EDO statement on recent harsh custodial sentences for climate protesters in Australia

13th December 2022

The Environmental Defenders Office is deeply concerned by the recent trend in harsh custodial sentences and heavy-handed policing against climate protestors in Australia.  

In response to a recent 15-month custodial sentence, with a non-parole period of 8 months, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly expressed alarm, stating that “Peaceful protesters should never be criminalised or imprisoned.”

Harsh new anti-protest laws were rushed through NSW parliament in April, without consultation. The laws were a knee-jerk response to escalating climate protests around roads, rail and ports. 

But the broadness of the laws and the severity of the penalties – up to two years in jail and a fine of up to $22,000 – mean everyday people are now unsure of their lawful ability to protest for action on what is the greatest existential challenge facing humanity. 

We are already in the climate crisis. We are experiencing catastrophic events such as bushfires, floods, and the repeated bleaching of the iconic Great Barrier Reef.

The High Court of Australia has recognised that the freedom of political communication, which includes the peaceful protest, is an indispensable pillar of our democratic process. We need a healthy and robust democracy if we are to achieve the kind of transformational change that we need to see in our society, our economy and our environment for a safe climate. 

Climate change will impact the most vulnerable people in our community first.  Unlike lobbyists working for the fossil fuel industry, those most impacted by the climate crisis don’t have ready access to politicians and political process.  Peaceful protest is their voice. 

If we are limiting the right to protest to only those who are willing to put their lives on the line and potentially go to prison, then we’re limiting the rights and freedoms of ordinary Australians to have their voices heard on climate. 

Australia has a long and proud history of peaceful protest and a lot has been achieved for the protection of our environment through peaceful protest. The iconic campaign to save the Franklin River spurred a whole movement for the protection of the environment. 

On behalf of two flood- and fire-impacted women, Dom and Helen, the Environmental Defenders Office is bringing a constitutional challenge to the new NSW anti-protest laws , arguing they limit the implied freedom of political communication. 

The hearing is set down for May next year.