In December 2014, David Pocock was one 30 protestors in a blockade against the Maules Creek coal mine near Gunnedah in New South Wales. The Wallabies captain chained himself to an excavator on the site and when he refused to leave, was charged with three offences, including hindering the working of mining equipment and entering enclosed land without a lawful excuse.
The Liverpool Plains region, where the mine is located, is also the site of the controversial $1.2 billion Shenhua Watermark coal mine, one of the key reasons former federal independent MP Tony Windsor cited in announcing he planned to stand against Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce at this year’s federal election. While Shenhua mining exploration licence expired last month, the Chinese-owned project is seeking a renewal from the NSW government.
The projects have pitted farmers and conservationists against the industry and politicians, but ability to protest against developers like the Liverpool Plains coal mines are about to get harder, with the Baird government is hoping to push through new laws targeting mine protesters this week.
The changes will also target the coal seam gas industry, which has been subject to widespread and sustained protest campaigns and led to the Lock the Gate movement.
NSW industry, resources and energy minister Anthony Roberts says the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016, will give police more powers to manage and prosecute illegal protests.
The new laws expand the definition of a mine site to include petroleum sites (ie CSG), as well as construction sites. They create a new offence of “aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands”, increasing the maximum penalty for similar offences tenfold to $5,500.
Offences such as hindering the working of equipment belonging to a mine, a charge Pocock faced, will attract up to seven years in jail.
It also gives police additional powers without a warrant to stop, search and detain people and cars, boats or planes if they suspect they may have “lock-on” equipment and seize it.
The changes also remove limitations preventing police to giving directions in public places to prevent obstructions of people or traffic for a demonstration, protest, procession or rally.
“The NSW Government makes clear its support for the right to legal protests conducted in accordance with the Summary Offences Act 1988,” Roberts said on Monday when announcing the legislation would be tabled this week.
“However unlawful activities put the safety of protesters and workers at risk and are costly for businesses and the public,” he said.
NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham described the changes “outrageous” and “draconian”.
He argues laws originally introduced to stop industrial sabotage by protesting mine workers in the 1980s, are now being turned again protesters to intimidate them.
“The Bill before parliament expands the definition to encompass after the courts ruled that protesters trying to stop the construction of Maules Creek coal mine could not be prosecuted under this section as it was a construction site, not a mine,” Buckingham said.
“Under these draconian laws, Wallabies Captain David Pocock and scores of ‘knitting nannas’ could be thrown in jail for years simply for standing up for what they feel is important.”
The “Knitting nannas” were three women, aged between 71 and 49, who chained themselves using bike locks to a wastewater plant gate near Narrabri in January. It was the latest in a series of protest by elderly women in recent years against coal seam gas developments around the state.
Buckingham said the changes are being introduced because courts ruled protesters trying to stop the Maules Creek coal mine could not be prosecuted under the existing laws because it was a construction site, not a mine.
“It is wrong to apply this section [of the law] to someone exercising their democratic rights by standing in front of a mining truck, or trespassing with a bike lock and a banner against coal or coal seam gas,” he said.
David Pocock appeared in court in February 2015 over his Maules Creek protest and pleaded guilty to hindering a workman in the use of property, but the charge was withdrawn. The other charges against him were dismissed.