South Australia’s rushed anti-protest laws the latest affront to democracy

By Julia Grix, Defenders Program Managing Lawyer

On Wednesday morning — as the World Meteorological Organization warned that humanity could be less than five years away from experiencing 1.5 degrees global warming for the first time — climate protesters disrupted traffic in Adelaide near a fossil fuel industry conference. 

The next day, sweeping new anti-protest legislation was introduced to parliament by South Australia’s government and by the evening it had passed the House of Assembly without opposition. 

The speed with which these new laws are being ushered in is staggering, so too is their scope. 

The State’s Summary Offences Act amendment applies to anyone who “intentionally or recklessly engages in conduct that obstructs the free passage of a public place” and means that persons would be liable to jail time of up to three months, or a $50,000 maximum financial penalty. 

Think for a second the myriad ways the phrase “obstructs the free passage of a public place” either “intentionally or recklessly” could be applied.  Not to mention the fact that, under the new laws, a person can be found guilty in circumstances where their actions may indirectly cause obstruction.  

Of course, however loosely worded it is, the intention of the law is to punish only a small section of society for their actions – climate protesters. South Australians who do not fall into this category must accept the implied assurance that the law won’t apply to them. This is no basis on which to draft legislation. 

Moreover, the haste with which this legislation has been drawn up is deeply troubling.  Depriving citizens of their liberty through incarceration is a consequential power that must be carefully and appropriately deployed.  How can legislators have carefully considered these amendments in less than a day? 

South Australia’s anti-protest laws are the latest attempt by governments in Australia to suppress those trying to sound the alarm on climate breakdown and the latest affront to the rights of protesters. Indeed, anti-protest legislation has been introduced over the past five years along the entire east coast of Australia. 

Earlier this month, the NSW Supreme Court heard EDO’s constitutional challenge to New South Wales’ own draconian anti-protest laws on behalf of two Knitting Nannas.  We argued the amendment to s214A of the Crimes Act 1900 was unconstitutional because it impermissibly burdened the implied freedom of political communication and that to uphold the Australian Constitution, the NSW Government must allow communities to peacefully protest government policy in public spaces. 

We await the decision on that case and will be closely following the passage of the South Australian laws through parliament. 

19 May 2023