Opinion: Time to get tough on extremists ignoring the law

22nd January 2014

Originally published in The Daily Telegraph.

By NSW Minerals Council CEO, Stephen Galilee

This Australia Day weekend, most of us will gather with friends and family to celebrate our nation. In stark contrast, a small group of extreme activists will be gathering in a state forest this weekend for training on how to flout the laws the rest of us are bound by, putting themselves and others at risk of injury or worse.

The call has gone out for artists, musicians, face-painters and hula-hoopers (yes seriously) and others to gather in the Leard State Forest for a weekend of activist training and then a day of action to stop the construction and operation of local mines nearby.

This is the latest in a campaign of civil disobedience being waged by a small group of the usual suspects against the legally approved activities of legitimate businesses trying to run their operations, create local jobs, and support the local economy. This time mining is the target, but agriculture and forestry have also suffered from this type of action, and other industries could be next.

The anti-mining campaigners claim to want to save the Leard State forest, which they want the wider community to believe is a ‘pristine wilderness’. This is the same patch of timber assessed in detail by the Federal and State Governments and under an Act of Parliament in 2005, zoned for forestry and mining – the lowest of all zonings.

Those organising the campaign are not concerned community locals, but professional activists who drift from protest to protest, breaking laws and actively putting themselves and others in harms way.

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Benny Zable is the most renowned serial activist to have turned up in the Leard State Forest. Based in Nimbin in the 1970’s Benny has been flitting like a locust from protest to protest for decades. Zable has been arrested many times in his elaborate anti-capitalism costumes, on one occasion for crashing an Australia Day barbecue in 2010, because the participants were ‘cooking meat’.

These are repeat offenders who seem to delight in breaking the law to push their own agenda, regardless of whoever else is affected by their actions.

They have made it clear they do not consider themselves bound by the laws that apply to the rest of us – ‘We will not be moved on…’ Georgina Woods told the media from the protest site.

So far the campaign in the Leard State Forest has involved trespassing, roadblocks and individuals chaining themselves to structures and equipment.

The campaign organisers claim to be running a non-violent campaign. However such assurances don’t guarantee that no-one will get hurt or worse. Construction sites and mining operations involve heavy machinery and equipment. They are not places to experiment with face painting and interpretive dance as acts of protest, let alone chaining people to vehicles and machinery.

While these hard-core activists and extremists have been joined by a small number of local people, the reality is that most locals want them gone. John Shaw, President of the local business collective, recently commented that ‘…these protesters don’t represent us. It’s time to tell the protesters to go home to wherever they came from.’

Before someone gets seriously hurt at this circus, the NSW Government should get tough on those who seek to commit acts of economic sabotage that threaten jobs and put lives at risk.

A strong message needs to be sent through a package of measures to ensure the law of the land applies to everyone. Opting out of the law to protest is not an option, especially when it jeopardises the safety of not only the protestors, but the employees and emergency service personnel who have to deal with the situation.

Laws must be put in place that make those who choose to indulge in illegal activity legally responsible for the consequences of their actions, including any economic and physical harm caused.

Penalties should be increased to deter activists from putting at risk the personal safety of themselves and others, including the emergency service personnel who have to remove them. This should include heavy fines and gaol time.

Importantly, taxpayers should not be the ones footing the bill for the cost of activists legal representation through Legal Aid and other funding sources currently available. If you choose to break the law you pay for it yourself, don’t expect the rest of us to cover for you.

In a democratic society, everyone has a right to have their say and to protest when they feel strongly about something. However, it has to be done within the same rules that govern each and every citizen.