Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016

I oppose the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016. It should probably be called the anti-protest bill. I am proud to stand with Labor on this side of the House where we remain committed to ensuring that the people of New South Wales are able to exercise their right to communicate their views and ideas on matters of concern through protest. The Government pretends this bill is simply about protecting the safety of protesters who are anti-coal or anti-coal seam gas [CSG]. What a load of rubbish! But I will talk more about that later.

 A protest is quintessentially an expression of opposition, a disapproval or discontent. Protesting is normally regarded as an integral part of a democratic process. However, the Baird Government views protest as a threat to social order, and an impediment to business and economic growth. In New South Wales in recent times the mining of coal and coal seam gas has been a particular focus of protest activity. This activity has left the Baird Government feeling threatened and in the firing line of frustrated mining companies. So, we now see the introduction of this legislation that is aimed at deterring protest activity that interferes with the operation of the mining industry, as well as a whole heap of other things.

While the word "protest" typically evokes images of large street marches, these laws are designed to intimidate and hinder smaller groups of protesters too. Not even the Knitting Nannas will escape the grasp of these laws. If passed the Knitting Nannas could be fined $5,500 for simply using knitting as a tool for non-violent political activism to stand up for what they feel is important. I suppose holding a knitting needle could be seen as a safety issue, but who knows? When the Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy was asked to guarantee that the anti-protest laws would not see the forcible removal and arrest of peaceful community protesters like the Knitting Nannas, he responded in one word—no. His brief response reflects the Government's lack of will to uphold the right of the people of New South Wales of political expression and communication. The common law right to assembly—usually called the right to protest—can be traced back 800 years to the signing of the Magna Carta.

The right has been expressly recognised by Australian courts, including the High Court of Australia and the New South Wales Supreme Court, in terms that illustrate an acceptance of the role of protests as part of democratic systems of government. As these courts have said, freedom of assembly and speech are important democratic rights, precious democratic rights and common law freedoms. Peaceful assemblies are perfectly reasonable and entirely acceptable modes of behaviour in a democracy, and peaceful assemblies are integral to a democratic system of government and way of life. The right to protest is further protected by the Australian Constitution, as the High Court has interpreted it as providing an implied freedom of political communication. Public protesting in New South Wales has been a socially important and influential part of New South Wales history for more than 200 years. These protests have, on occasion, involved civil disobedience and breaches of laws. However, what is more common is more often than not these protests have widespread and overwhelming community support.

We need only cast our minds back a few weeks to when in this very place we stood to apologise to the 78ers. This protest in 1978 saw 53 people taken by police to the Darlinghurst police station where they were charged under the Summary Offences Act. It was this protest that paved the way for decades of law reform for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex [LGBTQI] community. What about the Freedom Riders who fought for Indigenous rights? They stood protesting for hours and hours at segregated areas such as pools, parks and pubs, which raised a mixed reception in country towns. Their protest was a catalyst for the 1967 referendum removing discriminatory sections from the Australian Constitution and enabling the Federal Government to take direct action in Aboriginal affairs. The legislation before us today could well have worked to stand in the way of the Freedom Riders. Had the suffragettes not been allowed to protest for the right to vote and then stand for Parliament, women may not have had the opportunity to debate this bill today.

My electorate of Charlestown has used protests as a means to keep issues in the public's eye, one such example being the Reclaim the Beach rally. This peaceful action, which possibly would have been caught by this bill, led to the establishment of the Belmont Wetlands State Park. Change does not happen unless people speak out, and protest is one of the ways that people do this. The Freedom Riders, the suffragettes, the 78ers, the Knitting Nannas and the Reclaim the Beach rally prove that protests are where pioneers are born. It is their outspokenness that paves the way for law reform. Their activism shifts community attitudes. They are the grassroots for change.

Let us look at the current laws in New South Wales regarding protesting. There is the Summary Offences Act 1988; the Crimes Act 1900; the Inclosed Lands Protection Act 1901; the Forestry Act 2012, and the Mining Act 1992, alongside common law and many site-specific provisions that already deal sufficiently with the right to assembly and ensuring safety of person and property. If criminal activity does take place and miners or coal seam gas proponents suffer loss they have the ability to sue the protesters and claim damages. People can be charged for breach of the peace, which is found to have occurred when harm is actually done or likely to be done.

The Summary Offences Act provides that it is an offence for a person without reasonable excuse to wilfully prevent in any manner the free passage of a person, vehicle or vessel in a public place. The Summary Offences Act also states that a person must not conduct him or herself in an offensive manner in or near or within view or hearing from a public place or a school. The Crimes Act provides that it is an offence to knowingly join or continue to be part of an unlawful assembly. Another section of the Crimes Act provides for the offence of affray, which is committed when a person uses or threatens unlawful violence towards another. And protesters who intentionally or recklessly destroy or damage public property or the property of another person are, under section 195 (1) (a) of the Crimes Act, liable to imprisonment for up to five years. Finally, if people are trespassing the existing law concerning trespass is perfectly adequate.

This list is not exhaustive. It touches only on the vast range of checks and balances that are already in place. The extensive amount of legislation that is currently in place to deal with protests goes to show that these amendments are excessive and over the top. These amendments are not aimed at improving the safety of police or protesters, they are aimed at silencing those with opposing views. The wording of the amendments is vague, and could be misused and manipulated to suit different people depending upon their interests. Let us be clear: The Liberal-Nationals Government claims this legislation is all about safety around mining and coal seam gas operations.

Let us look at the definition of "inclosed lands" used in the 1901 Act to which this amendment applies. An inclosed land means a prescribed premise, which is a school, childcare centre, hospital or nursing home, or any land either public or private, inclosed or surrounded by any fence, wall or other erection or partly by a fence, wall or other erection and partly by a canal or some other natural feature, such as a river or cliff, by which its boundaries may be known or recognised, including the whole or part of any building or structure and any land occupied or used in connection with the whole or part of any building or structure.

Inclosed land covers pretty much any land with any kind of fence around it. The Baird Government no longer seeks to represent the interests of the people of New South Wales, it is legislating with developers, mining companies and casinos in mind. This bill opens the floodgates for the Government to shut down any peaceful protest. It is shameful that earlier this month it was reported that the Baird Government gave regulators discretion to reduce fines for coal seam gas companies who explore for gas without a permit from $1.1 million to as little as $5,500. Today they seek to increase fines for protestors conducting civil disobedience peacefully protesting by a factor of 10 from $550 to $5,500 and those people are likely to be facing compensation claims. It is another example of The Nationals failing to represent their constituents, the ones that this bill will impact the greatest. I join with me colleagues on this side of the House in condemning the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016.