Most Australians would take for granted that in a democracy such as ours certain human rights and freedoms are a given. In fact, the Australian constitution is limited in its articulation of human rights to the point of barely referencing them. We do not have an equivalent to the United States Bill of Rights and we do not have a First Amendment, which guarantees freedoms with respect to religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition.
As a founding member of the United Nations, Australia participated in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and is signatory to various other international human rights treaties. Most Australians would have the expectation that these rights are fundamental and that their civil freedoms are protected in the body of our laws. Laws and treaties are essentially the articulation of a code of conduct by which a society wishes to govern itself.
Sometimes governance strays from these accepted codes, and sometimes governance requires a balancing of competing interests, particularly as societies move into new eras of knowledge. In either situation a community will ultimately respond to a perceived or actual infringement of its civil rights.
In recent months the issue of civil rights has been front and centre in the national and international debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Questions have been raised as to whether or not Australia has conformed to the codes of conduct to which it is a signatory. Similarly, there has been considerable national and international questioning of Australia’s position on climate change. Global advances in scientific knowledge have led most international bodies to conclude, “Climate change poses risks for human and natural systems”. Over the past ten years, legal cases have been fought over issues to do with climate change.
In 2005, the Inuit people living in the Arctic filed a legal petition against the US Government, claiming its failure to control greenhouse emissions was damaging livelihoods and this was a violation of human rights. In April 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) refusal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions presented an “actual” and “imminent” risk of harm to public health and the environment. June 2014 sees the coral atoll nation of Kiribati negotiating to relocate its population to Fiji due to rising sea levels.
A person’s right to adequate health and wellbeing is a civil right as set out in Article 25 (1) of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Australia’s continued advocacy of practices that contribute to climate change when viable alternatives are being successfully integrated by other nations appears not only negligent but a violation of civil rights.
Whereas it is essential, if man is not compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.
As a last resort the people of the Leard Blockade have chosen to engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience in an attempt to prevent the construction of Australia’s largest coal mine in an environmentally sensitive area. They are rebelling in defence of their civil rights: their right to clean water and air, their right to an economy investing in a sustainable future, their right to preserve Aboriginal culture, their right to petition and participate in the civil and political decision making.
The people of the Leard Blockade believe that the rule of law has been singularly lacking with respect to many aspects of the process that allows Whitehaven Coal to clear vast tracts of the Leard State Forest to build a coalmine at Maules Creek.
As a local community, we feel that we have been forced to take this action because the NSW Government has failed in its responsibility to uphold the law and protect the environment of NSW.
It is not an unreasonable conclusion to come to. Daily the media is reporting on the falling price of coal, that international markets for coal are disappearing and that financial institutions are seeking to divest themselves of investments in unsustainable sources of power. Today Whitehaven itself conceded that “there’s not a lot of profitability” in coal and has announced staff redundancies.
Originally cast as ‘professional activists’, ‘economic saboteurs’, ‘anarchists’, troublemakers’, ‘locusts’ and ‘feral dole bludgers’, time and the media have shown these statements to be false and to be deliberate attempts to discredit a valid community protest. Now the people of the Leard Blockade are being called “increasingly aggressive and dangerous”, they are being accused of putting the safety of rescuers and mine workers at risk for the sake of publicity.
Many people have walked into the closed Leard Forest and have trespassed on the Whitehaven mine site, some people have planted trees, some people have stood in front of machinery and a few have locked themselves on to machinery, gates and trees. One reported the protest live. A few of these people have put their own personal safety at risk. None of these people have put the safety of workers or ‘rescuers’ at risk. Their actions are not violent or aggressive. Statements to the contrary are incorrect and unsupported. Statements to the contrary are further attempts to discredit the protest and hence to validate the actions of those that oppose the protest.
The mining industry and the NSW Police acknowledge the protestors’ right to their own opinion and to lawful protest but not the action “to interrupt a legitimate business”.
However, if the right to free speech and the right to assemble are to have any value they will by their very nature challenge the existing status quo.
What is the value of free speech, if it needs to be voiced in a way that is pre-approved and sanctioned by government?
The Leard Blockade protest has been one of civil disobedience and the response to it has been to arrest the lawbreakers. Those opposed to the protest state that the protestors do not have the right to break the law. Over 200 people have been arrested protesting at the Leard Blockade. They were arrested for trespass and for entering an enclosed area. More recently some have been charged with hindering mining equipment. They chose to break the law in full knowledge that they would be prosecuted under the law. As did the protestors at the Franklin River, as did Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Can it ever be said that we do not have the right to personal choice when choice is so personal?
Those facing legal proceedings should take heart from the landmark trial in 2008 of six Greenpeace UK protestors who were cleared of charges of criminal damage after occupying a smoke stack of a coal powered station and painting a sign on it. Greenpeace UK successfully argued ‘lawful excuse’ as a defense, that the protestors’ actions whilst unlawful were legally justified as they were seeking to prevent climate change from causing greater property damage around the world.
The Leard State Forest is a public forest managed by the state owned Forestry Corporation of NSW and comes under the jurisdiction of the NSW Police, Barwon Area Command. At the request of the NSW Police in January 2014 the FCNSW closed the Leard State Forest for reasons of public safety due to high fire risk. All campers and day visitors were prevented from entering the forest at this time. However, the prohibition did not apply to Whitehaven Coal employees and subcontractors who had continued to have unrestrained access to the forest. During a period of high fire danger Whitehaven Coal was allowed to use heavy earthmoving equipment to clear access to the proposed mine site and to remove large trees. The FCNSW website indicated that the forest would be reopened to the public on April 1.
Towards the end of March the NSW police became more active in their approach to discouraging the protestors. Unannounced, Barwon Area Command requested that FCNSW extend the closure of the forest due to ongoing safety concerns. These concerns were not publically articulated but the area was not then considered a high fire risk.
The NSW Police no longer limited themselves to arresting people who had entered the Leard Forest and the Whitehaven Coal lease. Roadblocks were erected across public roads blocking every entrance to the Leard State Forest in an attempt to prevent protestors reaching the mine site. As a result, local landowners could not access their homes without passing through these roadblocks. All cars were stopped and searched. Occupants of the cars were required to show identification and proof of address. Residents were permitted through the blocks only to travel to their homes but were not able to take any person with them who was not also a resident. No other persons were allowed to use these roads.
Residents and non-residents alike were required to travel over 80 kilometres out of their way to reach the local town of Boggabri. Wilma Laird, a longtime Boggabi parishioner, was stopped on her way to the Good Friday church service, a service she had attended for the past 77 years. The Police told her to use an alternate route through Narrabri. A round trip of an extra 160km made it impossible to reach the service in time. Wilma Laird turned around and went home.
Nearby neighbour, Ros Druce, had a similar experience.
Previously the police have stopped and searched my vehicle, carried out ID checks and prevented visitors from travelling to my property … today they prevented family from coming to my place on Good Friday … The rights of everyday people at Maules Creek are being trumped by the interests of Whitehaven Coal.
Superintendent Talbot, Barwon Local Area Commander, states that the NSW Police have “an obligation to prevent and detect crime”. To that end NSW Police have continued to erect roadblocks and to search vehicles. All cars are searched before entering the private property of Cliff Wallace, a local farmer who has made his land available for protestors to camp on. Cars are inspected for defects and contraband and locals and visitors alike are breathalysed at all hours.
Resources have been called in from Sydney and interstate. The police helicopter Polair, officers from the State Protection Group, officers from NSW Police Air Wing and two police dog vans with tracking and sniffer dogs and police officers from as far Queensland have been deployed to the Leard Blockade. On one day the Polair helicopter flew low over the camp on Cliff’s property six times. People are being photographed as they enter his property.
As recently as last Wednesday two NSW State Senators, Lee Rhiannon and Mehreen Faruqi, visited Maules Creek. They were stopped, asked for identification and their car was searched. Under S36 of LEPRA police have he power to search a vehicle if they “reasonably suspect” you may be carrying “devices to disrupt mining equipment”. They were similarly detained and searched when leaving the area and asked to provide phone numbers and destination details. It can only be assumed that the police ‘reasonably suspected’ the senators of an intent to break the law, otherwise they would have no reason to search their car or anyone else’s.
The people of the Leard Blockade have repeatedly approached the NSW Minister for the Environment, Pru Goward, and the NSW Minister for Planning, Rob Stokes, with requests for information regarding Whitehaven Coal’s unprecedented and controversial clearing of the Leard Forest during winter. In most cases messages have not been returned and those that have, have taken weeks. It would appear that the foreign owned Whitehaven Coal had more immediate access to the NSW government than the constituents who voted for and pay them.
The people of the Leard Blockade began their protest fighting for people’s right to health and wellbeing and the right to the preservation of culture. They did this believing in an implicit right to free speech, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to petition their elected representatives for redress and the right to equality under the law.
In the process, those they oppose have sought to discredit their motives and their actions, they have been lied about and their views marginalised. They have been put under surveillance and have been spied upon, they have been harassed. The actions of the public services of the NSW Police and the Forestry Commission of NSW have limited the public’s freedom of movement and have restricted people’s participation in the cultural life of the community. Their opponents have condemned their actions as causing an unnecessary use of police and emergency resources but have failed to understand that an extraordinary amount of police resources have been used against a peaceful concerned community to provide security to foreign investment in a diminishing market. When does the upholding of civil compliance cross the line and violate fundamental civil rights?
Prime Minister Tony Abbott equated the sacrifices Australian soldiers made in their fight for democracy with the abolition of the carbon tax and “Australia open for business”. Others do not. At the Anzac Memorial Service at the Bentley protest against coal seam gas mining a Vietnam veteran summed up the general mood of the moment.
What we see happening here is not what they fought for.
They fought for civil rights.
It is now June and the Leard State Forest remains closed – to the public.