The changes are strongly opposed by human rights, environmental and civil liberties groups. In October, the Environmental Defenders Office filed a legal challenge to the laws in the NSW Supreme Court.
The City of Sydney motion was moved by the Deputy Mayor Greens Sylvie Ellsmore and seconded by Independent Councillor Jess Scully at a Council meeting on November 21.
Lord Mayor backs motion
It was strongly supported by Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who will now write to the NSW government and Labor opposition, expressing support for repealing the laws and the right to peaceful protest and calling on NSW police to stop heavy handed policing of protests.
Despite both major parties voted for the laws, Labor Councillor Linda Scott and two Liberal councillors Lyndon Gannan and Shauna Jarrett voted for the motion.
Crr Ellsmore told the meeting that the laws meant that protesters face up to two years in jail or a $20,000 fine if they are arrested for ‘obstruction’ which the law defines very broadly. She said that the laws apply to “most of the roads in the city” and that people have been arrested for protesting in Bridge St and Kent St.
She described how the laws are being used to prevent protest with people being kept in jail for up to twenty days pending bail before they had even attended a protest. “People are being preemptively policed to prevent them from doing something they might have been planning to do…It’s difficult not to say that these laws are designed to intimidate and shut down climate protests at a time when we need to be having this conversation about radical changes we need to take around climate.”
Militarised police response
Her motion also drew attention to ‘Strike Force Guard’, a militarised police unit that was formed at the time the laws were passed. The unit targets environmental campaigners before they protest. It noted that the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and other human rights groups have written to the NSW government expressing concern about “pre-emptive and intimidatory police tactics leading up to the International Mining and Resources Conference held” in Sydney in early November 2022, including “making unannounced visits to suspected activists’ homes, car stops and searches, and arrests of climate activists and networks prior to the event”.
Seconding the motion, Councillor Jess Scully said, “It’s really disturbing that at a time when …we have an escalating sense of urgency around some of the biggest issues that we are facing in relation to climate change, racism, polarisation of our community, and social inequality, we are actually seeing the major parties criminalising protest in spaces where we have traditionally come together for generations to protest together.”
She said it was “really disappointing that both the Labour and Liberal parties in NSW supported this legislation. It’s really disappointing that only the Independents and Greens voted against this legislation in NSW.”
Labor Councillor Linda Scott also spoke in favour of the motion.
“It was a disgrace to see protest laws of this kind in NSW,” she said. She complained that Councils were not consulted on the laws which “set a dangerous precedent in NSW”.
Before putting the motion, Lord Mayor Clover Moore expressed her strong support for repeal of the laws which “deny democratic rights” and were rushed through parliament with little consultation. She said that the laws had been passed to appease the radio shock jocks who were focussed on disruption to traffic.
She compared traffic disruption to “the suffering of people who have lost their homes and their loved ones in floods. They would see that as a more serious. We are in a climate emergency – this is what it’s all about. It’s not just about someone getting to work late, these are young people and they care about their future and they are scared about their future and they have every right to stand up and protest without being arrested.”
Cr Ellsmore told City Hub, “Every time Australia restricts basic rights to democracy, including the right to peaceful protest, it makes it harder to argue that we want to see change anywhere else in the world. Restricting the right to peaceful protesting is undemocratic, and having violent police crackdowns on them, will severely damage Australia’s international standing on the global stage, especially when calling out other, much more serious forms of human rights abuses in other countries, such as North Korea.”
During climate protests in June and July, many members of activist group Blockade Australia were arrested and faced charges.
“Protesters being sentenced to 2 years in prison or being charged $20,000 because their peaceful protest was making people late to work for 1 day is completely out of whack” Ellsmore said.
Council for Civil Liberties welcomes City of Sydney Motion
NSW Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) is part of a large coalition of civil, human and environmental rights campaigning for the repeal of the laws. Its President Josh Pallas said CCL was “heartened to see the City of Sydney Council taking a unanimous strong position in favour of the right to protest and standing with climate protestors.The City of Sydney has historically been the site of significant protest action and this motion reaffirms the Council’s support to ensure that this continues.
NSWCCL was pleased to see Councillor Scott from the Labor Party speak strongly in favour of the motion and call on whoever forms government next year to reconsider the recent anti-protest laws and Crs Jarrett and Gannon from the Liberal Party vote in favour of the motion. We hope that each of their votes were not just virtue signals but are coupled with direct action within their parties to agitate for repeal of these laws.”