Proposed laws in WA violate peoples’ rights

| February 26, 2016

The Western Australian government has proposed laws which are aiming to clamp down on certain protests. Ben Mapuranga argues that these laws are draconian and violate the right to protest.

In March 2015 the Barnett government introduced the Criminal Code Amendment (Prevention of Lawful Activity) Bill to the Western Australian parliament. The proposed new laws have the potential to allow for harsh penalties imposed on citizens. At the core of the bill are two new offences which are: physically preventing a lawful activity and possessing a “thing” with the intention of physically preventing a lawful activity.

This development is cause for serious concern, as it has implications on the state’s legal system and repercussions on the fundamental principles of democratic governance upon which society thrives.

In the Westphalian system, the basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty which allows for the right to vote and eligibility for public office together with freedom of speech and assembly. Liberty of conscience and freedom of thought affix that rights spectrum. The proposed laws seem, in a number of ways, to disregard these principles in various ways. The bill uses broad and ambiguous language which makes it susceptible to criminalising mild activities, and it abandons the presumption of innocence which necessitates for the accused people to prove that they are innocent rather than prosecutors having to prove that they have a case.

Liberalism is firmly associated with strong protection of freedom of speech and assembly and related liberties but Barnett’s Liberal government’s proposed law that would allow for peaceful protesters to be jailed for a period of two years for preventing ‘lawful activity’ smacks of hypocrisy. This could include office sit-ins or farmers locking the gate to their private property in order to prevent fracking companies accessing their land. A group of people preventing and or stopping bull dozers from land-clearing or logging will also find themselves imprisoned under the new laws. People could also be jailed for possessing a “thing’’ that the police believe or suspect that a person will use to stop work.

The above-mentioned scenarios and examples portray the far-reaching extent to which a state can become extensive and therefore violating peoples’ rights. But as the Barnett government has shown, public officials can always put forth reasons that endeavour to justify extensivity of the state.

The government’s argument that it needs to clamp down on “radical” protest activities is not enough to warrant such a draconian move. Under current laws, police already have legal powers like move-on orders which can be issued by the police when they suspect that one is breaching the peace. There is no justifiable reason why more powers should be given to the police, especially when those powers have the potential to violate and infringe on people’s basic rights including the right to peaceful protest.

The proposed law comes at a period in time in Western Australia when the political and social landscape is dominated by sensitive issues like land rights and environmentalism in the wake of industrial land development projects. These issues resonate within the corridors of power in regards to how policy is formulated and implemented around such policy matters and the broader community at large. The James Price Point and Roe 8 developments are perfect examples.

For years, the people of Western Australia protested against any industrial activity on these sites for environmental and cultural reasons, and in 2015, when the Courts ruled that the extension of Roe 8 was not to go ahead, the Premier Collin Barnett vowed and insisted that the development would go ahead.

It stands to reason therefore, that the proposed laws will pave a way for the government to exert upon itself unbelievable powers to implement and push through certain political decisions, while being responsible to no one and to the advantage of the state against the will of the citizenry, therefore violating peoples’ rights.