Australia, or, at least, the section of the country that doesn’t believe in locking people up for protesting, breathed a sigh of relief on Tuesday after climate activist Violet Coco was released from prison on bail.
The 32-year-old was handed a 15-month sentence with a non-parole period of eight months at the start of the month, for blocking a single lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge for 25 minutes.
If all delay-causers were treated this way, half the construction workers in the country would be behind bars, while Sydney traffic itself would have the book thrown at it. Actually, that’s not a bad idea.
Coco pled guilty to seven charges, including the use of an authorised explosive for holding up a flare during her protest, and was fined $2,500.
She was granted bail by District Court Judge Timothy Gartelmann, who said that she posed no threat to wider society and therefore should not currently be in prison.
“I am not satisfied the applicant would represent an unacceptable risk of endangering the community,” Gartlemann said
The judge noted that another man charged with similar offences during the protest did not receive a jail sentence and suggested that she may not have to serve her sentence in prison when her appeal hearing takes place in April next year.
“It is far from inevitable that the sentence of full-time imprisonment will be imposed in the hearing of the appeal,” he said.
Coco’s lawyer, Mark Davis, said at the time of the conviction that it was “outrageous” his client had initially been denied bail.
“It is just extraordinary to me,” Davis said. “You always get appeals bail unless you’re a violent offender and you haven’t abided by the terms of your bail. In the months she had been on bail she had done everything – always attended court.”
Eddie Lloyd, another lawyer working for Coco, described her client as a “warrior.”
“I’m from Lismore and I thank Violet for being so brave, and trying to raise the alarm about the climate emergency that we are in,” she said.
“People like Violet are climate warriors who are brave enough to stand up and try to raise the alarm. Thankfully there’s some justice in this place and we’ve seen that today.”
Coco herself has since said that she had “never considered” engaging in the type of protest she did until the Black Summer bushfires of 2019 and 2020. Three years ago, she was an entrepreneur with her own events business in Sydney. But it was the fires that blanketed her home in a thick layer of smoke that made her “wake up.”
“It really scared me. My life was very different then but that’s when I first started to really feel how bad things were. Before that I had never considered doing anything like this,” she told The Guardian.
What Are the NSW Anti-Protest Laws?
In April of this year, the NSW government passed legislation specifically targeting protest in Sydney, Newcastle, Port Kembla, and Port Botany.
The laws come with a maximum fine of $22,000 and/or a maximum sentence of two years for protesting on public roads, rail lines, tunnels, bridges, and industrial estates.
They seem to be specifically directed at groups like Extinction Rebellion, Fireproof Australia, and Blockade Australia, who undertake action designed to halt ‘business as usual’ in order to draw attention to the fact that the current system is causing irreversible climate breakdown.
Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the new laws would be used to stop people engaging in protests that “shut down major economic activity.”
The laws do not apply to mass action, like the recent nurses and teachers strikes, but only to “a handful of anarchist protesters who would wish to bring this city to a halt.”
He added that the Perrottet government was “on the side of climate change action” and “potentially the most ambitious government in Australia” in that regard.
While Coco is not the first to have been charged under the new laws, she is the first to be jailed.
Multiple human rights organisations have described the laws as “draconian,” saying that they will “hurt democracy in NSW.”
“The broad and vague wording of the new offence dramatically expands its coverage and leaves ordinary Australians unsure of their lawful ability to protest,” several groups wrote in a joint statement.
The international Human Rights Watch, normally a very serious organisation, described Coco’s punishment as “ridiculously excessive.”
They wrote in a blog post that the sentence handed down “must be in some repressive dictatorship with thousands of political prisoners and zero respect for human rights, yes?
NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, described the conviction as “pleasing to see” and that it should be a “clear lesson” to anyone thinking of doing similar.
“We want people to be able to protest but do it in a way that doesn’t inconvenience people right across NSW,” Perrottet said.
“Those protests literally started to grind our city to a halt.”
Where Does the Rest of Australia Stand on Anti Protest Laws?
While Coco is now free on bail and awaiting her appeal hearing, she isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last person convicted under these new laws and similar ones.
As the climate crisis worsens, and the current government commit to opening new coal and gas projects in spite of domestic policy changes and international ridicule, climate activists are growing bolder and more desperate in their efforts to effect change.
In response, multiple governments around the country, including Tasmania and Victoria, have passed similar legislation to NSW this year. Western Australia already implemented its own anti-protest laws in 2016m while Queensland has made a recent return to charging people under protest laws introduced under the repressive Bjelke-Petersen government.
Many Australian states and territories do not have right-to-protest laws, meaning protestors often have to apply specifically for a permit in order to hold a protest. The additional legislation, passed in TAS, VIC, and NSW, adds further penalties to lack of compliance with the already fairly limited laws.
The current state of protest laws and the increasing restrictions on protests have long drawn international condemnation. In 2016, the United Nations urged WA not to pass new laws targeting protesters, saying it would criminalise legitimate conduct.
“It would go against Australia’s international obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to freedom of opinion and expression as well as peaceful assembly and association,” the UN Human Rights Office said.
Earlier this year, as Tasmania was attempting to pass its own anti-protest legislation, the Australia Institute wrote that the new laws would make holding a placard the same as holding a gun.
“From decriminalising homosexuality and protecting the Franklin River to fighting for better working conditions and voluntary assisted dying, peaceful protests have shaped the Lutruwita/Tasmania we enjoy today,” Anne Kantor Research Fellow Rachel Hay said.
“This law creates a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist”.
The right to protest has, effectively, never been enshrined in Australian law. Only the ACT, Queensland, and Victoria have a human rights charter that explicitly protects these rights. Over the past year, those limited protections have been eroded further and will likely continue to be as the climate crisis ramps up.
This is because many of these laws have been passed with the clear intention of keeping protestors away from industries that harm the environment, like mining, logging, and the export of fossil fuels. As long as greater protections are afforded to them, they will increasingly come into conflict with protestors operating within formerly legitimate frameworks.
If only there was some way the people could gather together and peacefully express their opinion against these increasingly undemocratic changes.
Related: The Medium Is the Message: What Galleries Are Doing to Protect Artworks from Protestors
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