When it is necessary to break the law

As a firm believer in the rule of law, stepping outside its constraints to make a point when I don’t agree with it does not come naturally to me. 

Public protest is often associated with noise and spectacle, but for me and probably most participants it’s a deeply personal matter. My own experience may be informative.

In 1970 I broke a cardinal rule of journalism – never take sides – and joined a street march against the Vietnam war. A sympathetic boss let my transgression pass, but I didn’t like feeling exposed in a public place, and when Lake Pedder and the Franklin River were being threatened by hydro development I was nowhere to be seen.

Then in late 2000 I was a manager in the Australian public service when John Howard’s government moved to privatise parts of government, potentially taking in scientific functions of the CSIRO and other agencies, including my own. I had strong feelings about this and alerted colleagues to a CSIRO staff protest on the Hobart waterfront.

This time I had an unsympathetic boss. No doubt feeling pressure from above, he referred my action to the government solicitor who found that while I technically breached regulations it was more akin to whistleblowing than insubordination. But my dissent was noted. My job was reclassified and I was made redundant. 

That legal sanction was deeply unsettling for me. It did set me free to join protests against the Iraq war and climate inaction, but whenever that happened I always felt exposed and uncomfortable. 

But my discomfort was small compared to what other protesters face. Breaking the law in someone else’s workplace – say an aquaculture site, a mining lease or a logging operation – where obstructed workers can get angry, carries real physical danger. 

Contrary to popular scuttlebutt, environmental protesters act not for financial reward – there is none – but on principle, on the basis that the activities they oppose have a negative impact on their future world. All they seek is good governance, and from that perspective it’s easy to see authorities’ use of legal sanctions as a breach of trust. Just as I did.

Protests against operations that damage the natural environment often happen in remote places. But the failure of decision-makers to grapple seriously with ever-rising levels of carbon pollution has seen a rise in disruptive protest where it gets maximum attention.

Members of the global protest group Extinction Rebellion are known for getting people’s backs up by gluing themselves to busy roads. A current target is famous artworks: last week it was Picasso’s anti-war work “Massacre in Korea” in Melbourne and a few days later Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in London. (Neither painting was harmed.)

Extinction Rebellion and another group, Knitting Nannas – older women who sit in busy public places, like footpaths, corridors and doorways, and knit – vow to continue such public disruption, with the near-certainty of arrest, to draw attention to a current global emergency. 

Of all the misconceptions around efforts to stop man-made climate change, the biggest is that people like these, and commentators like me, are “alarmists” who get a kick out of making others feel uncomfortable. The truth is that we love our lives and our communities as much as anyone but are troubled by unarguable evidence that we are in a planetary crisis.

That is why the Bob Brown Foundation goes to such lengths to oppose Tasmania’s draconian, anti-democratic protest laws, and why two Knitting Nannas are arguing in the NSW Supreme Court that a law setting fines of tens of thousands of dollars just for sitting down in a public place transgresses their constitutional freedoms.

Protest is in the DNA of a functioning democracy. Tasmania’s anti-protest laws happened because of an unholy alliance between the two major parties that put open, democratic governance aside in favour of short-term profit and the exercise of raw power, protecting industrial actions that science has clearly shown to be detrimental to our future wellbeing.

We have to believe in the rule of law, but we also have a right to laws made for the common good, not laws determined by the loud voices and deep pockets of narrow segments of society. Lawmakers who want us to own and respect the law have an obligation to deliver laws that are respectable and that we can reasonably own. They have let us down, badly.

Accelerating climate change calls for new laws that look beyond our tight little human world to address the inherent rights of nature – forests, waterways, creatures, ecosystems – to exist and regenerate. Seen from that perspective, environmental protest is something to cherish.

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