My Daily Advertiser Op Ed column for Tuesday 22 October 2019

by ray goodlass

NSW using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut

During a period of epidemic of illegal land clearing, criminal animal cruelty and concern about mining operations, the NSW Government has stepped in with a proposed “Right to Farm” law to protect corporate agribusiness from protest and scrutiny.

The TV series Yes Minister’ would probably say that criticising the new NSW Right to Farm bill in a regional newspaper is a ‘courageous’ thing to do, but as this bill is both a major crackdown on the right to protest and also the “erosion of a fundamental human right” (Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge), this criticism is necessary.

The criticism is doubly necessary as the proposed NSW bill comes at a time of increasing calls from elsewhere to clamp down on our right to protest, as shown by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s appalling call to punish social welfare recipients who take part in protests, the Queensland Labor government’ introduction of new police powers in answer to Extinction Rebellion protests, and the WA government’s plan to increase penalties for trespass, aimed at animal welfare protesters.

The proposed laws will quadruple the penalty for aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands from $5,500 to $22,000. They will impose a prison term of up to three years on people who “hinder” a business while trespassing, and will create a new offence of ‘direct, incite, counsel, procure or induce aggravated unlawful entry’ which means individuals who encourage someone to peacefully protest could face an $11,000 fine or 12 months imprisonment.

Inclosed lands are defined by the act as “any land, either public or private, inclosed or surrounded by any fence, wall or other erection, or by some natural feature …including the whole or part of any building”.

The New South Wales farm trespass bill has been criticised by civil liberties organisations, environment groups and unions for turning into “a crackdown on people’s rights to protest”. It would outlaw civil protest on any enclosed space, including schools, hospitals, mine sites or banks.

Chris Gambian, the chief executive of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, said the threat to protest was “hidden within this bill”.

“It includes farmers and knitting nanas protesting coal seam gas, unions on worksites, people staging a sit-in in corporate headquarters of a company, and more.

Pauline Wright, the president of the NSW Civil Liberties Council, said “I can’t see the purpose of these new laws. The existing laws already criminalise the behaviour that is targeted by this. It seems to just be grandstanding on the part of the politicians.”

The bill has been referred by the Animal Justice Party to an inquiry, and the Greens have amendments in the pipeline.

Unions NSW said it was examining the bill closely but was concerned it could inhibit the ability for unions to do their work.

Thomas Costa, the assistant secretary of Unions NSW, said it was an attempt to legislate against people’s rights to protest.

“The Liberals have a track record of trying to criminalise dissent. They think they can legislate against it and frustrate our very legitimate right to protest,” he said.

Ironically those affected by these laws will likely include many farmers who have been at the forefront of campaigns, including those against coal seam gas and to protect farmland and water supplies.

Greens MP and Justice Spokesperson David Shoebridge said “These laws are directly aimed at criminalising protest and those exposing serious environmental breaches and animal cruelty.

“Trespass is already illegal in NSW and in 2016 the Government imposed a large number of additional penalties to target protesters. These laws don’t just apply to farms – they cover supermarkets and even banks.

“The Greens will be moving amendments to protect the right to freedom of speech and political expression by adding a defence if the person was engaged in identifying, investigating or preventing serious criminal breaches of environmental or animal cruelty laws.

“We will never abandon the brave forest activists, land and water protectors, and animal lovers who are taking action for the environment and creatures who have no vote.

And as Mr Shoebridge said, the bill needs to be renamed to accurately reflect its intention as the ‘Right to Farm (Limiting Protest and Transparency) Bill’. Or better still, abandon it.