When does a protest go too far?

Arrested, strip searched and sentenced to two years in prison. You wouldn’t expect this sort of  treatment just because you peacefully prayed inside an office, would you? But under proposed legislation this is exactly what could happen to protestors.

Originally introduced to State Parliament in February last year, the Criminal Code Amendment Bill was designed to make it an offence to physically prevent someone from doing a lawful activity.

The maximum penalty is two years in jail and a fine of $24 000. Imagine your spirited grandma, your passionate father or your determined sister being sent to jail because they want to agitate for change.

The State Government says it hopes the laws will eliminate the “increasingly dangerous behaviour of some protesters”, but some believe the laws will eliminate protesting altogether.

Human rights experts claim the legislation goes too far and the offences are vague and prone to misuse. Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser says the legislation isn’t necessary, because police already charge people with trespassing, property damage and breaching the peace when their protesting gets out of hand. The Bill is confirmation of the “eroding fundamental democratic freedom in Australia”,  de Kretser says.

In 2014, anti-protest laws were passed in Queensland ahead of the G20 summit. Police prepared for more than 25 official protests and the newspapers carried headlines about the chaos, mayhem and danger expected on the streets of Brisbane. The G20 Safety and Security Act 2013, more commonly known as the G20 Act, passed with little fanfare, but it was later shown to be excessive. Just 11 people were arrested during the summit and the protests were peaceful throughout.

De Kretser says the Queensland law is not the only example of over-the-top protest laws in Australia. He says Tasmanian laws put business before human rights and that Victoria’s ‘move on’ powers are excessive and unnecessary.

South Metropolitan Region Greens MLC Lynn MacLaren wants the WA Bill to be rejected. Her determination is borne from her own knowledge of protests in WA and around the world, many of which led to pivotal moments in history.

MacLaren says women’s suffrage and Indian independence would never have come about without peaceful protests. She also draws on examples closer to home, saying it wouldn’t be possible to stand up against the cruelty of live exports, the protection of our wetlands, or even our workers’ rights, without the right to protest.

When asking MacLaren whether the State Government has a good reason for the new laws, she replies with a sharp, “no”. “As the United Nations pointed out in a letter to the WA Government in February this year, the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill would grant police disproportionate and unnecessary powers to restrict lawful protest,” she says.

MacLaren strongly agrees with the UN’s claim the proposed legislation discourages legitimate protest activity, instead prioritising business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of people. “ [The UN] have said the Bill will have the chilling effect of silencing dissenters and punishing expression that is protected by international human rights law,” she says.

But there is a flip side. Swan Hills MLA Frank Alban says the State Government recognises and supports the right to free speech and democratic freedom and that the proposed legislation “will not suppress those rights”.

Alban says the catalyst for the Bill was information received from WA police that showed increasing numbers of dangerous protests and the considerable hours police spent responding to protest-related incidents. It was then discovered that the law didn’t appropriately deal with such behaviour.

“Protestors have taken to using devices such as arm locks, thumb locks and even steel drums filled with concrete to lock themselves onto machinery, equipment, vehicles, even the road, to prevent companies and their employees from going about their lawful business,” Alban says.

Alban says it’s actions and activities such as these that are taking up considerable amounts of police time, money and resources. He insists the laws are only meant to protect people and reduce the number of dangerous incidents.

“The legislation seeks to create appropriate powers to deal with dangerous protestors when they take the law into their own hands, go beyond free speech and peaceful protest and prevent a lawful activity,” he says.

When asking Alban if any recent protests were out of control and might be subject to the new laws in future, he refers to the James Price Point protests over Woodside Petroleum’s planned gas hub.

Interestingly enough, Lynn MacLaren also discusses the James Price Point protest, but has nothing but praise for the event, as she talks about the history of protests in the north of WA. She says the community of Broome, along with local indigenous groups and people all over Australia, peacefully protested against Woodside’s plans.

Despite more than 600 people gathering outside the police station in Broome, it was reported that the protesters were peaceful and dispersed by early afternoon.

It is the opposing attitudes of people like Alban and MacLaren which have kept this Bill tied up in State Parliament. As much as one party wants to give police the power to deal with the more hard-core protests, the other sees it as a way to strip people of their basic human rights.

Last year, MacLaren delivered a speech to State Parliament on behalf of the Greens, explaining why the party opposed the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill.

MacLaren discussed a protest over asylum seekers which saw Christian leaders peacefully gather at Julie Bishop’s electoral office in December 2014. The incident resulted in 53 Christian leaders being arrested and forcibly removed from the premises, most of whom were released without charge. However, those praying inside Bishop’s office were arrested, strip-searched and charged with trespass.

The debate has been long and controversial, with each side posing passionate arguments and fiercely fighting for their voice to be heard. While freedom of speech has proved important as a basic human right, law and order has proven equally as valid. There can be only one winner.