No one is above the law. But 15 months in prison for stopping traffic for 25 minutes? There’s no pub in existence where this would pass a test of the punishment fitting the crime.

Deanna “Violet” Coco has been sentenced to 15 months in prison and refused bail before she can appeal the decision in March next year for blocking a single lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a protest intended to draw attention to the global climate crisis.

The excessive and disproportionate prison sentence has created alarm around the world and in living rooms across Australia.

The NSW Perrottet Government rushed through new, repressive laws in April, deliberately targeting protesters and threatening everyone from school children marching for climate action to anti-war protestors with up to two years in prison and a $22,000 fine.

These laws equate disruption and inconvenience with violence. This is misleading and clearly out of proportion to what essentially amounts to some people unfortunately being late for work.

This is a government that recognises there is a climate crisis but doesn’t want anyone to peacefully protest for greater action to stop it happening.

The state’s attorney general says the right to protest must be weighed against the public’s right to move about in their day-to-day lives. Of course there should be consequences for knowingly breaking the law, but sending someone to prison for as long as two years for peacefully inconveniencing the public is the sort of heavy-handed response we condemn when it occurs in other countries like Russia or Iran.

Peaceful protest can be disruptive in the moment, but it has long been recognised by our courts as essential to the functioning of our democracy. Peaceful environmental protest has played a crucial part in achieving meaningful change throughout the history of Australia’s democratic process.

The Rocks in Sydney would be a very different place today if these laws existed when Jack Mundey and construction workers took to the streets to protest for Green Bans. Many of the heritage buildings that draw so many tourists now would most likely no longer exist if workers were sent to prison for inconveniencing the public while trying to save this part of NSW history.

The Franklin River, now World Heritage listed, would have been destroyed if not for peaceful protest. Kakadu would have been mined, our forests endlessly logged and even our beloved Great Barrier Reef was once protected from mining through peaceful protest. 

The right to assemble and demonstrate in our streets is a fundamental pillar of democracy.

For marginalised communities, public protest enables people to be seen and heard, especially when those in power would rather silence them.

The Aboriginal Legal Service, which was created out of a protest movement, has said it would be difficult to name a win for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights that was secured without public protest.

Greater—not fewer—protections are needed, to strengthen our democracy and ensure the voices of all of the community; of children, of those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged are heard and respected by those in power.

Across the country, people are understandably taking to the streets and protesting for greater action on climate change because of the scale of the threat and the lack of leadership to address it.

Instead of demonising children, young people and older for peacefully protesting, and undermining a healthy democracy with excessive fines and prison terms, the NSW Government should step up protection of this fundamental right.

A healthy environment, safe climate and better Australia cannot be achieved in the absence of a robust and healthy democracy.

Climate damage is here, now. Instead of taking on the big polluters the NSW government is putting young climate protesters in jail. More than ever, we need to protect the right to protest.

Photo: Protestors at the Climate Strike Melbourne, in 2019. Credit: Ryan Chenoweth/ACF

Kelly O’Shanassy

CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation.