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Health community urged to take a stand against South Australia’s crackdown on protests

Health experts and a leading Indigenous academic have sounded the alarm about the South Australian Government’s crackdown on protests, warning that they are an attack on public health and of particular concern for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The measures are symptomatic of wider efforts to suppress protests at a time of escalating concern about crises in planetary health and growing health inequalities, reports Croakey’s Alison Barrett, who reported from a #ProtectProtest rally in Adelaide this week.


Alison Barrett writes:

Health leaders joined a protest on Kaurna Country in Adelaide this week against amendments to legislation that will undermine South Australians’ right to peaceful protest.

Fran Baum, Professor of Health Equity at the Stretton Institute, said she was at the protest because the rushed-through Summary Offences (Obstruction of Public Places) Amendment Bill 2023 represented a “very worrying attack on the right of citizens to protest peacefully about issues of concern in a way that gets the attention of politicians and the public”.

Similarly, social science and public health researcher at the Stretton Institute Dr Connie Musolino told Croakey she joined the protests because the proposed laws “threaten the foundation of living in a healthy democratic society”.

“Community members protest when other democratic avenues to be heard by governments are failing,” she said. “It should be a sign to governments to listen to constituents’ concerns, not try to silence and punish them for exercising their democratic rights.”

Health professionals including social workers, paramedics, nurses and midwives were a strong presence at Tuesday’s protest.

Adjunct Associate Professor Elizabeth Dabars, CEO of the Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation SA Branch, said the ANMF-SA joined the protest because the changes “will increase the scope of the law and the severity of it in a way that really suppresses peoples’ choices”.

“And whilst we may or may not agree with everyone’s manner of protesting, and or even the cause of their protests, I think the reality is we should defend people’s entitlement to do just that,” she told Croakey.

ANMF SA Branch at #ProtectProtest. Photo by author

The amendments – which have since passed through the State’s upper house – will mean anyone who “intentionally engages in conduct that obstructs the free passage of a public place is guilty of an offence”, with a maximum penalty of $50,000 or three-months imprisonment – an increase from the previous $750 fine and no jail time.

Inequitable laws

In addition to undermining people’s fundamental human right to “peaceful protest and assembly”, the laws have the potential to increase the disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to Curtin University’s Associate Professor Hannah McGlade.

McGlade told Croakey that “we see highly punitive treatment of Aboriginal people…and regressive laws such as these are a risk to Aboriginal health as they demonstrate a culture that is inconsistent with human rights”.

McGlade said one reason why Close the Gap is failing in key respects including Aboriginal incarceration is because of “typical double speak from governments”.

“On the one hand, the Closing the Gap purports to have commitment from states to reducing incarceration, on the other hand laws are being passed which may contribute to Aboriginal incarceration,” she said.

She also highlighted the unequal treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in incarceration compared to white-collar crime in commercial settings who “seem to gain little attention”.

“People would be shocked if they really knew how Aboriginal people, including women and children, are treated by the justice system,” McGlade said.

Dr Peter Tait, a GP and academic, echoed McGlade’s sentiments. He said corporate, white-collar criminals always either get off entirely, or get just a “very nice slap on the wrist” compared to people who are trying to disrupt the establishment who “always get treated much more harshly”.

Tait told Croakey the anti-protest laws are undemocratic, anti-public health and “ultimately bad for health equity”.

Roland Sapsford, CEO of the Climate and Health Alliance, emphasised the impact the amendments would have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who “are on the front lines where protest laws may affect their ability to act as the rightful custodians and stewards they are”.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are often forced to defend their Country, culture and history from fracking, mining and other industrial activities contributing to the climate crisis, Sapsford said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have shown extraordinary resilience and strength in the face of 200 years of colonisation. One face of colonisation is the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. Allies will need to walk side by side with Indigenous activists to ensure that the new laws do not compound this legacy,” he said.

“In a world where people understandably experience climate distress and anxiety, the ability to protest peacefully and effectively is not merely a political right, it is part of the essential toolkit for mental health and wellbeing.”

Active and loud response

A number of SA’s leading civil society groups – including South Australian Council of Social Services (SACOSS), Australian Democracy Network and Conservation Council of SA – condemned the passing of the law in a joint media release, stating the rushed process cut “short any opportunity for meaningful input from the broader community”.

The civil society groups have been active in advocating against the anti-protest legislation since it was passed through South Australia’s House of Assembly by the Malinauskas Government on 19 May without opposition from the crossbench.

SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley had previously urged the State Government to send the proposed amendment to a committee for review.

SACOSS CEO Ross Womersley speaking at #ProtectProtest. Photo by author

Calls to Croakey readers

Baum and Musolino called on Croakey readers to contact local members of parliament from both major parties across the country to express concerns about the legislation.

“This Bill could set a dangerous precedent for the whole of Australia,” Musolino said.

Both sides of politics “need to hear our opposition” to the Bill, Baum told Croakey, “otherwise, we all have to realise that our right to protest cannot be taken for granted”.

Tait echoed these calls, and added that the concerns need to be put into the public domain “really loudly” with the help of hundreds of high profile and prominent public health and political people – including leaders of the Australian Medical Association and public health associations.

Tait told Croakey he suspects “there won’t be a sensible response from Premiers” unless the response is loud and gains world-wide attention.

Ray Yoshida, Australian Democracy Network campaigner, told Croakey that community alliances and joint civil society efforts will be critical in fighting against laws that threaten Australia’s democracy.

Because of the rushed approach of the amendment with the potential to alienate many of their supporters who believe in the importance of protests, Yoshida said he suspected the SA Government would be unlikely to review the legislation for some time.

“It will depend on community members, civil society leaders to be raising this as something that needs to be addressed and that should be on the Government’s agenda,” he said.

#ProtectProtest. Photo by author

Global trend

The amendments to the South Australian protest legislation comes amid a seemingly growing trend of more severe penalties being imposed for peaceful protests in other Australian states and across the globe.

Over the weekend, 1,500 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested in the Netherlands during a protest to end subsidies for fossil fuels.

A BMJ Global Health article last year reported that more governments around the world are increasingly using “unnecessary legal restrictions, discriminatory responses, criminalisation of leaders and unjustifiable – at times deadly – force” against legitimate peaceful protest.

“The crackdown on civic space and stifling of dissent spells trouble for democracy and equitable and sustainable development,” the authors wrote.

Baum, who is a member of the People’s Health Movement and former co-chair of the organisation’s Global Steering Council, has heard many reports of crack downs on protests across the world.

“Most disturbingly from a Croakey perspective we document the many health professionals who have been arrested, detained, tortured and even killed as a result of their protest. The extent of this has caused PHM to establish a web page on health workers under attack,” Baum told Croakey.

“In South Australia we don’t have to put our life on the line like many PHM members do in other countries but we do need to be watchful when any of our civil liberties are threatened.

“In protesting I’m always aware of this verse which reminds me how important it is to protest the early steps away from democracy:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

— Martin Niemöller”

Tait told Croakey he fears that young people in particular will become more alienated from the political process.

He also expressed concerns that in some cases the severe anti-protest laws may “engender in some people a propensity to violence” if they’re unable to be heard peacefully.

Commercial influence

Tait said the current trend is “making it really clear in whose pockets governments are” and highlights the huge influence commercial entities have over governments.

Yoshida thinks the growing trend “reflects an approach that multiple governments have been taking across the country to respond to genuine community concerns about a public health emergency. For the most part, the kinds of protests to which governments have responded with this sort of legislation have been climate protests”.

In particular, the South Australian Bill was proposed within days of protests that occurred outside an Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference, where  South Australian Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis is widely reported to have said that the “State was at the disposal of the gas industry”.

Baum told Croakey she wondered if he was asked by some of the fossil fuel executives to take measures to curb the actions of climate protesters.

“We know how much store large corporations put on influencing governments whether through direct lobbying or threats to take their operations away,” Baum said.

Sapsford said “there is abundant evidence of the influence of corporations on decision-making leading to poor policy outcomes, which expose communities to unnecessary harms and poor health outcomes.”

This includes influence from tobacco, alcohol, processed foods, energy and transport industries, which “can delay necessary change,” he said.

“Bringing visibility to the practices that lead to this influence – lobbying, political donations, and marketing, are key to breaking the cycle and limiting the power of vested interests.”

Sapsford said civil society and health professionals play a critical role in “amplifying the issues driving climate and forest protest and in making their dissent visible”.

“Respected voices in civil society ­ such as health professionals ­can find ways to make their support for basic civil rights and transformational change clear while showing disdain for such laws,” he said.

“Suppressing the right to protest is both an infringement of Australians’ democratic rights and a threat to their wellbeing. More than that it is a signal to young people, who are watching to see the world they will inherit, that a sense of urgency has yet to reach the hearts of today’s decision-makers.”

Sapsford highlighted the many rights we “take as givens today”, such as women’s right to vote or the protection of ecological treasures, “were only realised with strong and active protest campaigns”.

The anti-protest laws “are a signal that some people and institut