A new anti-protest bill currently being debated in the Western Australian Legislative Council is starting to create a bit of a furore, due largely to its vague language and the reasons for its introduction. The Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill 2015 will make it an offence to “make, adapt or knowingly possess a thing for the purpose of using it, or enabling it to be used, in the commission of… the physical prevention of lawful activity.” That’s right, “things” are being made illegal! Furthermore, if passed, the bill will outlaw “physically preventing a lawful activity”, with no definition of what this “lawful activity” might be, or how one might “physically prevent” it.
In the explanatory memorandum, specific reference is made to thumb-locks, arm-locks, and chain-locks, which are the articles the government claims it is targeting with this amendment, but if the government wants to target these articles, why not state so in the bill? As it stands, the amendment proposes that “A person must not, with the intention of preventing a lawful activity that is being, or is about to be, carried on by another person, physically prevent that activity… through the creation of a physical barrier, physical force, or the threat of physical force”. Hugh de Krester of the Human Rights Law Centre has noted that depending on how the law is interpreted by courts, gatherings of people could be criminalised, as could picket lines, simply because the mere presence of human bodies may create a physical barrier. The language in this proposed bill is so vague it could basically serve to criminalise all physical barriers that might impede “lawful activity”.
There is a serious side to the vague language of this amendment, especially when it comes to the ways it could be used by the government to enforce the interests of big business over those of ordinary citizens. For example, in recent months, staunch opposition to coal seam gas exploration and hydraulic gas fracturing (fracking) has led to the Lock The Gate movement in Queensland, in which farmers are locking their gates and denying access to gas exploration companies. Under the proposed bill, it would become a criminal offence to deny this access. Farmers who didn’t want drilling rigs on their property could be imprisoned or fined $12,000. The government says that this is not what this bill will do, however there is absolutely nothing in the wording of the bill to rule this out.
WA Labor’s Hon Darren West suggested in parliament that if the government wants to stop people locking themselves to machinery, they could introduce a “stop chaining yourself to pieces of machinery bill”, or tailor the existing move-on notice provisions to deal with protesters who can’t move on because of their own actions. This would definitely be more palatable, however it doesn’t really address the fundamental problem of why people are driven to this form of protest in the first place. People protest because they are passionate about something, and feel compelled to have their voices heard in situations where they would otherwise be ignored. The government’s response has been to attempt to silence those voices. By continuously amending laws to fight the “evolving tactics” of protesters, they are simply driving protesters to more and more desperate methods.
The suffragette movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century won women the right to vote, however it was a hard-fought battle in which many activists were beaten, imprisoned, and killed. Women were arrested for obstruction when unfurling banners in parliament, chained themselves to the railings of the prime minister’s residence, were imprisoned, and driven to hunger strikes. They suffered to have their voices heard, in an age when their politicians did not represent them, and they did not even have the power to elect ones who might. It seems even more appropriate to mention this struggle, given that in this country at the moment, our Minister for Women is a man whose self-proclaimed greatest achievement in that role has been “scrapping the carbon tax”, given his belief that the “housewives of Australia” will be utterly thrilled that the cost of ironing has decreased. But I digress. The important point here is that protest has been an indispensable method for effecting positive change for hundreds of years, and by criminalising peaceful protest the government is showing its utter contempt for the citizens of this state.
When given the example of the suffragette movement in parliament, the Attorney General stated simply: “But they were considered criminals back then.” Yes, they were. They were criminals for daring to voice their opinions in the only way that was left available to them. And this Michael Mischin would see them be considered criminals again.
This bill is supposedly to prevent the “increasingly dangerous behaviour of some protesters”, but really what it does is criminalise anyone the government wants to criminalise. There is no provision to exclude picket-lines, sit-ins, or any other forms of peaceful protest. It makes it an offence to “physically prevent lawful activity” or to possess a “thing” with the intention of “physically preventing a lawful activity”. Of course, due to this vague language, the bill can be used for valiant means as well, such as getting rid of all those annoying people who stand in doorways, or take up all the room on escalators. If they are creating a barrier that physically prevents you from carrying out lawful activity, then kindly inform them that they are liable for a $12,000 fine unless they get out of the way. If they turn around and say “oi nah fuck off”, let them know if the offence is committed in circumstances of aggravation, the penalty is imprisonment for 24 months and a fine of $24,000. I’m sure that will go swimmingly. Or say your brother/sister/roommate is taking too long in the bathroom, and has the sheer audacity to lock the door, thus prevent you from brushing your teeth before uni, feel justified in calling the police and informing them of this dreadful physical barrier. I expect they’ll be there with angle-grinders and sledge-hammers before you can say “This isn’t a valuable use of police resources”.
Words by Ed Smith