New Victorian laws targeting peaceful protesters should send a chill up our spines

Coming from Sri Lanka, where dissent has been violently quashed and stable government broke down, I know how important it is to sound the alarm when our democracy is being threatened.

My first experience of protest was watching my primary school teachers strike to gain better working conditions. The biggest was the rally to protest the war in Iraq in Melbourne. The most moving have been those to free asylum seekers from detention.

On Thursday new laws were passed in Victorian parliament that will see peaceful protesters faced with fines of up to $21,000, or 12 months in jail, for trying to save our environment.

A person standing in front of a 100-year-old tree demanding it be saved from logging could be slapped with a fine the price of a small car, or put behind bars.

This should send a chill up our spines.

The right to protest is fundamental to a healthy democracy that values debate and the diverse voices of our communities.

For those without deep pockets or access to politicians and platforms, protest can be the only tool many in our community have to be heard and to secure change.

Australia has a rich history of environmental protest, whether it was the Franklin Dam blockade in Tasmania in the 1980s, or more recently the School Strike 4 Climate, which saw students in their thousands take to the streets demanding greater action on the climate crisis. This must be protected.

At a time when we should be doing what we can to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, we shouldn’t be threatening and intimidating communities trying to speak out.

Victoria is following an alarming trend around the country of major parties joining forces to squash peaceful and non-violent protest when it comes to our climate and environment.

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New South Wales has passed laws that will see people fined up to $22,000 or imprisoned for two years if they protest on public roads, rail lines, tunnels, bridges or industrial estates.

In Queensland, recent laws ban people using locking devices, criminalising peaceful protest that could include blocking roads or buildings. This is despite the fact that the UN said the move was at odds with international human rights obligations.

And in Tasmania, there’s a bill currently before parliament that means someone marching on the street towards parliament house could be jailed for up to three months.

What all these laws have in common is that they are attempts by governments to prop up dying and damaging extractive industries that are losing public support. The only way coal and gas mining and logging have a future is by co-opting governments and corrupting democracy.

Proportionate to land mass, Victoria is already the most cleared state in Australia, with our native forests being logged at an alarming rate and our plant and animal life pushed to the brink of extinction.

Earlier this year we had a parliamentary inquiry into the state’s extinction crisis which highlighted the threats to the state’s faunal emblem – the leadbeater’s possum.

Evidence was tabled by protesters who had the courage to go into native forests and witness how the government-owned logging company was breaking the state’s environmental laws. Without these protesters, VicForests would be allowed to carry on with impunity destroying the last remaining native forests.

The reality is, without activists, protesters, and environmental defenders, the Franklin River would be dammed and the Tasmanian wilderness drowned. The Daintree Rainforest would no longer exist and Kakadu wouldn’t be a place to visit to marvel at our natural world.

Hope comes from protest movements, and I will always stand alongside our climate and environment protesters who want a better future for us all.

  • Samantha Ratnam is the leader of the Victorian Greens and member for the Northern Metropolitan Region in the state’s Legislative Council.

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