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Protesters risk wrath of new laws

In December last year the Independent wrote that people power had won an historic battle, forcing the government’s hand to ban CSG mining in the Northern Rivers. At the time, Parliamentary Secretary for the North Coast and Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis, said: “The Nationals and the NSW Government have listened … and achieved a result that delivers for the people of the Northern Rivers.” And in May of 2015, he told the NSW parliament that there was “something very fundamentally wrong when 6,000 or 7,000 people are prepared to confront 1,000 police because they feel so concerned about the impacts of the CSG industry”, when referring to the blockade at Bentley. He said that the people of the Northern Rivers who were against CSG mining were “not extremists, just everyday people from my electorate”. Following the passing of new laws by the NSW Government last week, some of those protesters may have to think again about what actions they might take in the future. The maximum penalty for unlawful entry upon a site where “a business or undertaking is being conducted” has been increased from $550 to $5,500 – in relation to anyone who “interferes with, or attempts or intends to interfere with, the conduct of the business or undertaking; or does anything that gives rise to a serious risk to the safety of the offender or any other person on those lands”. The maximum penalty of imprisonment is seven years. With regard to mining, the laws encompass all types of mines, including exploration, as would occur with coal seam gas for example. Police have been given “additional search and seizure powers (without warrant), where a police officer suspects on reasonable grounds that a person has (or a vehicle, vessel or aircraft contains) anything that is intended to be used to lock-on or secure a person to any plant, equipment or structure for the purpose of interfering with the conduct of a business or undertaking – and that is likely to be used in a manner that will give rise to a serious risk to the safety of any person”. Limitations have been lifted on “police powers to give directions in public places to prevent obstructions of persons or traffic (or harassment or intimidation of or fear to other persons) in the case of demonstrations, protests, processions or organised assemblies”. These new powers can be used provided the police officer “believes on reasonable grounds that the direction is necessary to deal with a serious risk to the safety of the person [or people] to whom the direction is given” and that “the demonstration, protest, procession or assembly is obstructing traffic and is not an authorised public assembly under the Summary Offences Act 1988”. During debate in the Legislative Council, Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said: “Seven years gaol for merely hindering an activity; it’s an absolute disgrace, these people are heroes.” Fellow Greens MP David Shoebridge said: “They [the government] know it’s going to have a serious impact on civil rights, and they don’t care.” The Law Society of NSW, which wrote to the Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts, on the day before the vote was taken, stated: “We consider that the NSW Police already have extraordinary powers of search and seizure, and are able to restrain and detain people for their own and others’ safety. “The proposed amendments do not appear to be either necessary or proportionate. “We … oppose the further extension of police powers to search, seize, detain and restrain without the safeguard of judicial oversight.” The Premier, Mike Baird, however, has said: “Anyone who wants to protest peacefully, legally; well there’s no problem.”