Western Australia’s proposed laws which make it illegal for protestors to lock themselves to objects are seeing growing opposition.
The tactic is currently one of the methods favoured by anti-mining protest groups, with activists locking themselves to excavators, dozers, trucks, and conveyors across the country.
The current WA state government have stated that the laws are designed to halt the “increasingly dangerous behaviour” of activists, according to The West Australian.
According to the Criminal Code Amendment (prevention of lawful activity ) bill, which seeks to insert to new sections – 68AA and 68AB, it puts people who “physical prevent lawful activity” by means of a physical force, threat of physical force or the creation of maintenance of a physical barrier as now carrying out illegal actions.
The bill makes it illegal to prepare to carry out these activities, or possess materials to do so.
It also puts the onus of proving they did not intend to carry out these proposed ‘illegal’ activities back on the accused.
Proposed penalties range from 12 to 24 months imprisonment and $24,000 to $12,000 fines.
However these laws have been slammed by WA opposition leader Mark McGowan, who said the laws are too broad, so “that walking and marching down the street, objecting or demonstrating outside by a building is caught by that [that anti-protest law]”.
This was rejected by WA attorney-general Michael Mischin.
"I think it covers the field of things that might … frustrate lawful activity," Mischin said.
Although he did admit that farmers working with the Lock the Gate movement on their own land may come under the auspices of the bill.
"If a farmer wants to lock their gate, then so be it, they're entitled to lock their gate,” Mischin said.
"However, whether under this law or any other law they interfere with people's entitlement to enter onto that property, they may be subject to legal process.
"Yes, they could be charged."
Lock the Gate told Australian Mining it wholly opposes these proposed new laws.
"When conservative farmers take action to protect their environment, property and lifestyles by physically refusing access it is clear that people have no other viable alternatives than to Lock their Gate," spokesperson Phil Laird said.
"Conflict over mining in Western Australia and other parts of the country are a symptom of the failure of our laws to protect our precious groundwater and the cherished natural and cultural heritage of Western Australia from the terrible damage that mining can do.
"These laws breach long held principles of justice – reversing the presumption of innocence and making suspicion equal guilt.
"These laws could turn landholders and Traditional Owners into criminals for doing what the government has failed to do: protecting WA from inappropriate mining. The penalties proposed are disproportionate to the inconvenience caused by protesters, especially when contrasted against the devastating effects of mining. "
Traditional land owners also weighed in on the debate.
"The Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Alliance Action Group also understands the dilemma we all face with the introduction of this bill," WAAHAG spokesperson Dr. Anne Poelina told Australian Mining.
"This bill also heavily impacts other land holders, graziers, pastorlists, and farmers, and we need to involve all this group s[in conjunction with traditional land owners] in opposing this bill."
This is not the first time concerns have been raised over activists chaining themselves to objects, particularly on mining operations.
Newcastle magistrate, Elaine Truscott, highlighted similar behaviour by activists protesting coal in the city as hazardous.
She said anyone that did not consider the actions of protestors, who had broken into the Port Waratah Coal loading facility and chained themselves to equipment, to be dangerous was “ignorant and arrogant.”
During the protests, Rising Tide protestors interfered with the coal loader emergency control in the early morning, before climbing and attaching them to the coal loaders as well as the large luffing cables.
When a PWCS worker used the manual controls to restart one of the loaders, protestors who were attached to the cables were dragged towards steel sheeves at the apex of the loader.
PWCS general manager Graham Davidson said “it is high likely that these protestors would have either been crushed or fallen to their deaths if their shouts weren’t heard by the worker, who managed to shut the machine down in time.
“During other site invasions, these activists have fastened themselves to large coal stacking infrastructure and even chained their necks to conveyor belts.
“Most of the equipment at PWCS is automated, remotely operated and fast moving; meaning the chances of horrific injury or death in a split second is extremely high.
NSW Minerals Council CEO Stephen Galilee has also highlighted the dangers of actions such as these.
“Illegally accessing construction sites and mining operations and chaining of people to equipment is risky for all involved. Soft human bodies and heavy machinery don’t mix,” he said
“But these actions have been managed responsibly by workers and emergency services personnel. But as the activists become more desperate we are seeing an escalation of violence, particularly at night.
“Entry gates are regularly barricaded overnight with large fallen trees and stumps. This blocks emergency access and creates traffic hazards. Safety barriers and signs are also being consistently vandalised,” Galilee said.
“In the most alarming recent incident, an unidentified vehicle rammed a security vehicle and caused other damage to property. This endangered the lives of workers and contracted security personnel.
“This circus must end. Protesters have a right to express their view. But workers at these projects have the right to expect their personal safety will not be compromised by people indulging in violent and militant behaviour.”
RMIT professor of institutional economics and a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, Sinclair Davidson, made similar comments on the nature of anti-mining protests, stating that while they have a right to protest they must be accountable for actions which may be dangerous or risky.
“Protest is legitimised by the rule of law, the kind of acceptable behaviour that one might observe in a liberal democracy is very different from that in a dictatorship…many protesters, however, are of the view that they have unlimited licence to protest, that once their intentions are self-declared to be noble that there can be no limit on their behaviour,” he said.
“The thing is this: however noble “saving the planet” might be, in a liberal democracy, under the rule of law, protest must be conducted through both non-violent and non-coercive means. Restricting violence and coercion is a legitimate function of government.”
The WA anti-protest bill is currently tabled.