Human Rights Watch and the Greens have criticised comments from South Australia’s opposition leader that protesters would face beheading in other countries.
The state last week rushed through new anti-protest laws the day after a rally outside the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association conference in Adelaide briefly blocked traffic.
The state Liberal leader, David Speirs, proposed the laws on talkback radio Thursday morning, which received bipartisan support and passed parliament in “almost record time,” Speirs said.
Asked at a media conference over the weekend whether those new laws could silence political opinion, the opposition leader said Australia was “doing pretty good” if protesters were able to march down the main street in a planned protest supported by police.
“There are some countries where your head would be cut off for doing that sort of protest. That’s not the case in Australia.
“Protest is a good thing, but if you’re going to do stupid stuff that puts your life at risk, that puts other lives at risk, you can expect to get up to a $50,000 fine.”
However, Human Rights Watch research Sophie McNeill said Speir’s comments were “disgraceful”.
“Peaceful protest is not something we should feel grateful for – it is a basic human right that is guaranteed to us under international law, that Australia is obliged to uphold and protect,” McNeill said.
Speirs said in a statement on Monday morning that he will not express regret for highlighting that recent changes to penalties in South Australia “have no comparison to devastating and potentially life-ending consequences some people face in other countries just for vocalising their beliefs”.
“Protest is – and will always be – a crucial part of democracy in Australia and we are so very fortunate to have the opportunity to express our views and beliefs in a peaceful way.
“I support the right of every South Australian to protest safely, but intentionally blocking access to major hospitals and swinging off bridges is not OK.”
South Australian Greens MP Tammy Franks said Speirs’s comments were “ill-considered”.
“Being told that you should be grateful not to have a head chopped off if you’re protesting in South Australia in 2023 is no excuse for the rushed legislation that we’ve seen going through the state parliament that brings us some of the worst anti-protest laws in the country.
Franks said Speirs previously called her the leader of the “rabid left” when she spoke at a snap protest against the repeal of Roe v Wade in the United States, criticising his position on reproductive rights.
“The man’s a little out of touch,” Franks said.
Franks said Speirs’ comments also recalled those of another Liberal leader, former prime minister Scott Morrison, when he declared it a “triumph of democracy” that campaigners for women’s justice were able to rally without being “met with bullets”.
“Democracy is actually founded from the right to protest,” Franks said. “I’m a woman in parliament, I wouldn’t actually be able to hold a seat or vote for my elected member in our democratic system if there hadn’t been protesters and protesters who are willing to put themselves on the line to break the law.
“People protest where there’s injustice, and where there’s injustice, we should support the right for peaceful protest in our democracy to make it better,” she said.
McNeill said: “South Australia was the first place in the world to allow women to stand for parliament, the second to allow women to vote. That social progress was achieved through mass protest, through disruption.
“It is a real shame that both the major parties in South Australia seem to have forgotten that proud history, as they work together to try and take away people’s basic rights.”