Forty civil society organisations have expressed alarm at reports of police overreach in preemptive policing of protest, with NSW police conducting covert surveillance and a raid on climate activists north of Sydney on Sunday (June 19).

Police had been covertly surveilling a private property where individuals linked to Blockade Australia were camped. Blockade Australia has been behind an effort of resistance to pressure Australian governments to take stronger action on the climate crisis. Serious concerns have been raised regarding the legal basis of the surveillance, the reported failure of police conducting surveillance to identify themselves, and reports of injuries sustained by activists from an encounter with an unmarked police car.

Following this, a raid was reportedly conducted with about 100 police officers, many of them armed, and Blockade Australia members told media that a dog squad, riot police and helicopters were also present. About 40 individuals were detained during the raid, eight individuals were charged with offences (including for conspiracy to obstruct a road under new anti-protest laws) and two remain in detention. 

The extensive covert surveillance and pre-emptive policing sets a disturbing precedent for protest rights. The raid also continues a troubling trend in the state of disproportionate crack-downs on the right to protest. In March, NSW Parliament passed the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2022, draconian new anti-protest laws which threaten everyone from people marching for gender equality to anti-war protestors with up to two years in jail and a $22,000 fine. 

Where previous legislation in NSW covered disruption on major bridges or tunnels, the expanded offence covers roads, train stations, ports and public and private infrastructure, and has been widely condemned.

These new laws are part of a concerning trend nationwide of bipartisan support for regressive legislation that further criminalises peaceful community activists. This week alone, there has been significant community push back against anti-protest laws before the Victorian and Tasmanian parliaments. 

The groups call on NSW police to act responsibly, with integrity and respect for human rights in response to protests in the coming weeks.

David Morris, CEO of Environmental Defenders Office, said:

“The trend that we are seeing around Australia towards the criminalisation of peaceful protest has far reaching and damaging implications for our democracy and linked positive environmental outcomes.  

“Legislation which unjustly restricts people’s freedoms to express dissent ought to be wound back. Heavy penalties and greater restrictions on peaceful protest included in recent reforms are not a proportionate response to non-violent citizen action which draws attention to the climate crisis or other kinds of environmental damage.” 

Alice Drury, Legal Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, said:

“Sending in 100 armed police officers to threaten and intimidate people planning a peaceful protest is alarming and disproportionate. NSW police and politicians should commit to protecting protest for the health of our democracy.

“These protesters are responding to the seriousness of the climate crisis, which we know is causing devastation for people and our planet. On major issues like this, governments should expect people to continue to come together to voice their concern and demand action. Politicians should resist the knee-jerk response of criminalising protests because it’s frustrating or disruptive.”

Lucy Manne, CEO of Australia, said:

“Until fossil fuel companies are held to account for the damage they are causing, peaceful protest will only grow. It’s appalling to see this police overreach attempting to silence those who are seeking to exercise their democratic right to protest in order to protect their communities from the harm caused by the climate crisis.”

Stephen Blanks, spokesperson for NSW Council for Civil Liberties, said:

“The reported policing over the weekend at Colo Valley appears to be heavy-handed and is cause for concern.

“NSWCCL has expressed concerns about increasingly harsh and disproportionate laws and actions taken against political protesters in recent years, and supports victims of such laws and actions. The legal right to peaceful protest is fundamental to our democracy. Protests hold governments to account and make our country better. The police need to take extra care to assure the community that their actions are justifiable.”

Maritime Union of Australia, Sydney Branch Secretary Paul Keating, said:

“The very reasons communities and the trade union have opposed these anti-protest laws is for the very reasons like what occurred on the weekend with these raids. This isn’t just over-reach, this is the anti-democratic nature of the law that creates space for such overreach and infringes on our democratic rights that so many community groups and organisations and the trade union movement in NSW has voiced its outrage about. 

“All affiliates of Unions NSW in April through a meeting of the Unions NSW executive unanimously endorsed a resolution condemning these anti-protest laws and demanding that they be revoked. We are seeing now the power of a police state that allows for the police without any accountability to reach into the rights of the people to protest against governments. The MUA will not stand by, we will mobilise to defend our communities, to defend the rights of the people to protest.”

Amnesty International Australia Campaigner Nikita White said.

“There has been a disturbing trend towards clamping down on peaceful protest and civil disobedience in NSW, particularly during the pandemic and we are very concerned about the allegations made about the conduct of police during the raid on Blockade Australia. 

“Peaceful protests are a fundamental aspect of a vibrant society, and as recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, states should recognise and respect the positive role of peaceful protests as a means to strengthen human rights.”

Justice and Peace Office, Sydney ArchDiocese, Julie Macken said:

“We’re on a slippery slope as a nation when people come together to share their ideas and concerns about the climate crisis and are put under armed surveillance and risk arrest, for merely discussing ideas. 

“The climate movement has been characterised by nonviolent action for twenty years. This escalation of state surveillance and intervention is unwarranted and every citizen should be concerned at this dangerous development.”

Signatories: Australia
Amnesty International Australia
Australian Youth Climate Coalition
Climate Action Network Australia
Human Rights Law Centre
Climate Justice Union
Greenpeace Australia Pacific
New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties
Australian Democracy Network
Sydney ArchDiocese, Justice and Peace Office
Maritime Union of Australia
Mackay Action Group
Reef Action Whitsundays
Legal Observers NSW
Environment Victoria
Environmental Defenders Office
Knitting Nanas Hunter Loop
South East Forest Rescue
Frontline Action on Coal
Australian Anti bases Campaign Coalition
Redfern Legal Centre
Bob Brown Foundation
Forest Conservation Victoria
WACA (Whistleblowers, Activists and Communities Alliance)
Friends of the Earth Australia
World Animal Protection
Galilee Rising
Melbourne Activist Legal Support
ARRCC (Australian Religious Response to Climate Change)
Grata Fund
National Justice Project
Yingura Womens Trust
Environment East Gippsland
Lismore Environment Centre
Community Legal Centres NSW
Hope for Nauru
Nature Conservation Council of NSW
Goongerah Environment Centre – GECO
The Sunrise Project