OPINION: Some protesters need to be punished

March 17, 2016

This opinion piece originally featured on the Daily Telegraph on 17 March 2016

Everyone has the right to be safe at work. We have a range of laws that say so. In a ­democracy, everyone should also have the right to protest within the law.
Striking the right balance between the right to protest and the right to workplace protection is crucial. That’s why the NSW government’s ­approach to unsafe protest activity should be supported.
This week the NSW Parliament is debating legislation that will ensure that political activists who turn up to mine sites to break the law and put themselves and others in danger face tougher penalties, including potential jail time for serious offences by repeat offenders.
These tougher penalties send a strong deterrent message that will mean less people doing stupid things, while maintaining the right to protest within the law. It’s a commonsense approach that strikes the right ­balance, and it should be supported.
In regional NSW the safety of workers, security staff, police and emergency service personnel is ­regularly put at risk by professional protesters breaking the law in pursuit of their cause.
These are not well-intentioned people expressing their view. These are not the so-called “knitting nannas” protesting outside of the offices of politicians or mining companies. These are professional activists, ­intent on trespass onto mine sites and sabotage of mining equipment.
Most of the actions by protesters, while stupid and dangerous, have not been excessively violent.
Illegally accessing construction sites and mining operations and chaining people to equipment is risky for all involved, particularly when it is done at night. Soft human bodies and heavy machinery don’t mix.
These actions have been managed responsibly by workers and emergency services personnel. But left to continue it’s only a matter of time before someone is seriously injured or worse.
There has also been an escalation of violent activity. Entry gates have been barricaded with fallen trees and stumps. This blocks emergency access and creates traffic hazards.
Safety barriers and signs have been vandalised and, on one occasion, a ­security vehicle was rammed. In the most alarming incident, an unidentified individual or group entered a mine site and tampered with ­explosives rigged for detonation.
Mining projects in NSW go through an extensive planning and assessment processes — possibly the toughest in the world. Throughout the process everyone gets to have their say. Opponents and protesters have a right to express their view. But workers at mining projects also have the right to expect their personal safety will not be compromised by people indulging in militant behaviour.
Our laws need to make sure the right balance is struck. Anyone who supports the right to protest safely and the right to work safely should support this legislation.

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