NSW Premier Mike Baird last night secured draconian new laws to crack down on anti-coal seam gas demonstrators, raising fines to $5500 for trespass and up to seven years’ jail for disrupting mining activity.
Anti-CSG campaigners across the state today declared they would ignore the new police powers and renew efforts to ban “fracking”, particularly on farmlands in regional areas.
Hundreds of protesters braved the rain to demonstrate outside state Parliament on Tuesday with Lock the Gate supporter Don McKenzie, a farmer from Coonamble, declaring: “We’re already making jailbird outfits.”
Baird’s legislation passed the upper house with the support of four crossbench MPs -- two from Rev Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats and two from the Shooters and Fishers.
Their crucial votes were secured following behind-the-scenes negotiations, but Baird can be expected to pay a heavy political price.
Because of his currently unassailable popularity, Baird was advised to adopt the Enclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Act amendments to secure the future of the gas industry in NSW. It is a direct response to lobbying by gas and mining interests as well as large-scale investors who have been annoyed by the Coalition’s “on-again-off-again” approach to CSG.
At the lowest point in their relationship, when the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was trawling through the secretive area of coal mine licensing, the Coalition bowed to political pressure from some National MPs and banned gas exploration.
But with the passage of anti-protester powers, the Coalition is overturning that ban and going full speed ahead with gas exploration and mining in an attempt to catch up with Queensland, where the industry appears able to dictate its own rules and regulations.
No one was surprised that Fred Nile and his upper house accomplice Paul Green voted with the Coalition. Since Baird’s Coalition won the election a year ago, Nile has delivered vote after vote to support Coalition legislation.
Nile, the 81-year-old Christian fundamentalist who is “Grandfather of the House”, retired as NSW president of the CDP at its convention last September, and his retirement from Macquarie Street seems only a matter of time.
Keen Nile watchers believe that he has aligned himself closely with the Baird government in the belief it will win the next state election in March 2019 and he wants Liberal and National preferences to rescue his dwindling party from oblivion.
However, if the NSW Coalition follows Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s example and decides to wipe out the meddling minor parties in the upper house, Nile’s efforts will have been in vain.
There are more serious electoral consequences for Shooters and Fishers MPs, Robert Borsak and Robert Brown, who also voted to support new laws against the popular anti-CSG movement.
Borsak, “the elephant shooter”, defended his vote by saying: “These people destroy assets, steal assets [and there are] small business people whose lives are destroyed. I don’t think it’s something that should be allowed any more.”
On the other hand, Borsak’s party has traded on its representation of “bush” Australians who live off the land, and it is even planning to change its name to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party.
But many people on the land see the party’s support for mining over farming as a betrayal and regard the proposed name change as an act of cynicism. Jeremy Buckingham, Greens mining spokesman in the upper house, says the Shooters and Fishers MPs, could “kiss the farmers’ vote goodbye”.
Last week a Sydney magistrate dismissed a charge of trespass against Buckingham without recording a conviction or issuing a fine. He was charged with trespass in August last year after taking photos at the Rio Tinto’s Warkworth coal mine site at Mt Thorley in the Hunter Valley.
In the wake of the passage of greater police powers, Buckingham said: “This is an issue that requires a political solution. It will not be solved by police arresting protesters and throwing them in jail or issuing crippling fines.
“Under these draconian laws, Wallabies captain David Pocock and scores of ‘knitting nannas’ could be jailed for years simply for standing up for what they feel is important.”
With a rhetorical flourish, he added: “This is NSW, this is not Putin’s Russia.”
Only a week ago, Sydney radio shock jock Alan Jones used Putin’s name in a broadside against Baird.
Discussing the Coalition’s lockout laws, which are crippling Sydney’s pubs, clubs, bars and live entertainment, Jones said: “We had 15,000 people marching in the streets, but the Baird government says ‘We don’t care what you think’.
“Mike Baird is becoming one of the biggest bullies we’ve ever seen in Macquarie Street. They don’t even do this in Moscow, [but] we’ll do over the Vladimir Putins in Macquarie Street.”
The Greens and Alan Jones on the warpath: call time out, Mr Premier.
Australia has so far avoided the fate of the US, where economic and political conditions have enabled a slide into fascism, but we still have the potential to follow America if our political class doesn't lift its game.