Harsh penalties intended for those who protest and cause disruption on the Sydney Harbour Bridge have been expanded to include the Spit Bridge, following a number of protests in morning peak hour this year.
The Roads Amendment (Major Bridges and Tunnels) Regulation 2022 will be made to make it an offence to disrupt any bridge or tunnel across Greater Sydney. The regulation is made under s144G of the Roads Act 1993, but currently only applies to disruption on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, according to a government statement.
The NSW Government will then bring legislation to Parliament to expand s144G beyond bridges and tunnels to roads and industrial and transport facilities more generally.
Section 144G carries a maximum penalty of 200 penalty units ($22,000) or imprisonment for two years, or both.
Acting Premier and Minister for Police Paul Toole said the measures were critical to deter future illegal protests across Sydney.
“The penalties currently in place have clearly not deterred protestors who continue to block roads across Sydney, disrupting transport networks, freight chains, production lines and everyday commuters getting to work or to school – and it can’t keep happening,” Mr Toole said.
Minister for Metropolitan Roads Natalie Ward, who lives on the Northern Beaches and was herself caught up in the recent Spit Bridge blockade by protestors Fire Proof Australia on 13 March, vowed harsher penalties hours after their arrests.
“Protestors who stop daily commuters getting to work in the morning and home in the afternoon put themselves and drivers at risk and have no place on NSW roads,” Mrs Ward said.
“Under these changes, protestors who block major routes including the Spit Bridge and the Western Distributor will now face harsher penalties, aligned to the disruption they create across the road network.”
Just today, one of the protestors from Fire Proof Australia, the group (but not necessarily same person) responsible for both recent Spit Bridge blockages was sentenced to three months prison for invading the pitch of an NRL game (Sharks Vs Tigers) on the weekend armed with a flare.
Manly Observer contacted Fireproof Australia to ask if the new changes would impact their plans. We did not receive a direct response to this query, but they did issue a general statement regarding the prison sentence and general crackdown on their operations, and forewarning that a snap protest will be held somewhere in Sydney tomorrow 12 April. (UPDATE: This protest went ahead on the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 13 April).
“Fireproof Australia will continue to block roads and disrupt until our demands are met.”
The protest organisation says it is trying to highlight a lack of forward planning in helping the nation deal with Fire, floods and drought.
“If our demands aren’t met, Sydney will need to be evacuated over the next decade. We will stop when all disaster survivors are housed, when firefighters have the tools they need and smoke filters are installed for our kids, elderly and vulnerable.”
The legislation in response to the street and industry blockades has been branded a draconian attempt to criminalise the right to protest by 40 civil society groups, including the NSW and Act Aboriginal Legal Service, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, Human Rights Law Centre, Environmental Defenders Office and Australian Democracy Network according to the Guardian.
However, Minister O’Toole said: “While the NSW Government respects the right to protest, that must be weighed against the right of other members of the public to move freely and not be obstructed in public places,” Mr Toole said. “Illegal protesting has no place in our state and this new legislation demonstrates that we are committed to cracking down on this selfish, economic vandalism.”
Written by Kim Smee with Catherine Porquier