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Friday analysis: Making the punishment fit the crime, all over Australia

Rural Fire Service volunteers extinguish a sacred fire lit by Gumbaynggirr elders at the Newry State Forest near Coffs Harbour.

Protesting is fine and should be allowed in a truly democratic society.

The alternative, the vicious suppression of protests in some countries governed by oppressive regimes, is appalling.

But protests must be peaceful, must not endanger life or property, and must not restrict lawful businesses from carrying out their work.

Official government responses to protests and protestors who push their activities to exceed those limits seem to vary considerably.

For example, in Adelaide in May protestors attacked the Santos building. Again.

The collateral damage – in this case Bluprint cafe owner, Frankie Marafioti, whose business is situated inside the Santos building and was also caught up in the last protest during January’s Tour Down Under.

He told The Advertiser he believed the protesters were entitled to “free speech and (should be allowed to) stand up and say how they feel,” but said they also needed to “think about everyone that they’re affecting”.

Mr Marafioti said the protests – on a Wednesday and Thursday – were the “busiest days during the week,” and the protest had substantially affected his business.

That protest was followed up in short order by a woman who abseiled down from a busy city bridge and dangled above the traffic on North Terrace. Her actions brought the city to a halt for an hour at morning peak hour, even preventing some patients from making appointments at the nearby Royal Adelaide Hospital.

She, as well as other protestors were charged and fined.

But this time the government acted, taking things even further.

Opposition Leader David Speirs hit the airwaves on talkback station FiveAA announcing proposed amendments to the Summary Offences Act, increasing fines for such protests from $750 to $50,000 or three months’ imprisonment.

Premier Peter Malinauskas responded in record time. He promised he would work with the Opposition constructively to see if the laws could be toughened. Six hours later they were, with the Liberal Opposition and Labor Government uniting in record time to back the changes as first proposed by Mr Speirs.

How’s that for action, and from a Labor government.

This week we have seen protestors – this time members of the Bellingen Activist Network – manage to lock themselves to heavy machinery at Newry State Forest near Coffs Harbour.

To do so they had to breach security measures – steel gates – the Forestry Corporation had installed.

Police moved on the site west of Urunga, and Rural Fire Service volunteers extinguished a sacred fire lit by Gumbaynggirr elders.

“We respect the community’s right to protest but must remind people that active harvesting sites are worksites that contain many hazards and workplace health and safety considerations are of the upmost importance for the safety of both workers and the public,” a Forestry Corporation spokesman said.

Well said.

To date, as far as can be ascertained, no one has been charged and the protestors’ camp remains.

The question here is, if a Labor government in South Australia can change the laws to punish those who disrupt, why can’t the others?