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Michael Bradley

Climate protester’s sentence is half that of Grace Tame’s abuser’s. Is this justice?

Two convicted criminals were in the news this week, and their stories will do just as well as any to illustrate my point.

Deanna “Violet” Coco is incarcerated, denied bail and sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment — with a non-parole period of eight months — for blocking traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, possessing an orange flare in a public place and resisting police (not violently; she just refused to move on). Coco was protesting to raise awareness of climate change.

Nicolaas Bester was in court in Hobart on Monday, charged with three counts of using a carriage service to menace or harass former Australian of the Year Grace Tame. Bester was Tame’s high school teacher. He groomed and serially raped her over six months when she was 15. It was not, to be clear, a relationship. On arrest police found 28 pieces of child pornography.

In 2011, Bester was sentenced to 34 months in prison for “maintaining a sexual relationship” with a child and possessing child exploitation material. He was released after one year and eight months. In 2016, Bester boasted on Facebook about his crimes — “She was 15 going on 25 … It was awesome” — and was sent back to jail for another four months.

Bester’s crimes were horrific and appalling, deserving of condemnation and punishment. The sentence he received reflected what our society considers to be just deserts for his actions.

Coco’s sentence has reflected the same thing; it cannot be otherwise. 

Earlier this year, the NSW government passed laws increasing the maximum penalties for protesters who disrupt traffic to fines of $22,000 and prison terms of two years. These are strict liability offences; mess up peak hour on a major artery and you are facing jail time. The NSW crackdown has been mirrored in other states.

The magistrate who sentenced Coco described her protest as “childish stunts” and “selfish emotional actions” that had made an “entire city suffer”. The point the court was making, essentially, was that crimes are crimes. 

Her lawyer pleaded in mitigation that she had been in a high state of emotion due to her anxiety about government inaction on climate change. That angered the court, with the magistrate recording that Coco was “not a political prisoner” but a criminal.

The judiciary, in sentencing, seeks to apply consistency to two imperatives: government policy and public tolerance. On both counts, so far as the prevailing majority view goes, Coco’s magistrate was on the money.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet wasn’t in any doubt after the sentencing, saying that “if protesters want to put our way of life at risk they should have the book thrown at them and that’s pleasing to see”. As for the talkback view, Coco is just lucky that flogging’s been abolished.

Much can be said about the absolute proportionality of Coco’s sentence, in that objectively it is an extremely harsh penalty for a non-violent act. It also ignores a truth: that large social change only ever comes from relatively radical action. The status quo never reforms itself. To be trite about it, Martin Luther King Jr blocked traffic on a bridge too. In Selma.

Climate change is an existential crisis to those who believe it exists at all. Drawing attention to it, and to the urgency of action that is not happening — or not urgently enough — requires measures beyond the passive and polite.

My point, however, is not absolute but relative. What we choose to treat as a crime, and how we choose to punish it, says much about us as a society. We can’t avoid this.

I’m not arguing that we increase the punishment for child sex offenders, although I’m also not defending any of the case studies I’ve cited. I am arguing that it is absurd we treat Coco’s crimes in the same ballpark as child sexual abuse, or arguably one that is more deserving of punishment.

What, actually, are our values? Whose interests do we treat as those most deserving of protection and vindication? Forget about the punitive aspect of punishment and focus on what these crimes represent. The anomaly is glaring.

I’m not so naïve as to pretend that relative consistency is ever achievable in sentencing. It can never make complete sense because it is subjective and too big to manage. (There’s a case to be made that artificial intelligence would do a better job of getting this right than human judges, but, again, not my point.)

It will always be messy, but when we see something standing out like a sore thumb, we should call it out. The anti-protest laws are exactly that. 

Many writers, including me, said they were excessive when they were rushed through, and Coco’s case exemplifies why. Whether or not you think what she did should be a crime, it’s a big stretch to say that she got what she deserved.

Does the punishment fit the crime? Let us know your thoughts by writing to Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity. 

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