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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Michael McGowan

NSW government urged to halt new bill targeting road-blocking protesters

NSW attorney general Mark Speakman
NSW attorney general Mark Speakman wants stronger penalties for protesters who block major roads and ports but rights groups say the proposed laws are ‘draconian’. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

A coalition of unions, environmentalists and human rights groups have called for the New South Wales parliament to halt a hastily drafted bill that would see protesters who block major roads, ports or train stations face up to two years in prison.

The attorney general Mark Speakman on Wednesday afternoon introduced legislation into the NSW parliament to dramatically increase penalties for people who cause “damage or disruption” on major roads or other transport assets across the state.

First flagged last week, the bill was introduced on Wednesday in response to a series of climate protests that disrupted Port Botany in recent weeks.

The bill introduces fines of up to $22,000 and jail time of up to two years for anyone who “enters, remains on, climbs, jumps from or otherwise trespasses” major roads in the state and “seriously disrupts or obstructs vehicles or pedestrians”.

The same punishment would also apply to anyone who “trespasses on or blocks entry to any part” of a major facility, including Port Botany, the Port of Newcastle or public transport assets such as train stations.

The government was seeking to rush the bill through the parliament’s lower house on Wednesday despite immediate alarm from unions and human rights organisations.

Just hours after the government flagged the introduction of the bill, the head of Unions NSW called for the parliament to “pause and reconsider” because, he said, it risked criminalising industrial campaigns.

“As the law is currently drafted any nurse, paramedic or truck driver who sits down on Macquarie Street to campaign for their rights at work faces two years of gaol,” Unions NSW secretary Mark Morey said.

“That is unacceptable. Parliament needs to pause and reconsider the laws.”

The bill also prompted 39 environmentalist and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Australian Council of Social Service, to send an open letter calling for the legislation to be blocked.

“Protest marchers on city roads and union groups taking action at industrial sites could come under the umbrella of these draconian laws,” the letter stated.

“Everyone from school kids marching for climate action to anti-war protesters would run the risk of incurring these penalties when they set out on a march.

“Such laws are incompatible with the democratic right to protest and our fundamental civil liberties.”

While the bill flagged on Wednesday does not mention protest activity, the legislation is aimed at climate protesters who have caused disruptions across Sydney, including repeated blockades of Port Botany and the Spit Bridge in the city’s north.

A one-page briefing distributed to MPs on Wednesday afternoon said the penalties would apply to people who “participate in illegal protests” and specifically mentions those actions. The government’s briefing claims those actions are likely to have cost the economy “millions of dollars through direct economic loss and lost productivity”.

The government plans to push the legislation through the lower house on today after Labor said it would support the bill with amendments to carve out industrial action.

The Greens have also signalled they will seek to obstruct the bill’s passage on Wednesday night by moving a series of amendments. Jamie Parker, the party’s MP for Balmain, said attempt to rush the bill through parliament was “the opposite of how good laws are made”.

“The government did nothing when there were thousands of right-wing anti-lockdown protesters blocking the streets during lockdown. It’s only when climate activists take action that the government says we need draconian laws to stop them,” Parker said.

“The government is planning to force a vote on this bill just hours after it was introduced. There’s barely been enough time for members to read it let alone consult with stakeholders or have a proper debate in the parliament.

“The government doesn’t have a clear majority so they wouldn’t be ramming this through unless they knew that they have the overall support of the Labor Party.”

Last week, the government introduced similar penalties covering people who blockade tunnels and bridges. Those changes did not need legislation to introduce because the government was able to expand an existing regulation covering the Harbour Bridge.

But the changes failed to discourage activists from climate group Blockade Australia. Nine of its members were arrested over five days last week as it conducted a series of protests seeking to disrupt Port Botany.

Other protesters from the group Fireproof Australia have recently caused traffic havoc after blockading Manly’s Spit Bridge during peak hour.

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