The passing of the Perrottet government’s new anti-protest law will undermine the ability of everyone in NSW to exercise their freedom to protest, a group of environmental, social justice and human rights organisations has warned.

The organisations slammed the bill, which was passed by the Legislative Council on Friday after being rushed through in less than a week.

The group, comprising the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Human Rights Law Centre, Environmental Defenders Office and Australian Democracy Network, expressed concern about the constitutional validity of the new law and called on the Perrottet government to repeal it.

The new, repressive measures in the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 deliberately target protesters, threatening everyone from school children marching for climate action to anti-war protestors with up to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine.

Where previous legislation covered disruption on major bridges or tunnels, the expanded offence covers roads, train stations, ports and public and private infrastructure. The broad and vague wording of the new offence dramatically expands its coverage and leaves ordinary Australians unsure of their lawful ability to protest.

The law was passed, with Labor’s support, despite calls from a coalition of almost 40 civil society organisations to scrap the bill. The coalition’s open letter can be found here.

Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) Limited Chairperson Mark Davies said:

“The Aboriginal Legal Service was born out of a protest movement in the 1970s. You would be hard pressed to find any win for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights that wasn’t brought about by public protest.

“The right to assemble and demonstrate in our streets, towns and cities is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. For marginalised communities, public protests enable us to be seen and heard, even – and especially – when those in power would rather suppress our voices.

“We condemn in the strongest terms this government crackdown on our right to protest.”

NSW Council for Civil Liberties President Pauline Wright said:

“It’s shocking that a law threatening peaceful protesters with significant fines has been passed in Australia in 2022. In a liberal democracy, the government should welcome citizens expressing their views, not try to ban it. This law is an outrage, but it isn’t the end of the road – we fought for protest rights in the 70s and won, and we’ll do the same now.”

Human Rights Law Centre Senior Lawyer Kieran Pender said:

“This is a dark day for democracy in New South Wales. Our freedom to come together and speak out on issues we care about is fundamental to democracy. From Aboriginal land rights to voting rights to the eight hour work day – protest has been crucial to achieving countless important social changes. This draconian new law is part of an alarming national trend towards restricting peaceful protest rights in Australia and it must be repealed at the earliest opportunity.”

Environmental Defenders Office CEO David Morris said:

“The passage of this Bill is very disappointing, given its severe implications for freedom of speech in New South Wales. There is a real, palpable community concern about this new legislation, which seemingly is intended to limit the right to protest to circumstances where the state sanctions it.

“This law has implications far beyond the environmental protests occurring at this specific point in Australian history. It endangers the public’s ability to have their voice heard through public protest and demonstration, activities which are at the very heart of our democratic process.

“Peaceful protest can seem disruptive in the moment, but it has long been recognised by our courts as essential to our democratic process. Peaceful environmental protest has played a crucial part in achieving meaningful change through the Australian democratic process. A healthy environment and safe climate cannot be achieved in the absence of a robust and healthy democracy.”

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