Former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown has recently convincingly argued the history of Australian State Governments engaging in passing laws which outlaw effective political protest.

In an article in The Saturday Paper 19 March to 25 March 2016 Bob Brown charts the history of various State Government laws which severely restrict peaceful political protest.

He notes that back in 1982 Tasmanian Liberal Premier Robin Gray overturned centuries of common law inherited from Britain which protected citizens’ rights to enter Crown Law.  Gray made it illegal to “lurk, loiter or secrete” in the riverside rainforest where the Hydro-Electric Commission was planning to build the Franklin Dam following the successful Franklin Dam protests that saw the building of the dam stopped after the High Court ruled that the Commonwealth foreign affairs’ powers to uphold World Heritage protection of the Tasmanian wilderness trumped the constitutional rights of the State Governments to manage lands and dam rivers as it pleased.  Successive Federal Governments have handed over World Heritage matters to the states and Labor and Coalition governments alike have legislated to erode the right to protest.

Victoria’s Cain Labor Government introduced targeted penalties against protestors trying to save native forests and wildlife.  These days you can be summarily fined if a Victorian forest officer recognises you in a group photograph taken in a logging zone.

The Western Australian Government has legislated draconian anti-protest laws to assist mining.

In New South Wales the government has adopted harsher anti-protest laws at the same time as it cuts penalties for illegal behaviour by mining and coal senior gas extraction companies.

The private sector has complemented these government moves.  In 2005 the biggest logging company in Australia, Gunns issued a SLAPP writ – that is a Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation – against 20 opponents of its proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill.

In his book “Slapping on the Writs” Melbourne barrister Brian Walters cites an American definition of SLAPP as “a civil complaint or counterclaim for money damages filed against private citizens or citizens’ groups who are targeted because of their communications to a government body or official or to voters in a community on an issue of public interest or concern”.

Brown notes that in Tasmania the Hodgman Government passed legislation with Labor support in 2014 that threatens peaceful protestors with an initial $10,000 fine and with four years in jail for later repeat on-site protests.

Brown notes that Hodgman’s Government assured the electorate that his legislation was aimed at “radical protestors” and not “mums and dads”.

Brown notes that the first people arrested under this legislation were a grandfather and mother of two, Jessica Hoyt now a neurosurgery nurse in Hobart.

Subsequent to her arrest Brown walked into an area to observe a bulldozer flattening forests including ferns and Brown was arrested and charged under Hodgman’s law which defines a protestor as a person engaged in activity “for the purposes of promoting awareness of or support for an opinion, or belief, in respect of a political, environmental, social, cultural or economic issue”.  Brown is taking the law under which he was arrested to the High Court citing an implied provision in the Commonwealth Constitution protecting freedom of communication on government and political matters.

Those of us in Queensland who saw the so-called right to march laws passed in 1977 by the Bjelke-Petersen Government have good cause to be worried about a trend that causes peaceful political protest in at least three of the Australian states currently being severely criminalised.


Terry O’Gorman

13 April 2016