New South Wales’ chilling landscape for environmental protest

Ever since environmental activist Deanna “Violet” Coco was handed down a 15-month sentence earlier in December, protesters in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, have rallied in solidarity and to voice their dismay. On Tuesday this week, Coco walked free from prison. The temporary reprieve came as her bail appeal was approved, while she awaits an appeal on her sentence.

In April, Coco and a handful of other protesters from Fireproof/|Floodproof Australia blocked one lane of traffic on Sydney Harbour Bridge, holding aloft a flare to signal the climate emergency. Her sentence is the first of its kind under new laws in New South Wales.

For Suelette Dreyfus, executive director at Australia-based organisation Blueprint for Free Speech, Coco’s recent release must not divert attention from the serious penalties being given to environmental protesters, and the impact on freedom of expression.

“New South Wales has been targeting environmental protesters in the past year especially,” Dreyfus said. “That includes a Conservative state government and a streak in the media that is quite anti-environmentalist.”

She describes the penalties environmental activists typically faced in the past compared to today. What could once have been a fine for a few hundred Australian dollars, has become the threat of a lengthy prison sentence. This comes after NSW introduced the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Act 2022 in April, meaning protesters could be fined up to AU$22,000 or be imprisoned for up to two years for trespassing on a major road and causing damage or disruption, or for damaging or disrupting a major facility.

Alongside this, a new police unit was created to disrupt environmental protest, called Strike Force Guard.

Dreyfus called this “an extreme power that’s been given to both police and the judiciary, to silence environmental protesters”.

When Coco’s sentence was handed down, NSW premier Dominic Perrottet described it as “pleasing to see”.

“It seems to be a strange thing to want to put a peaceful young woman exercising her right to freedom of expression in prison for two years, and feel self-satisfied about it,” Dreyfus told Index.

Coco is not alone in facing the sharp end of NSW’s new laws. In April, fellow Fireproof Australia activist Andrew George interrupted a National Rugby League match by running onto the pitch with a flare, and was handed down a three-month jail sentence, which he later appealed and won. In September, Blockade Australia activist Mali Cooper was cleared of charges against them, after they blocked the Sydney Harbour Tunnel in an attempt to force systemic change after witnessing the Lismore floods. They had faced the threat of two years in prison and $22,000 in fines.

Dreyfus referred to this landscape for environmental protest as a New South Wales phenomenon, but she said there is evidence that it’s leaching to other states. Victoria and Tasmania introduced similar laws this year.

“I think that the New South Wales government is actually weaponising the law against environmental protest in that state by going for the most serious charges they think they can, rather than charges that are commensurate with the very often very minor disruption that the protesters may cause,” Dreyfus said.

“We’re not talking about people who have burned down the Sydney Opera House here. We’re talking about people who have marched peacefully, and may have marched some bit of time in the road,” she said. “It’s really a minor offence, and it’s being treated like a major offence. So, it’s definitely chilling freedom of expression. It’s not a spring chill. It’s a full-on disturbing kind of winter hail.”

She said people are not attending ordinary protests in the same way as before, referring to demonstrations of around 100 people marching along a road, where some might step off the pavement and disrupt traffic. Coco’s sentencing, she said, has dampened participation.

However, she does not believe people will be silenced in this harsh landscape: “Most protesters of that nature are resourceful. So they will find another way to express what they think is important.”

The unintended consequence of the way NSW is dealing with this issue, she said, is that they are ultimately giving a bigger microphone to the protesters. Where before, disruptive protests were encouraging people to talk about environmental issues, now people are talking about environmental issues, freedom of expression and law reform. She calls that a killer combination for positive change.

“It will be up to the civil society community to make the most of that,” she said. “That’s something that they have to decide how they’re going to embrace.”

Where are all the voices?

Freedom of expression is an amazing human right. It guarantees each and every one of us the right to speak, to write, to create. For many of us it also provides a legal framework to protect our voices, to make sure that every viewpoint, on every issue has a counter view available. At its best it drives debate and progression and makes our society stronger.

There is, however, one thing that freedom of expression doesn’t grant and that is the right to be heard and listened to. It only protects the right to speak. In some instances that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some fringe views should stay on the fringe…

However in too many instances a lack of voices fails us all. Freedom of expression doesn’t guarantee you a seat at the table and it doesn’t ensure that a diverse range of voices influence the people making decisions that affect every part of our lives.

A case in point was this month’s COP27 conference. Only 34% of the negotiators sent by their nations to discuss the impact of climate change and efforts to get to net zero were women. This should come as no surprise. After all, most governments rarely reflect the gender balance of their countries. Of the people elected to the US Congress this month 27% are women. And 24% of the US Senate will be women. The British Cabinet only has seven women – 23% of the total. And last month’s Chinese Communist Party Congress didn’t have a single woman present.

I realise that for some this could be seen as a feminist rant. It isn’t. The lack of women just highlights how few voices get to the top table and how little room there seems to be for alternative views and perspectives. Which is why our right to freedom of expression is so important – the more voices that exist, the more arguments made, the more difficult it is for policy makers to ignore them. Which means ultimately we all win.

Our right to freedom of expression has underpinned every progressive campaign that has reshaped society since the advent of the printing press – from the end of slavery, to universal suffrage, the right to strike and the right to gay marriage, to name but a few. These views were not of the mainstream, they were not the prevailing views of the elected politicians and governments. They were however discussed, debated and then demanded by their citizens. Just as they should be – which is why we fight every day to make sure that our rights to freedom of expression are protected and cherished. Because while freedom of expression isn’t the same as the right to be heard, it’s a good start.

Indigenous people have been silenced on the climate crisis

For the last fortnight the media has been dominated by news of the COP26 conference. We’ve lived and breathed, along with the negotiators, each aspect of a potential final deal to tackle climate change once and for all. We’ve listened to leaders discuss how as a global community we must limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and where the political will is and is not for comprehensive change.

We’ve heard from global leaders, from the G7 and the G20. From the UN, the Commonwealth and every possible global coalition. We’ve heard from former elected leaders, religious leaders, activists, local government leaders and financiers who have all had their say in an effort to push those with power to make life-changing decisions for all of us. Yet as I write we still don’t know what the final deal will really promise and what is likely to be achieved from two weeks of talking.

I believe that talking is incredibly important, diplomacy is the most powerful tool we can have and there are never enough words. But in this case, I worry not about who we have heard from and not even about what the final deal may look like (although we desperately need united action), but rather I am horrified about who we have not heard from.

In the midst of this geo-political strategic negotiation, we seem to have heard from every stakeholder, every country and even many companies. Who we’ve heard very little from however are the people on the frontline of this crisis. Of the indigenous peoples whose lands and livelihoods are at threat from floods or famine. People who have been silenced by their governments, for decades, as they attempted to raise the impacts of pollution and climate change to their communities. People who were attacked by their own governments and corporations for undermining economic development and therefore persecuted and silenced for telling the truth about what was happening to their land and their people.

As the world gathered, it is their voices, those of indigenous communities, which needed to be heard, that could and should have acted as a galvanising force – emotive but factual testimony about what is really at stake. Instead, indigenous peoples around the world have been silenced. The impact of climate change has resulted in a climate of fear. A double whammy for those on the front line of this climate change disaster. It is their stories which Index has highlighted during COP26. With the support of the Clifford Chance Foundation we’ve been able to help tell their stories – both in our magazine and online. So please, take a minute and read their stories as we all consider what we need to do to help fix the planet.