MELBOURNE, Australia — When climate protesters took to the streets of Sydney this week, including blocking one of its busiest traffic tunnels for over an hour, they faced the fury of government officials who labeled them “professional pests” and warned that they’d see “the book being thrown at them.”
The 24 people arrested during the protests this week face up to two years in jail and fines of up to $15,000 under a new state law passed in April covering protests that disrupt economic activity. Previously, the penalty was a fine of up to $400, with no jail time.
Human rights activists and legal groups are now questioning whether the law imposes an overly harsh punishment for nonviolent protests and is primarily being used against climate activists.
“It really is an alarming trend across Australia showing that protest movement is being increasingly and disproportionately targeted by Australian authorities,” Sophie McNeill, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said of the new laws.
Climate protesters are being “disproportionately subject to vindictive legal action and excessive police attention,” she added.
The government of New South Wales, of which Sydney is the largest city, has said that it supports protests and climate change action, within reason.
“Protest action of itself is not illegal, where authorized,” a spokesperson for Paul Toole, the state’s police minister, said in an email. “But chaining yourself to the steering wheel of a car to block access to tunnels and roads, or the planning of similar acts, will not be tolerated.”
No protesters have received jail sentences yet under the new law.
The protesters in Sydney were from Blockade Australia, one of several activist groups that have gained attention for disrupting traffic and business in New South Wales. They have blocked roads, suspended themselves from bridges and climbed atop cranes and cargo trains to protest what they say is government inaction on climate change.
After one wave of protests in March, when activists disrupted activity at a major port and blockaded a busy bridge, the state government rushed through new legislation to increase the penalty for protests that disrupt major roads, ports and train stations.
The legislation passed with broad support, including from the opposition Labor Party, but was condemned by the Greens Party as being “deeply anti-democratic.”
Other states are set to follow with similar laws. In Tasmania, legislation is in the works that would impose harsher penalties, including jail time, for protesters who inconvenience businesses. In Victoria, a proposal before Parliament would allow protesters who attempt to prevent logging in certain forests to be sentenced up to a year in jail.
While the laws are not directly aimed at climate activists and cover any kind of unlawful protest, human rights groups say that they have been introduced in response to climate change protests.
The New South Wales government has said that the new laws “strike the correct balance between free speech and the right to peaceful protest, and the right for people to safely get on with their lives.” The law protects strikers and protesters who receive police approval for demonstrations — which groups like Blockade Australia do not.
“There is a highly recognized way to protest,” Paul Dunstan, the state’s acting assistant police commissioner, said on Monday. “There is a way to do it, but they way they did it today is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
The protesters threw bikes and garbage cans in the path of police officers, reporters and pedestrians, he said, behavior that was “nothing short of criminal.”
Protest laws should reflect a balance between freedom of speech and political dissent and ensuring that demonstrations are not violent or inconvenient, said Greg Barns, a criminal and human rights lawyer and the criminal justice spokesman for the nation’s biggest lawyers association. “I think there is a tendency sometimes in Australia for governments to err on the wrong side — in other words, use the guise of community inconvenience and economic inconvenience as a means of curtailing protest,” he said.
Because Australia lacks a Bill of Rights that enshrines freedom of speech, he added, “governments are able to provide police with fairly extensive powers and to regulate protest activity probably to a greater extent than they can in other countries.”
The activists, for their part, are undeterred, and say extreme measures are needed to force change in a country that has dragged its heels on climate action for years.
“Of course that level of repression is frightening,” said Zelda Grimshaw, 56, a spokeswoman for Blockade Australia. But climate activists connected to the group “are far more afraid of the climate collapse we’re experiencing, so we will not be deterred,” she said.
Australia has been battered by climate extremes, including drought, flooding and wildfires, in the past few years. “One-in-100-years” flooding has happened almost yearly, and the floods that ravaged the country’s northeast early this year were particularly severe, killing 22 people. The Black Summer wildfires of 2019 and 2020 were the worst in the country’s recorded history.
Activists from Blockade Australia also say they have been monitored and intimidated by police. Two weeks ago, authorities put under surveillance and then raided a camp where the activists had been staying, which civil groups condemned as “police overreach in pre-emptive policing of protest.”
Mark Davis, a lawyer representing several members of the group, said some of them have been pulled over by police for random breath alcohol tests and had their cars searched. In addition, he said, many of those arrested have had onerous bail conditions imposed, like being barred from driving or being required to give the police access to their laptops if requested.
These are the same strategies that the police apply to biker gangs, he said. “Even if they can’t catch them in the conduct of a crime, they can make their lives and organizations ineffective,” Mr. Davis said. “They can make their lives miserable by constantly following them and harassing them and goading them and dragging them to court for very minor matters.”