Extinction Rebellion: Labor members say 'chilling' mass arrests have echoes of Bjelke-Petersen era

Exclusive: Queensland Labor left figures say party built on the right to protest or strike

Labor members from inner-Brisbane have unanimously passed a resolution condemning the mass arrests of climate activists and describing the Queensland government’s proposed crackdown as “eerily reminiscent” of the state’s authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen era.

The Labor premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, this week announced plans to rush consultation on new laws that target climate change protesters, expanding police search powers and banning “locking” devices.

A parliamentary hearing has been hastily organised and will take place on Friday. Public submissions have not yet been released.

Guardian Australia understands the government’s proposals – in particular the decision to fast-track them – have created considerable unease within parts of the Labor movement.

Senior Labor left figures have privately expressed concerns that the crackdown – justified by unsupported claims about activists and the government’s lack of patience with disruptive acts of civil disobedience – could be used as a precedent for a future conservative government to block union marches.

“The right to protest or strike is part of what Labor was built on,” one state MP said. “There’s been a big push to say this is about safety, or dangerous devices, but at the same time the premier has made clear to everyone she’s fed up with the disruption. I shudder to think what happens next if we’re saying it’s OK to make laws because we don’t like someone or don’t like their protest tactics.”

That sentiment was echoed this week by the party’s Annerley branch, in Brisbane’s inner-south. Rank-and-file members unanimously passed a motion that made clear their strong opposition to the government’s rhetoric and proposed laws.

“It was chilling to see the mass arrests of people who had been protesting in Brisbane streets in August 2019, and to see the bail conditions imposed on them,” the resolution reads.

“People in Queensland, and in Queensland Labor, have been fighting corruption in our institutions since it became entrenched during the Bjelke-Petersen government. During those times, we were willing to demonstrate in the streets against uranium mining, for Indigenous land rights, against the sacking of electricity workers and for the right to march in our streets. Many members of the Labor party were frequently arrested for exercising their basic democratic rights, and commonly charged with disobeying a police direction, along with other charges.

“To learn that non-violent protest would be criminalised with special legislative measures, along with police powers of search of persons and vehicles suspected of carrying a device are eerily reminiscent of the powers given to police during the Bjelke-Petersen era.

“As union members, we should be extremely concerned by the potential for harsh penalties imposed on innocuous activities such as trespass on agricultural land. Once that activity is penalised harshly it could lead to penalising union members and community supporters for blocking an entrance to a workplace as part of a picket line. If these proposed changes are implemented, any future Liberal National party government would strengthen these laws to be used against, and to the detriment of, the trade union movement in Queensland.”

The resolution condemns the arrest of Extinction Rebellion activists and charges of refusing to obey police directions. It says branch members “deplore the imposition of bail conditions” with restrictive terms, such as prohibiting people from entering the Brisbane CBD, claiming they appear to contradict the state’s Human Rights Act.

The resolution also calls on the government to “dispel the idea that nonviolent protest includes any tactics which may cause harm to emergency services workers” and to “respect our own history of dissent against injustice and reflect this in all laws they propose, to encourage - not discourage – the freedom of speech and assembly”.

On Thursday, the party’s New Farm branch posted on social media that motor vehicles were “the type of dangerous device we should be tightening the laws for”.

In its submission to parliament, the Australian Conservation Foundation said it was “deeply concerned” about the proposed bill.

“Queensland Police already possess appropriate powers to search or detain protestors within the law,” the submission says.

“Increased policing powers should be backed by a strong evidence base which details the need for additional power, especially where those powers erode important individual liberties. Otherwise, these proposed laws are unfounded, unnecessary and undemocratic.”

“ACF is not aware of any evidence to justify the Queensland parliament imposing unnecessary and draconian policing powers and criminal penalties that will undermine democratic freedoms.”

Palaszczuk has sought to defend her government’s record on climate change while at the same time – facing pressure from conservative local press – seeking to disrupt Extinction Rebellion protests that have grown in size and momentum.

The state’s approach is under heavy scrutiny because of its position on new thermal coal mines and its pivot in support of the coal industry after the federal election. Queensland is home to the world’s most controversial coal proposal, and the climate-threatened Great Barrier Reef.


Ben Smee

The GuardianTramp

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