Features

An Idiot’s Guide to Proposed WA Anti-Protest Laws

Words by: Jonathon Davidson


Today, the amusingly named Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention Of Lawful Activity) Bill is being debated in West Australian Parliament, and there’s a corresponding protest going on today to match.

The bill, as titled, seeks to amend existing stipulations in the criminal code – specifically, laws surrounding protesters. If passed, the bill will impose harsher punishments on peaceful protesters disrupting ‘lawful activity,’ namely that activity being protested against (think de-foresting protests, or sit-ins at Parliament house.) I refer to the name of the bill as ‘amusing’ for non-violent protesting, up until now, has always been widely regarded as legal and the affable, pro-democratic alternative to rage-filled and ultimately reductive skirmishes on the streets between populaces and authorities. If this bill passes, it will now be in our state’s legislation that peaceful protesters are conducting criminal behaviour.

Yesterday, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner published a media release outlining that three UN rapporteurs appointed to respective fields of human rights had made a statement to West Australian Parliament, ‘urging‘ representative not to pass the bill.

So…what’s actually changing? 

Well, there are two parts to that question. The first is what specific behaviours of protest the bill seeks to eradicate, and the second is the revised set of punishments for anyone who breaches the new standards of ‘peaceful’ protest.

Let’s start with what the bill is trying to make illegal. 

Good choice. What this bill ultimately seeks to eradicate is the ability of protesters to frustrate or delay a development site.  Now, right off the bat, we need to start thinking about this in terms of reality, and not just the face value of what is written in the bill. I’m not going to lie, if you’re kind of just taking information in without much thought, it sounds perfectly reasonable that any group of people deliberately trying to stop something from being built, or deliberately trying to stop an institution from being able to commence operations, are liable to criminal prosecution. But before you move on, I want you to think about this like a protester.

The bill specifically indicates non-violent and peaceful protesters in the amendments for the criminal code. So, from the get-go, we all know that any kind of physical struggle is illegal. We can’t hit cops, you’re not in your rights to go Rambo on public servants, and nor should anyone be able to. So that’s fine, but then you’ve got a more narrow scope of options to engage in a meaningful and effective protest. The bill seeks to make that scope even narrower, and seeks to make a meaningful and effective protest even harder to implement.

How? 

If the bill passes, you may possibly be jailed for over a year and fined over $8,000 for locking yourself onto equipment, trees, or anything that may ‘physically prevent’ activity – thus the name of the laws. Let’s say you were protesting the felling of trees in Cockburn, and you tied yourself to an old gumtree. Under the bill, you are now showing the intent to create a physical barrier in aim to disrupt the procedure of legal activity – remember, that legal activity is the cutting down of the trees you’re protesting – and Police can fully just arrest you on that spot and take you away, even if you’ve been the most polite chap to everyone there. By the way, that physical barrier can be something like a locked gate on private property.

Primarily, environmental activists are most at risk, but the amendment is so broad that the laws could be used in any number of situations. Essentially, the parameters of ‘peace’ in a peaceful protest have become far more shallow.

I’m still not seeing the issue. 

Disturbing. The essential problem here is that if we’re going to make on-site peaceful and non-violent protests illegal then there’s pretty much nothing else we can do as citizens to show a degree of power against executive decisions that the people do not want. A society where citizens are able to do that, by the way, is known as a Democracy, and all of us were brought up getting told that it’s the bees knees. In essence, this amendment to the criminal code seeks to de-legitimise the right of citizens to express a collective will against  big money development and government in general.

If we can’t lock ourselves to a tree, construct a physical barrier, or possess any “thing” related to the protest, then what the hell is there that we can do?

Wait, what do you mean you can’t have a protest “thing”? 

Section 68AB (1) of the Bill states:

A person must not make, adapt or knowingly possess a thing for the purpose of using it, or enabling it to be used, in the commission of — (a) an offence under section 68AA; or (b) an offence under section 70A. Penalty: imprisonment for 12 months and a fine of $12 000.

What this will go on to be interpreted as by prosecutors in the future, assuming this bill passes, one can only guess. Flags, banners, maybe something like the corrugated iron sheet featured in the feature image for this article. Of all the vague and broad wording contained in the amendment, this is the most alarming.

Are they seriously proposing a year’s imprisonment for a non-violent protest? 

Yep. And a $12,000 fine. And that goes up to two years and a $24,000 fine if committed in ‘circumstances of aggravation.’ Again, these are peaceful protesters we’re talking about – that isn’t an increased fine for “being violent,” it’s only for circumstances of aggravation – maybe like ignoring the first warning from a police officer. And that’s why the UN are taking interest in this. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to defend human and environmental rights are all at threat under this bill, and all from the tricky clause of making ‘preventive activity’ illegal. Of course, a protest inherently prevents the normal pace of things by definition – it’s a contention, it’s the momentary stagnation of a constant to bring attention and awareness to an issue. This is the very nature of protest, and the amendment seeks to makes it illegal.

This is not a patch-up policy being implemented under public pressure to go unspoken beyond it’s implementation. This is a long-tabled bill that was originally introduced to Parliament last year, with its second reading occurring last February. Today, it’s being debated again.

So if it does pass, what’s going to change? 

Will we wake up in a dystopian world of oppressive silence the morning after the bill passes? Obviously not, but we will wake up in a state where the legislation is there for the swift removal of protesters off the streets and into jail for two years – if you look at the pattern of human history, jailing political dissenters has never been a particularly promising precursor to upcoming decades of freedom.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking nothing exciting happens in Perth – checking the parliament website each morning for the daily schedule can fill you in a great deal.