Inner West Labor votes down call for repeal of anti-protest laws

Inner West Labor votes down call for repeal of anti-protest laws
Image: Climate change campaigners Knitting Nanas call for repeal of anti-protest laws


Inner West Labor used their narrow majority to defeat a motion calling for repeal of NSW’s draconian anti-protest laws at the Inner West Council (IWC) meeting last week.

The laws, which are part of the Roads and Crimes Act, threaten protesters who peacefully obstruct a road or block the entrance to train stations, roads, ports and public and private infrastructure with up to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine. Aimed at stopping the use of peaceful civil disobedience in climate change and other protests, the laws were rushed through the NSW Parliament with Labor’s support in April last year.

Inner West Councillor and Greens candidate for Balmain Kobi Shetty moved a motion calling for the Mayor Darcy Byrne to write to the Attorney General and Shadow Attorney General calling for the repeal of the laws and an end to heavy handed policing of protestors.

IWC Councillor and Greens candidate for Balmain, Kobi Shetty

The motion echoed the demand of a large coalition of more than 40 environmental and civil society organisations and unions calling for the repeal of the laws.  A similar motion was passed unanimously by the City of Sydney Council last year.

Moving the motion, Shetty branded the laws as “disgraceful”.

“We know that many of the rights that we enjoy today, particularly for women and other minorities have been won through peaceful protest. It was not so long ago that women were not allowed to vote, let alone be sitting here in the council chamber representing our local communities. It was not so long ago that workers were employed in terrible, unsafe working conditions with minimal pay. It was not so long ago that much of the heritage and green space in this beautiful city was under threat. It is peaceful protest that have won us women’s rights, workers’ rights, and have saved some of our most valuable places from demolition and destruction,” she said.

Shetty described the community as facing  “an existential crisis” which has led to grandparents chaining themselves to bulldozers, climate scientists stopping traffic, and young people “crying out out for decision makers to listen to them, and to protect their futures.” In this context, she argued that it is not unreasonable to take “action in the form of peaceful protest to get powerful governments and corporations to start listening.”

During the period at the beginning of the meeting in which community members can contribute to councillors’ understanding of issues, local resident and member of Legal Observers NSW Anastasia Radievska reported on how the laws were already having a “serious impact on the capacity of community groups to organise protest actions, even where they have every intention of ensuring that the protest occurs in a peaceful and organised way.”

For example, she explained that an Australian Religious Response to Climate Change was threatened with the use of the new laws against a peaceful protest on the footpath if pedestrians had to walk around the protest.

“Let’s remember that a protest which individuals can walk around is defined as disruption under the new laws. The fact that protestors can face a jail term for this kind of conduct is manifestly unfair and illogical,” she said.

Legal observer Anastasia Radievska chairing protest against jailing of Violet Coco in 2022

Radievska also drew Councillors attention to the fact that “these laws not only have an impact on people organising a protest, but also on anyone who is politically active.” In October last year over 40 people across Australia were visited, searched or questioned by police in relation to protests around a mining conference in Sydney. Those questioned included a 16-year-old on their way home from a peaceful climate rally, the relatives of activists, and university climate collective members. Several people were told that the police would keep coming back to their home until they were available to answer their questions. The vast majority of those questioned had no intention of protesting at the conference, with some not even knowing it was on. 

Seconder of the Greens’ motion, Greens Councillor Dylan Griffiths, took up the issue of how NSW police are using the laws as an excuse to harass people.  He spoke about how three police had unexpectedly visited an Inner West acquaintance. They [the police] asked him if he was planning to attend a protest. The acquaintance explained that he had never heard of the protest. In response to further questions he told them he had previously been involve in climate change organising. The police left after warning him that if he attended the protest, he could be committing an offence. Griffiths described this as a “stressful” experience that smacked of police using “intimidatory tactics”.

Both Independent Councillors Pauline Lockie and John Stamolis supported the Greens position. Lockie said she was horrified when Labor supported the laws last year. She drew on her own experiences as an anti-WestConnex protestor to explain how peaceful protesters who blocked gates of an infrastructure project in 2017 would now risk prison terms in 2023. She said she was disturbed by witnessing police violence that undermines the community’s trust in police. 

Labor removes reference to “heavy handed policing” 

IWC Labor Councillor and Professor of Law Tim Stephens then moved an amendment that removed sections of the motion that called for repeal and reference to ‘heavy handed’ policing. Although supporting the right to protest, he prefers to leave any further consideration of the laws to a ‘statutory review’ that is scheduled to take place in 2024. He said he believed this was the appropriate time when “a judgement can sensibly be made about whether these laws are appropriate or effective or should be retained or repealed.”

All eight Labor councillors voted for Stephen’s amendment with all 5 Greens and 2 Independents voting against it. It was carried 8-7 votes meaning that the motion was passed in a drastically watered down form in which it still supports the right to protest and the 2024 review of the laws which is scheduled to happen in any case.

NSW CCL says Labor’s preference for ‘statutory review’ is a slap in the face to protestors

Civil Liberties Council President Josh Pallas says Labor’s preference for statutory review is “a slap in the face to all protestors to say that they just have to grin and bear the threat posed by these laws for the next two years”.

In response to a question from City Hub about whether he thought a statutory review in 2024 was a sufficient response to problems with the laws, he replied, “Peaceful protest is not a crime, even when it is disruptive. No one should face charges under these laws which threaten democratic participation…These laws should never have passed in the first place, and no amount of time in force will change that. It’s a great shame that the Inner West Council didn’t show the courage in standing up to the NSW government and opposition who supported these laws, in calling for their repeal.”

Are you OK with a state in which peaceful protesters are threatened with jail?

At the end of her speech, Radievska posed a question to Councillors:

My question for members of this council is – are you ok with living in a state where citizens expressing their political views in a peaceful way, in a way that has built the foundations of the 8 hour work day and women’s right to vote and rights for First Nations people in this country, are you ok with citizens who do that being threatened with jail time, harassed at their homes by police and intimidated out of political participation? Because that is the situation these laws have created and that is the situation that will continue to get worse if we don’t take action to protect protest in this state.

It seems that for the eight Labor councillors the answer is YES – or at least until the statutory view which would not even begin until  2024  and even then a statutory review could very well decide to leave the laws in place.

Inner West Local Labor has sometimes claimed that they are not bound by or do not agree with NSW Labor’s policies. But even if that is the case, on this occasion, Labor Councillors declined an opportunity to take a stand against what the Human Rights Law Centre has called a “concerning trend nationwide of bipartisan support for regressive legislation that further criminalises peaceful community activists.

If elected to replace Jamie Parker as MP for Balmain, Shetty says she’ll work for an urgent repeal of the laws which is Greens’ policy.

The best chance for any restoration of the right to protest in NSW is the election of a minority government in which Greens and progressive Independents such as Alex Greenwich hold the balance of power. 

Wendy Bacon is a retired Professor of Journalism and is supports the repeal of the anti protest laws and Greens candidates in the NSW election.

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