WA anti protest laws likely to pass

WA Police Minister Liza Harvey introduced a bill to parliament giving police and the state government more power to deal with protestors who prevent legal activities from occurring.

WA Police Minister Liza Harvey introduced a bill to parliament giving police and the state government more power to deal with protestors who prevent legal activities from occurring.

THE right to protest in WA is almost over with new anti-protest laws likely to pass through parliament.

New laws are being introduced to give WA police and the state government more power to deal with protestors who prevent legal activities from occurring.

Soon it will become a criminal offence to prevent lawful activity being carried out or to possess a “thing” with the intent of using it to prevent lawful activity.

The bill is expected to pass through parliament which will mean people who are found guilty of the offences could find themselves with a $12,000 fine and 12 months imprisonment.

Last month the United Nations condemned the laws and urged the WA government to drop the bill which would criminalise lawful protests and silence environmentalists and human rights defenders.

A UN human rights expert Maina Kiai said the bill would give police disproportionate and unnecessary powers to restrict lawful protests and target people raising awareness about environmental issues.

“It discourages legitimate protest activity and instead, prioritises business and government resource interests over the democratic rights of individuals,” he said.

The Law Society of WA president Elizabeth Needham said the laws would likely bring Australia in breach of freedom of expression which was a fundamental human right covered by the UN.

“This law will supersede it and limit people’s rights,” she said.

Ms Needham said the Law Society believed the criminal offences in the bill were too broad and should be drafted so they were clear to the public, the police and the courts.

"The community needs to understand the laws in order to abide by them,” she said.

"These laws will place too much discretion in the hands of the police and prosecutors, especially combined with the reversal of onus of proof.

“It is not fair on anybody when the public have to second-guess how the police may enforce such broad criminal laws."

In a speech to parliament Ms Harvey said the laws would give police more effective tools to deal with newer tactics which were being used by protestors.

She said the laws would prevent protestors from participating in dangerous activities and give the government appropriate means to recoup costs for responding to these types of events.

“A common tactic used by protesters is to lock themselves onto equipment, trees and other objects in order to block roads or obstruct lawful activity,” she said.

“In recent years we have seen this tactic be used by anti-logging protesters in the state’s South West.” 

Ms Harvey said protestors in the South West had used thumb locks or arm locks to secure a person to an object or several people in a chain to prevent land clearing.

She said releasing protesters from the devices could take days and required the use of specialist equipment and expertise.

“Dealing with these tactics at protests incurs considerable costs both in public expenditure and lost resources,” she said. 

“Whilst large deployments of police are being used at such protests, the remainder of the community bears a reduction in policing services.”

Under the new laws farmers and landowners could be charged and imprisoned for tyring to stop mining or oil and gas companies from accessing their land.

Current legislation in WA does not give farmers or landowners the right to refuse access to their properties if minerals or petroleum exist on their land, unless certain criteria are met.

Farmers who refuse to negotiate with mining or oil and gas companies could find themselves in the Magistrates Court or potentially facing imprisonment under these laws.

A WAFarmers spokesperson said they would be concerned for farmers and landowners if they were charged or imprisoned under these laws.

The spokesperson said WAFarmers’ policy on this issue was currently under consideration following the passing of a motion at the recent annual general meeting.

“An agreement to support agricultural productivity in areas being explored for onshore gas was developed by a joint committee in October 2015,” the spokesperson said.

“One of many points under the agreement ensured farmers would be compensated for any losses or inconvenience and would be able to negotiate protocols for sound land and environmental management practices on their properties.

“This agreement is a positive step in protecting the rights of landowners in WA.”

Last year Greens senator Rachel Sierwert confirmed oil and gas companies were seeking permits in the South West.

The new anti protest laws which were passed through the legislative council will likely be debated in the legislative assembly on March 12 before they are voted in.

Have your say: Do these laws go too far against human rights or should people be prosecuted for preventing lawful activity from occuring? Email emma.kirk@fairfaxmedia.com.au.

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