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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Michael McGowan and Tamsin Rose

Documents reveal ‘scramble’ to rubber-stamp NSW bill targeting climate protests

Protesters outside Downing Centre Court in Sydney.
Protesters rally in support of jailed climate activist Violet Coco in Sydney today. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The bill that led to climate activist Deanna “Violet” Coco being jailed for 15 months had not even made it through the New South Wales parliament in April when the offices of multiple ministers were pushing to have it rubber-stamped by the state’s governor.

Documents obtained by Guardian Australia reveal how the governor, Margaret Beazley, agreed to return to her office about 11pm after a function in April to sign off on the laws after a senior public servant complained he was “copping it from absolutely every direction”.

The late-night signoff capped a mad scramble to push the laws through state parliament after a media furore over climate protests that had stalled Sydney peak hour traffic and halted operations at the Port Botany.

It took only two days for the bill to be voted through the NSW parliament with the support of the Labor opposition. It was first introduced only a week after deputy premier and police minister, Paul Toole, held two press conferences on the same day promising harsher punishments.

The government also took the unusual step of recalling the parliament for an extra sitting day to head off an attempted filibuster by the Greens.

Emails show that senior advisers in the offices of the premier, Dominic Perrottet, roads minister, Natalie Ward, and the attorney general, Mark Speakman, were all seeking to fast-track its assent with the governor.

NSW Greens MP Abigail Boyd said the rush to have the laws passed showed they were “a kneejerk reaction”.

“It was an absolute rush, they smashed it through parliament in a couple of days and it’s clear it was an absolute scramble,” she said.

“They’re incredibly bad laws. They were poorly drafted and rushed through by a government who were terrified by climate protesters but more so by shock jocks and tabloid newspapers.”

The laws, which introduced dramatic new penalties for protesters who block roads, bridges and tunnels, were subject to fierce criticism from a coalition of unions, civil liberties groups and environmental activists when they passed through the state’s parliament with bipartisan support.

But the sentencing of Coco on Friday to a minimum of eight months’ jail for a protest on Sydney’s Harbour Bridge in April has sparked a renewed push for the laws to be repealed.

On Monday protesters gathered outside NSW parliament to campaign against the laws while Sydney’s mayor, Clover Moore, called the sentence “a sad day for democratic expression and will have a chilling effect on climate activism”.

“Our law should not limit protest or be used to intimidate those who speak up for their communities and their future,” said Moore, who last month supported a motion at the City of Sydney council calling for them to be repealed.

“Traffic disruptions can be inconvenient, we are told, but dangerous flooding or fires and the increased prevalence and severity of extreme weather events caused by climate change are devastating.

“Climate change is the most urgent, threatening issue of our time, and the increasing criminalisation of those who want governments and corporations to take this threat seriously is incredibly troubling.”

Both the government and opposition dismissed criticisms on Monday, with Perrottet saying the jail sentence was “pleasing to see”.

The NSW Labor leader, Chris Minns, said he did not regret supporting the laws, a move which angered some on his backbench at the time.

“When you inconvenience literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people as often as possible in consecutive days, there will be legislative action in relation to that,” he said.

However, Darcy Byrne, the mayor of the Inner West council and a member of the Labor left who been critical of his party’s support for the laws, said there was “major disquiet” within the party over the bill.

“This draconian jail sentence demonstrates that the concerns of unions, party activists and members, expressed just weeks ago at the party conference, were utterly legitimate,” Byrne said.

He called on others to speak out against the “reactionary laws” and commit to reviewing them if the party forms government in March.

In federal parliament, the independent senator David Pocock, who was arrested in 2014 for chaining himself to mining equipment in a protest against a new coalmine, criticised the laws for falling on the “wrong side” of balancing the “importance and value of protest and civil disobedience against the inconvenience it can cause to everyday life”.

“We look to China and Iran with disbelief at how protesters are treated abroad. But democracy is fragile and ours is not immune,” he said.

“We must protect our ability to disagree, to voice dissent publicly and, if needed, to protest.”

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