by Michael McGowan / The Guardian
Climate change protesters who have caused blockades at Sydney’s major port this week say tougher penalties and the deportation of two activists will not stop them from continuing their campaign.
The New South Wales government announced on Thursday that it would ramp up its response to protests by the climate group Blockade Australia, including the creation of a strike force aimed at disrupting activists, increased penalties and possible jail time.
The penalties, including fines of $22,000 and up to two years jail time for people who blockade tunnels and bridges, follow three days of protests around the port which have seen the arrests of five people including two German nationals.
The German nationals, who are brothers, have since had their visas cancelled.
The immigration minister, Alex Hawke, confirmed on Thursday they would be deported over their involvement in the protests this week, which blocked peak-hour traffic around Port Botany. One of the brothers has been refused bail and will face court against next week.
After days of protests – and campaigning from Sydney radio station 2GB – the state’s acting premier, Paul Toole, held two separate press conferences on Thursday in which he also foreshadowed further “tough laws” to target protesters.
The government will also bring legislation to parliament which would expand the law to include roads and other major industrial and transport facilities.
“Groups like Blockade Australia, they have gotten a lot smarter than ever before. They’ve got legal teams that are actually doing work for them to actually work out what the penalties might be,” Toole told reporters. “Enough is enough.”
He also welcomed the cancellation of the visas of the two German nationals, saying: “Good riddance, we don’t want you here.
“They’ve got no place here in this country,” he said.
Toole called the protests a “kick in the guts” for farmers and miners, and said the decision to block traffic and slow the port’s operations was “disgraceful”.
Later on Thursday, Toole announced the establishment of a police strike force to “disrupt” the protesters, with assistant commissioner Peter Cotter flagging a heavy police presence and the use of proactive policing and stop and search powers in and around the port.
But the group at the centre of the protests said they would not be deterred.
Among the five people arrested this week were 57-year-old preschool teacher Dominique Jacobs from Gloucester in the Hunter Valley and 71-year-old psychologist Helen Kvelde. On Wednesday afternoon they blocked a major road into the port with two trucks.
Kvelde locked herself to the steering wheel with a bike lock while Jacobs climbed on top of the second truck and unfurled a banner reading “don’t negotiate with climate criminals”.
While the threat of increased punishments was daunting, both women said it would not have stopped them taking the action.
“It wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to me,” Jacobs said. “I’m more frightened of the climate emergency than I am of their harsher penalties.”
Kvedle, a longtime environmental activist who lives in regional NSW, accused the government of “cynicism” for introducing the penalties.
“They only care about money and they only want to stop people who might be affecting the economy,” she said.
Blockade Australia’s main spokesperson, Clancey Maher, who was arrested during its last major action disrupting Newcastle coal port in November last year, confirmed the group would not be deterred by the government.
“In regards to the development of the strike force and the harsher penalties and the threat of deportation, they’re all designed as deterrents and what I can say is none of them are working,” she said.
“None of the people currently engaged in Blockade Australia is backing down. One of the important things is to acknowledge that all of those actions by the government is to do just that. It’s to instil fear in people.”
The new penalties were supported by the Labor leader, Chris Minns, who dismissed fears that the extension of police powers posed a threat to civil liberties, saying the protests had caused “serious damage to the NSW economy”.
“It’s almost impossible to think of anything more disruptive, or damaging to the environmental cause, or the cause for climate change than the actions of these people,” he said.
“At the very moment when we’re trying to build a coalition around climate change, to make it a mainstream issue and to ensure that it has bipartisan support and the support of millions of people right across Australia, but in particular in Sydney, in western Sydney, this is one of the most damaging things that anybody could do.”
But the Greens MP David Shoebridge savaged the government, calling it a “politically motivated crackdown on legitimate political expression”.
“This isn’t the first time the Coalition has moved to criminalise protest, having already put in place harsh criminal penalties for any protest that disrupts fossil fuel production,” he said.
“In the face of global wars and human rights abuses and with our own communities reeling from catastrophic floods made worse by climate change, the right to demand action on climate and to defend human rights must be protected.
“Every tonne of coal, oil and gas we burn will increase the intensity and speed of climate change– the activists standing up to stop this should be congratulated, not arrested.”