In April this year, the Roads and Crimes Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 was successfully passed through the NSW Parliament with the support of the Labor opposition. Last week, the first victim of this bill was sentenced for a peaceful protest conducted just two weeks after the amendment became law.
On April 13 2022, Deanna "Violet" Coco drove a hire truck onto one of the southbound lanes of the Harbour Bridge during the Wednesday morning peak hour. Alongside fellow protesters from Fireproof Australia, Coco successfully blocked traffic in one lane for 25 minutes. Some of her company glued themselves to the bitumen whilst Coco lit a flare and stood on top of her truck live streaming.
Coco claimed in a statement that the demonstration was made to "draw attention to the climate and ecological emergency, and the fact that our firefighters do not have the tools they need to protect us." In the statement, she notes that she did not want to be protesting and that "it's stressful, resource-intensive, scary and [that] the police are violent". She asserts that she did not want to break the law but that there was no other way to address the issue of the climate emergency with "the gravitas that it deserves" that didn’t involve breaking the law.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to prevent "certain behaviour that causes damage or disruption to major roads or major public facilities". The amendment means that, under the new legislation, those who protest without authorisation in ways that cause disruption to roads and public transport could face a maximum of two years in jail and/or a $22,000 fine.
Before the Amendment Bill, the maximum sentence for knowingly joining or participating in unlawful assembly was six months in jail and a $500 fine. Participation in illegal assembly "with any weapon, loaded arm or with anything which used as a weapon of offence is likely to cause death, or grievous bodily harm" attracted a maximum of 12 months in jail and/or a $1,100 fine. On Friday, Coco was given a 15-month jail term for her role in the protest, with a non-parole period of eight months. Coco was also fined $2500 for using an authorised explosive in a way other than its designed purpose. Her sentencing means that in the eyes of the court, Coco was deemed more dangerous than an armed protester before the amendment.
The problem with climate change discourse is that people tend to ignore issues that don't manifest in their daily lives. It's one of the many reasons that some people struggle to fathom the danger of climate change; it is not as glaringly obvious as a road full of potholes right in front of your house. Unfortunately, protests are less effective when you can opt-out of their impact — there's hardly a story in someone protesting at your local park. Protests that do not cause some disruption to the "norm" are easily ignored, noticed only by those who already concur with the sentiments at hand.
Coco’s sentencing sets a new precedent in NSW and, more broadly, Australia. It demonstrates that those who care enough to speak up against authority and big corporations in a way that ignites discussion will face very real and severe consequences. Reminiscent of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on all street marches in the 1970s, the new laws tap into the larger question of our rights in a liberal democracy.
According to the Australian Government Attorney-General's Department, the "right to peaceful assembly protects the right of individuals and groups to meet and to engage in peaceful protest". To conduct a peaceful protest in NSW, one must submit a notice of intention to hold a public assembly to the police commissioner. Although individuals possess the right to protest peacefully, it is unlikely that events such as Coco's demonstration would have ever been approved in the first place. The issue is that there is no real incentive for authorities to approve protests that work against the agenda and policies of the government; protests that can diminish their integrity serve no purpose.
Coco’s sentencing illustrates the power of authority in NSW and will cause public wariness of future participation in acts of protest. Large-scale demonstrations like the 2003 anti-war protests, which disrupt standard order on the streets, may become a rare occurrence due to the dire consequences of participating. Suppose the imprisonment of those who engage in unlawful peaceful demonstrations becomes more common in future under the new laws. In that case, it begs the question of whether the public voice on critical issues in the political sphere will begin to diminish. If the choice boils down to living with relative autonomy and freedom or exchanging it for a chance to communicate a message to those in power, it may very well be the case.