SA’s populist punishment law to chill climate dissent

May 25, 2023
Protest, uprising, march or strike in city street.

A new Bill to silence climate protest has provoked a broad chorus of alarm in South Australia. Despite opposition, it seems likely the Bill will pass and South Australia will join the ranks of governments determined to suppress opposition to the fossil fuel industry.

The 2023 Australian Petroleum Producers and Explorers Association National Conference took place in Adelaide last week. On every day of the conference, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion held events to highlight the role of the industry in driving the climate emergency.

On Wednesday May 17, Meme Thorne abseiled to dangle from the Morphett Street Bridge and police closed North Terrace to traffic until 9am. Media coverage focused on interviews with inconvenienced city commuters. Talkback radio ran incorrect stories of ambulances unable to access the nearby hospital. (The protesters had ensured emergency vehicle access was maintained). Police Commissioner Grant Stevens explained: The ropes are fully extended across the street. So we can’t, as much as we might like to, cut the rope and let them drop.

On Thursday morning talkback radio, Liberal Party Opposition Leader David Speirs called for greatly increased penalties for obstructing traffic with bigger fines and jail terms. Shortly afterwards Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas agreed with these sentiments. By noon the government had introduced changes to the Summary Offences Act to the South Australian parliament imposing fines up to $50,000 and possible three-month jail terms where a person intentionally or recklessly obstructs the free passage of a public place. These were immediately passed by the lower house with the support of the opposition and only the Greens dissenting.

Only the day before, the World Meteorological Organisation had warned that humanity could be less than five years away from experiencing 1.5 degrees global warming for the first time, increasing the odds of critical tipping points being triggered and an exponential increase in climate disasters. On Tuesday in the conference, the federal Minister for Resources Madeleine King was supporting expansion of the gas industry and talking up the role of unproven carbon capture and storage in meeting the Government’s net zero target. She was followed by SA Mining and Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis who assured delegates that his government was at their service and the state at their disposal. Note that this is the same government that declared a Climate Emergency in June 2022.

Demonstrators gathered on the steps of Parliament House on Thursday afternoon to protest the government’s support of the fossil fuel industry and the conference. They were shocked to hear of the new legislation- apparently introduced so hastily as to include typographical errors. The Parliament House steps gathering was addressed by a horrified Greens Senator Hanson Young and by Violet Coco, the young woman sentenced to 15 months jail under similar laws in NSW, before having the sentence dismissed under appeal.

Over the following two days significant opposition to the new legislation emerged. Despite the Premier’s claims that the bill merely increases the penalties, there is a new clause that enables the state to seek compensation for any costs incurred in taking actions to mitigate the effects of an obstruction. This means that an individual protester could be held financially liable for decisions taken by others such as police, emergency services, local government or even private businesses. Many have cautioned about the chilling effect these measures have on democratic process, the haste and flaws in the Bill, and the precedent it sets for further repressive laws. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Law Society of SA, the SA Council of Social Services, SA Unions, Conservation SA and the Australian Education Union SA Branch have all made public statements in opposition to the Bill. All agree that at the very least, there should have been a process of public consultation and review before introducing such drastic measures.

With the new law having passed the lower house it now goes to the Legislative Council where Labor and Liberal hold 17 of the 22 seats. The Bill has provoked a broad chorus of alarm and many concerned South Australians are already calling on their upper house representatives to exercise caution. In sparking this coalition of concern the Premier may have sown the seeds of dissent even within Labor ranks, but it seems likely the Bill will pass and South Australia will join the ranks of governments determined to suppress opposition to the fossil fuel industry. The populist Premier who promotes, and funds, closing Adelaide streets for a car race, wants now to jail those who block off a street to demand a stop to new oil and gas projects.

If Minister Koutsantonis has put SA at the disposal of the fossil fuel industry, perhaps dissenting South Australians can look forward to becoming a basket of disposables.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!