“It’s not fair; it’s the law.” – Anonymous
That quote, attributed like so many pieces of wisdom to no one in particular, is the first lesson one learns when dealing with the justice system. But it’s not just fresh-faced lawyers and graduate police officers who need to wrestle with this contradiction. All of us in society have to reconcile that the law’s purpose is not to deliver “justice” as we might perceive it. Rather, it is there to enforce the legal frameworks that are currently in place.
How many of us have wondered why some penalties do not seem to fit the crime? It is because courts can only operate within the rule of law. Even when legislation risks overreach, the courts must act accordingly.
We are currently seeing this play out across Australia. In the past five years, increasingly strict laws have been passed through state parliaments which appear to disproportionately target environmentalists. And nowhere has this been more clearly seen then the now infamous case of Deanna “Violet” Coco.
In April last year, following a string of staged climate protests, Coco stopped her van on the Sydney Harbour Bridge on a peak hour morning. Holding a flare, she shut down a single lane of traffic for 20 minutes in order to highlight the climate crisis. For her role in the Fireproof Australia action, she was sentenced to a 15-month prison term. She spent almost two weeks in custody at Silverwater prison before being released after a bail application. She is appealing the severity of the sentence, the hearing listed for March. Her jailing was hugely controversial, sparking a string of protests against the new protest laws.
The case has highlighted just how extreme the current situation is in New South Wales. Protestors can now be fined $22,000 and be jailed for up to two years for protesting without permission on public roads, rail lines, tunnels, bridges, and industrial estates – laws which appear to focus, in particular, on environmentalists targeting the use of fossil fuels.
Violet Coco joined others recently prosecuted for environmental protest, such as climate activist Andrew George, who spent two weeks in a maximum-security prison for invading the pitch at an NRL game last year. His sentence was later overturned by a higher court which ruled that his actions did not warrant a “custodial sentence.”
The debate around climate and how it should be approached, addressed or even discussed has developed into one of the most divisive issues in the world today. However, even if you’re not convinced by any of the arguments or evidence, or if you think the concerns surrounding the environment are overblown, just consider this – an Australian woman received a prison sentence for peaceful, civil disobedience in the same fortnight that a man walked from court after pleading guilty to the historical sexual assault of a minor.
What is fair and what is the law are quite clearly two very different things. While prosecutions such as Violet Coco’s have taken some by surprise, those within the environmental activist network have known that such significant penalties have been brewing for some time.
It’s a similar story in Victoria. Premier Dan Andrews has long propagated the view that the state is the most progressive in the country. Last year however, his government helped push through legislation which means protestors who attempt to block native forest logging face up to 12 months in jail or more than $21,000 in fines. This includes areas of the proposed Great Forest National Park. In other words, if you try and stop some of the most carbon dense forest in the world from being cut down for woodchips, you’re looking at a full year in the big house.
And then there’s Tasmania. Legislation passed on the island state effectively allows authorities to fine protesters up to $12,975 or to jail them for 18 months, and to fine organisations up to $103,800 if they are judged to have obstructed workers or caused “a serious risk.” In essence, this means that an environmental organisation risks bankruptcy – being fined over a hundred grand a pop – if their members stage an action and hold up production.
Dr Bob Brown has been arrested numerous times while protesting environmental destruction in his home state, dating back to the Franklin River campaign in 1983 and most recently last November, defending Swift Parrot habitat from loggers. He told Crikey, “We now have a situation across Australia where environmentalists are jailed and environmental exploiters are protected and subsidised. Instead of increasing environmental protection, we have laws that do the reverse – laws which foster the self-made environmental tragedy of this planet.” Back in 2016, Brown famously challenged Tasmania’s anti-protest laws in the High Court. And won.
If these laws appear heavy-handed, they have certainly not been missed by some of Australia’s leading human rights organisations. Sophie McNeill, from Human Rights Watch, unloaded on these moves. “The Australian authorities’ crackdown on climate protesters is an alarming new trend,” McNeill said. “Citizens who protest and violate the law can face appropriate punishment, but the punishment should not be intended to prevent all protesters from exercising their fundamental right to protest.”
“Climate action will mean more people peacefully taking to the streets, not fewer, and the authorities should accept that.”
Given the severity of the penalties, it is not difficult to imagine that some activist organisations are already making contingencies as to whether future operations are tenable. And yet, there are those who have been prosecuted and are still willing to accept any consequence for their beliefs.
Dr Colette Harmsen is a prime example. A veterinarian and well-known activist for the temperate rainforests of north west Tasmania, Dr. Harmsen has been arrested many times for civil disobedience. This ultimately led to her being sentenced to a three-month suspended prison term last year. The conditions in place meant that she could not travel more than 30 kilometres from her home for much of 2022.
Colette was free again in January, staging a protest action in the takayna/Tarkine region in a bid to halt logging. “I am dedicated to protecting and defending Tasmania's environment,” she recently announced. “I have been arrested multiple times to prevent the destruction of wild places, and it alarms me that the industries that degrade and destroy our environment are the industries that are offered the most support by the government.”
“Where are the court ordered penalties for illegal logging? For illegal mining works?”
“Without the actions of peaceful protests, illegal works by industry destroying the environment and wildlife habitat go unseen and unreported, and environmental damage can proceed unhindered. Environmental defenders will continue to stand up for protection of takayna’s rainforests where we believe the work to be illegal, even if that means a jail term.”
Colette, for one, knows exactly where she stands on the line between justice and the law.