New protest regulations which come into effect on July 1 have been called “a fundamental attack on democracy” by a university law lecturer.
Northern Rivers academic and activist, Aidan Ricketts, said new regulations under the Crown Management Act would give low-ranking bureaucrats broad powers to disperse or ban protests, meetings, rallies and gatherings on any state-owned land.
“It’s bigger than the street march bans that the Bjelke-Petersen government had in the 1970s in Queensland,” he said.
“It’s creating this arbitrary power to disperse any crowds whatsoever — not just protesting but simply meeting and discussing issues even.
“It just says you’re there at the sufferance of any low-ranking official who can disperse you and tell you to go.”
In March, the NSW Government published the Crown Lands Management Regulation 2018.
It included a provision that public officials would have broad power to “direct a person” to stop “taking part in any gathering, meeting or assembly”.
The only exception was “in the case of a cemetery, for the purpose of a religious or other ceremony of burial or commemoration”.
Mr Ricketts said the regulation changes were a “sneaky” way of broadening the government’s power of public protests and rallies.
“Changes to legislation would go through both houses of parliament and we’d see some debate about them.
“This is something that’s been done effectively at the stroke of a ministerial pen under the auspices of the pre-existing piece of legislation — the Crown Land Management Act.”
A spokesperson for the NSW Minister for Lands and Forestry, Paul Toole, said in a statement the new provisions were “substantially the same as the provisions in the existing Crown Lands By-law 2006.”
The spokesperson said the suggestion that new regulations were designed to ban protests was wrong.
“The disallowance motion in the Legislative Council moved by the Greens is nothing more than attention-seeking.”
The new regulations will apply to all crown-owned land, which amounts to about half of all land in New South Wales.
The 35,000 crown reserve sites include parks, heritage sites, community halls, nature reserves, coastal lands, sporting grounds, government infrastructure and showgrounds.
‘Bigger’ than the Bjelke-Petersen ban Mr Ricketts said the new regulations were bigger and broader than those imposed under the Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland in the 1970s.
In September 1977, then Queensland Premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen proclaimed the day of the political street march was over.
“Anybody who holds a street march, spontaneous or otherwise, will know they’re acting illegally,” he said.
The statement was echoed by the acting police commissioner and was police policy until April 1978.
During the two-year ban, 1,972 people were arrested.
Mr Ricketts said he expected a similar reaction in New South Wales, if the new regulations were enforced.
“They banned street marches for the right to march — which led to violent policing,” he said.
The Knitting Nannas protest group joined the chorus of concern.
Spokeswoman Judi Summers said she was shocked to learn about the new rules.
She said the group’s strategy of holding weekly knit-ins outside the offices of local politicians might not be possible under the new regulations.
“Well it would have shut us down basically,” Ms Summers said.
“We’ve been knitting outside of Thomas George and Kevin Hogan’s [parliamentary] offices for the last sort of six years.
“Every Thursday without a miss, and if these laws had been introduced way back then, we would have been moved on right from the start.”
Lawyer and NSW Greens candidate for Lismore, Sue Higginson, said over the years, she had represented hundreds of protestors in court, through her work with the Environmental Defenders Office.
“I see time and time again, the courts — generally speaking — have a real concern about having to penalise people who have found that they are in a position of having to break laws to stand up for an issue or to protect the environment or to protect a civil right,” she said.
“So where we are criminalising really benign behaviour, and behaviour that people have a right to do, it becomes a real problem for the courts.”
Ms Higginson said a good example was the role of town halls played during the coal seam gas protests on the Northern Rivers.
“If you look back to how the community in the Northern Rivers mobilised to protect the land and water here from coal seam gas, a lot of that organisation and the information and the those meetings — they were held in those town halls.”
Ms Higginson said under the new regulations, meetings could be banned or dispersed from town halls.
“People should definitely be alarmed and the biggest problem about this kind of thing is it’s difficult to understand the application these laws will have until you’re impacted,” she said.
“They are not laws at the character of an ordinary democracy. They can only be described as draconian powers where you just stop ordinary people.”
Source: ABC News