You know what’s bad? Climate change. You know what’s worse? The way the Australian government is treating activists who want to stop it. 

This week 22-year-old climate activist Eric Serge Herbert was sentenced to 12 months in jail for attempting to stop a coal train in Newcastle. It’s just the latest example of how the government is tackling climate protests instead of, you know, climate change. 

In early November, documentary filmmaker and activist Juliet Lamont said she was denied access to lawyers and was jailed for a week for using a lock-on device to stop operations at the North Queensland Export terminal — one of the largest coal ports in the country — for hours. 

Legal experts are worried it’s part of a deeply fucked up (our emphasis) trend of criminalising protest in Australia, which they’ve today highlighted in a new report

“Despite most commonly being charged with lower level offences, environmental activists are often hit with bail conditions normally reserved for much more serious offending,” report author and Human Rights Law Centre Senior Lawyer Yusur Al-Azzawi said. “Bail is supposed to address risk, but too often it is being applied punitively as a deterrent to activism.”

“For those without money or political access, protest is a critical way to advocate on the issues they care about. Yet we are seeing an alarming trend in which climate defenders are increasingly being restricted, intimidated and attacked by governments and politicians wedded to fossil fuels.

“At a time when the stakes could not be higher, and dire warnings about the earth’s warming could not be clearer, this is nothing short of reprehensible.

Jailed for making a political point

Lamont wanted to send a political message while the world was watching Australia’s poor performance at the Glasgow climate conference. 

“It was all about putting on pressure when Scomo was at COP26,” she told PEDESTRIAN.TV. “Hopefully we could show Australians we’re ready to front up for the climate.”  

Lamont was prepared to be arrested and she was prepared for all the nasty tricks police and security would play to allow work to resume. But she wasn’t prepared for her treatment after her protest ended. 

She was cut off from the outside after being man-handled into a paddy wagon by two burly cops. In the watchhouse Lamont was strip-searched and wasn’t allowed to call anyone, not even a lawyer. 

She was denied bail — which legal experts consider extraordinary for non-violent protestors — and while on remand in jail still wasn’t allowed to arrange for legal representation. 

“It doesn’t normally happen,” Lamont said. “You’re allowed to go to court and you’re allowed to have legal representation and you’re not usually put into a high security prison. 

“There was no ability to get any legal representation. There was no ability for me to phone my children or get any word out to anybody that I was there for that whole entire time. 

“There was no ability for my legal support to talk to me at all.” 

Lamont ended up pleading guilty to trespass, contravene police direction, use a dangerous attachment device, and interfere with port operations without speaking to her lawyer. She got out of jail a week after her arrest because the Magistrate sentenced her to prison, but with an immediate release date. Lamont was also charged and sentenced for doing the same thing at a different coal port a week prior. 

Government takes on climate activists, not climate change

The Global Warning: the threat to climate defenders in Australia report from the Human Rights Law Centre, Greenpeace and the Environmental Defenders Office documents heavy penalties for people speaking out about the environment including Indigenous communities, scientists and even children.

Some of the climate activists being charged are so young that their cases have to be heard in the Children’s Court. “Young people are engaging in activism because we have to,” said Anjali Sharma. She is the main litigant in Sharma v Environment Minister, the landmark case that ruled the minister has a duty to exercise their powers with care to avoid causing harm to the nation’s children.

The young age of climate activists haven’t deterred police from being rough and intimidating, either. The report states that Izzy Raj-Seppings was 13 when riot police told her “you may be arrested, force may be used.”

The report notes even scientists are afraid to speak out, with 52 per cent of environmental specialists working with the government saying they have experienced being “prohibited from communicating scientific information”.

This past week, the activists that have stopped trains and machinery at the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle have made world headlines. In response, NSW police announced a strike force and have since raided an environment centre where they removed materials including poster paints. 

“It’s a free country”, for some

When it comes to anti-vax protests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said “it’s a free country”. But he doesn’t seem to feel the same about climate activism. Back in 2018 Morrison said: “what we want is more learning in schools and less activism.” Morrison’s wishes didn’t stop Sydney school kids from being kept out of the schoolyard when Sydney was enveloped in dangerous bushfire smoke back in 2019.

For some Morrison government ministers the solution is simple: more money for school chaplains. They include Liberal MP Andrew Wallace, who told the party room climate activism is “robbing children of hope” back in August. This is at odds with the advice of psychologists who say that taking action to address climate change is probably the best cure for climate anxiety.

recent report from environment group Global Witness shows that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for land and environment defenders, with 227 killed worldwide. Many of them were Indigenous peoples who protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. 

Australian activists probably won’t be “met with bullets“. But as this new report shows, they still have plenty to fear from their own government.