In response to increasing protests by environmentalists, lawmakers in Queensland, Australia recently passed new legislation that instated potential prison sentences for protestors that use “dangerous devices.” According to Al Jazeera, items “such as the lock-on devices that activists use to attach themselves to each other or immovable objects” are the types of objects classified as dangerous devices. While government figures argue for the public safety necessity of this legislation, activists have decried the move as an infringement upon their free speech and an undue impediment on their attempts to save the environment. Tasmania, another Australian state, is poised to pass even more stringent laws pertaining to protestors.
In defense of the legislation, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk issued the following tweet: “Everyone has the right to conduct a peaceful protest but the activities of some are not. Blocking roads is dangerous, reckless, irresponsible, selfish and stupid. The sinister tactics some protesters are using are dangerous and designed to harm.” In a statement to the Queensland Parliament, Palaszczuk explained that the containers protestors used to attach themselves to each other and to objects contained “glass fragments- even butane gas containers- so that anyone trying to cut a protester free will be injured or worse.” Climate activists argue that they have exhausted all other methods of protest and that the environmental issues constitute “a climate emergency” and “a major crisis our political leaders are ignoring” deserving of these more severe tactics, activist Greg Rolles said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
When considering laws pertaining to peaceful protest, there is a fine line for both the governors and the governed to walk. Consequently, it is difficult to pass a full judgment upon the Queensland legislation. Peaceful protest is an integral facet of any democratic society, and it is imperative that any country that is purportedly free and democratic, such as Australia, preserve this right. Concurrently, it is within the interests of the Queensland government to protect the safety and order of its people. In that way, Queensland’s actions are not inherently unfounded. Protests held by activists earlier in the year were, in fact, disruptive, which provided the impetus for the passage of this new legislation. The question becomes whether or not the legislation and punishment is proportionate to the issue and crime, or if the remedy is worse than the ailment. According to Al Jazeera, Palaszczuk’s claim that lock-on devices contained glass or gas have yet to be substantiated, but the new legislation allows law enforcement “to search anyone they reasonably suspect is in possession of” one of these devices, and anyone “found using such devices could face up to two years in jail.” In this case, the Queensland legislation is based upon a presumption of danger that is not necessarily backed up by the evidence, and some may view the two-year jail sentence as excessive, a key facet of opposition to the new law.
Queensland enacted this legislation after activist group Extinction Rebellion staged a series of disruptive protests in Queensland’s capital of Brisbane earlier in the year, including holding a mock funeral for the planet and blocking off several streets. These protests came at the same time as an increase in the use of lock-on devices by protestors to attach themselves not only to one another but to suspension bridges above train tracks, the tracks themselves, and fences, among other surfaces and objects. Given the totality of the circumstances, Queensland lawmakers decided to take action and pass this legislation in hopes of preventing future disruption. Despite these new, harsher punishments for these specific types of protest, activists continue to stage demonstrations to raise awareness for environmental issues and spur their governments to more comprehensive, progressive, and radical actions to combat climate change.
The Queensland government responded swiftly to the earlier disruption of environmentalist protestors in 2019. While they defend the legislation due to public security interests, activists decry the laws as unfounded restrictions on their democratic right to free, peaceful protest. Extinction Rebellion and other activists are undeterred by the legislation. They are continuing their demonstrations, so it will be crucial to see how fully or harshly Queensland enforces these new provisions as more protests occur. Additionally, the ensuing success or failure of these laws may influence the passage of similar legislation in the Australian state of Tasmania. Regardless of any future implications, both the protests and the enforcement of this new legislation must occur peacefully. These activists will make no progress toward their goal of saving the planet if they resort to violent tactics that earn them the reputation of being extremist. Similarly, the government of Queensland will harm their relationship with their people and the international community if they resort to violence in a crackdown on peaceful protestors.
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