New legislation proposed by the Queensland government to ban “locking” devices used by climate activists and to give police more power to search suspected protesters is raising the spectre of Joh Bjelke-Petersen era laws criminalising public protest.
Queensland minister for police and corrective services, Mark Ryan, said the government was creating a new offence that would make it illegal to carry a “lock-on” device that could be used to disrupt traffic or infrastructure.
It would be illegal to possess these types of devices, and police would have the power to search a person or vehicle suspected of carrying one.
The proposed law come at a time when the state government has deployed various tactics – such as claiming biosecurity risks and beefing up laws around illegally entering private property – to clamp down on protests and demonstrations.
It also follows the Federal government’s introduction earlier this year of legislation responding to protests by animal rights activists in Australia, which tightens existing laws, creating harsher penalties for those who incite others to trespass on farms.
In the 1970s, the conservative Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government and the state’s police cracked down on street marches and protests – sometimes violently – and in 1977 the premier banned all marches.
Mr Ryan said the new laws were not about stopping people protesting “peacefully” and “lawfully” but said direct action protesters were “extremists” showing a “flagrant disregard for the law and the rights of others”.
However, the Queensland Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) said the new law aimed to silence protests of the state’s giant Adani coal project and about the climate emergency.
EDO chief executive and solicitor, Jo-Anne Bragg, said peaceful protests were of “historic and ongoing importance for Queensland’s democracy and recent protests highlight the urgent action needed on climate change”.
“It’s concerning that new laws are being proposed based on unclear evidence, and we support calls from the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties (QCCL) to refer the proposed legislation to a parliamentary committee to consider the evidence and the need for new laws.”
Advocates for direct action have also challenged government rhetoric about lock-on devices being “booby-trapped”. They says the devices are not designed to harm police or emergency services.
The QCCL said that if the booby-trap claims were true, it would support appropriate legal sanctions. However, it said it supported the right of peaceful protest, even if the protests inconvenienced others.
QCCL president Michael Cope said protestors should comply with the law and apply for permits to protest, but those who protest without appropriate permissions should face penalties that “reflect the fact there is a right to dissent in this country”.
He also expressed concern about increased police powers, and the government’s failure to release details about those powers.
“We are always concerned about proposals for increased police powers. The first test the government has to pass is to establish that there is not already sufficient power to deal with the problem,” Mr Cope said.
He said police already have the power to search people when there is a reasonable suspicion someone is carrying something they intend to use to cause harm to themselves or others.
“Every time we give police new powers that are not necessary we chip away at our liberty,” Mr Cope said.
Even protests that do not involve lock-on devices might be banned, with Brisbane City Council last week attempting legal action to prevent a march by Extinction Rebellion, Grey Power, the Greens and others. At the last minute, a magistrate granted permission for the march.
Animal Rights activists have also been in the cross-hairs with the Queensland government introducing legislation to parliament on 22 August in response to vegan activist protest actions.
In this case, biosecurity risks were used as the lever to drive the legislation, with claims that activists could contaminate properties they enter illegally with noxious weed seeds or contagious diseases.
Minister for agricultural industry development and fisheries Mark Furner said the Agriculture and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 was introduced to stop animal activists jeopardising the rights and livelihoods of law-abiding farmers.
“Protesters could now face up to one year in jail for trespassing on farm land or be fined more than $60,000,” Mr Furner said.
“Our farmers have a right to feel safe and protected from risks posed to themselves, their property and their livelihoods.
“Our community needs to be confident that human safety, animal welfare, biosecurity and food safety are not being compromised.”
The Bill includes a package of amendments to the Summary Offences Act 2005, the Biosecurity Act 2014 and the Exhibited Animals Act 2015 to address unacceptable behaviour that poses risks to agricultural and related industries.
Penalties could apply to persons unlawfully entering a food production facility, feed lot, live export facility, showground or sporting ground used for animals.
Animal welfare campaigns in the spotlight in recent years, including against the cruel treatment of animals exported live, and against inhumane conditions for battery hens and farmed pigs, all used direct action in the form of documentary films, photography and witness observations to add impetus to the more conventional and less controversial forms of protest such as letter writing, petitions and peaceful, planned marches.