The New South Wales Labor party has helped pass a bill that could see protesters who block roads, ports or rail in the state spend up to two years in jail, despite outrage from unions and environmental groups.
After being forced to call an extra sitting day, thanks to the Greens mounting a filibuster attempt, the government was able to pass the bill into law with Labor’s backing on Friday, just two days after it first introduced the legislation into parliament.
The bill introduces fines of up to $22,000 and up to two years in jail for anyone found to have blocked roads, ports or other major infrastructure such as train lines in a way which “seriously disrupts or obstructs vehicles or pedestrians”.
Introduced in response to a series of climate protests during which activists blockaded the Port of Botany and major roads including the Spit Bridge near Manly, the bill saw a wave of condemnation from environmental and human rights groups, which have questioned its constitutionality.
The head of Unions NSW, Mark Morey, also described it as “unacceptable”.
But despite the reservations of some on the Labor backbench, the opposition leader, Chris Minns, gave an impassioned speech in support of the bill when it returned to the lower house on Friday afternoon.
Condemning their climate protests as “guerrilla activity”, Minns attacked Blockade Australia for partaking in “anarchy for anarchy’s sake”.
“It’s not like coal barons are the people being affected by these protests, it’s ordinary people going about their lives and trying to earn a living,” he said.
Earlier in the upper house, Labor moved a series of amendments that carved out industrial action from the bill and provided exemptions for protesters who block roads outside of parliament or MPs’ offices.
The Greens noted that Labor initially opposed the latter amendments when they were put forward this week.
Other amendments put by Labor – including an exemption for “peaceful protests” – did not receive government support. In parliament the attorney general, Mark Speakman, accused the opposition of having sought to “torpedo the bill” by pushing the change.
Earlier the Greens spent Thursday night moving dozens of amendments in a bid to see the bill delayed until the next sitting window in May. But the government was able to pass a motion which saw MPs return for a special sitting day on Friday.
After five hours of debate, including unsuccessful attempts by the Greens to carve out other forms of protest from the bill, it passed through the upper house. The Greens upper house MP Abigail Boyd said it was “clearly targeted at silencing particular types of protest and silencing particular people with particular views”.
“This silencing of political views should cause the attorney general to be gravely concerned now about the constitutionality of this bill,” she said.
She also slammed the opposition for supporting the bill, saying Labor “make plenty of noise about supporting the right to peaceful protest, but it’s clear their solidarity only extends so far”.
Both the government and Labor argue the the bill does not apply to “legal” protests and merely increases punishments for existing offences.
But a series of organisations including the Aboriginal Legal Service, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Environmental Defenders Office lined up to slam the legislation after it passed.
“The Aboriginal Legal Service was born out of a protest movement in the 1970s. You would be hard pressed to find any win for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights that wasn’t brought about by public protest,” the ALS chair, Mark Davies, said.
“The right to assemble and demonstrate in our streets, towns and cities is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy. For marginalised communities, public protests enable us to be seen and heard, even – and especially – when those in power would rather suppress our voices.
“We condemn in the strongest terms this government crackdown on our right to protest.”