not do their job.

As the bill had bipartisan support, he said, it could move through parliament faster and that Extinction Rebellion had “caused inconvenience to South Australians on more than one occasion” particularly to people who travel through the city.

While the Premier said he would “go down in a blaze of glory” protecting the rights of people to “exercise freedom of assembly, peaceful protest, to demonstrate against a government or a parliament or an opposition”, parliament’s action was about addressing a pattern of behaviour.

Malinauskas also referred to yesterday morning’s ER protest in which paint was thrown at the Santos building and a coffee shop was “compromised”, saying the legislation introduced hours later was about increasing a penalty within an Act that is aimed at repeat offenders.

“There is no change to the law here apart from the penalty regime,” he said.

The legislation now has to be approved by the Upper House to come into effect.

Earlier today, Extinction Rebellion posted on its Facebook site that it has made an official complaint to SAPOL regarding Police Commissioner Grant Stevens’ comment about the Morphett St Bridge protest this week.

An Extinction Rebellion protester abseils from Morphett Street bridge above North Terrace earlier this week. Photo: Twitter

A story in the Guardian newspaper quoted the commissioner as saying in relation to attending the protest, “we can’t, as much as we might like to, cut the rope and let them drop”.

“This is a dangerous comment coming from a leader of police. It could be construed as condoning violent actions instead of keeping the peace. Extinction Rebellion thinks that Commissioner Stevens needs to publicly retract and apologise and not let that comment fester in the community,” the post said.

The Law Society of SA said that the public was given no opportunity to examine the legislation.

“It is important in a democratic society that the merits, ramifications and validity of proposed legislation is scrutinised and debated before being put to a vote, especially when the laws affect rights as fundamental as political speech, or where penalties are drastically increased,” state president James Marsh said.

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