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Criminalising Activism: Woodside, Protest and Climate Change

On August 1, protesters against the Burrup Hub expansion in Western Australia, a project of one of Australia’s most ruthless fossil fuel companies, took to the Perth home of its CEO, Meg O’Neill. The CEO of Woodside was not impressed. In fact, she seemed rather distressed. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of the business community, in professional athletics, or just a school kid… everybody has the right to feel safe in their own home,” she subsequently told a breakfast event. “What happened Tuesday has left me shaken, fearful, and distressed.” In distress, opportunities for revenge grow.

Members of the Disrupt Burrup Hub have had Woodside in their sights for some time. Their primary object of concern: the Burrup Hub project, consisting of the Scarborough and Browse Basin gas fields, the Pluto Project processing plant, and various linked liquified gas and fertiliser plans found on the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region.

On this occasion, the group’s practical efforts proved stillborn. One of the protestors, Matilda Lane-Rose, found herself facing over a dozen counter-terrorist police lying in wait on O’Neill’s property. Lane-Rose, along with three other members of Disrupt Burrup Hub, were charged with conspiracy to commit and indictable offence.

The howl of indignation has been eardrum splitting. Mark Abbotsford, Woodside’s executive vice president, stated that there was a line, and it had been crossed. Former Greens MP, Alison Xamon, questioned the wisdom of the protest, suggesting that there “is a sense that people’s homes should almost be off limits.” The media imperium owned by the mogul Kerry Stokes expressed fury at the antics of “eco fanatics”.

Seven West Media also took the national broadcaster to task for having covered the actual protest as part of an intended program for Four Corners. Their journalists, for one, suggested that the ABC had overstepped, despite those from their own stable having done precisely the same thing on two previous occasions. In 2021, for instance, Channel Seven found itself covering a protest that blockaded Woodside’s facilities on Burrup. They even got live crosses into the market ready for breakfast television.

The Western Australian Premier, whose electability in that state is determined by fossil-fuellers, was also critical of the ABC. In a letter to its chair, Ita Buttrose, Roger Cook wished to “express [his] serious concerns about the ABC crew’s actions and urge you organisation to reflect on the role it played in this matter.”

The prosecuting police, holding their side of the bargain protecting a citizen of such sweet purity as O’Neill, painted a picture of sinister domestic insurgency at her doorstep. In the Perth Magistrates Court, WA Police prosecutor Kim Briggs had stern words for two of the protestors seeking bail, Jesse Noakes and Gerard Mazza. “They prepared their actions in detail including surveillance and reconnaissance.” They also “parked near the residence and Ms O’Neill’s departure time was worked out to maximise disruption.”

The intention of such conduct, Briggs alleged, “was to damage the property using spray paint and lock themselves [to a gate] with a D-lock to hinder the ability of Ms O’Neill to leave the property.”

Whatever the immediate merits of the publicity seeking exercise by the Disrupt Burrup Hubbers, Woodside had a devilish card to play. After all, anything that might divert, or at least stifle interest in an expansionist agenda that promises to produce billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2070, would prove inevitable.

Despite already having protective bail conditions in place that would prevent the protesters from approaching O’Neill in any capacity, let alone any Woodside property, the company wanted more. A legal remedy to effectively extinguish speech and coverage on the executive, the company and the protest, would be sought. The target, in other words, was publicity itself. In a novel, even shocking way, Woodside sought Violence Restraining Orders against the protestors. A VRO is intended to restrain a person from any one of the following: committing an act of abuse, breaching the peace, causing fear, damaging property or intimidating another person.

Through August, VROs were served on Lane-Rose, Emil Davey and Gerard Mazza. The relevant clauses note that the campaigners are not to “make any reference to [the Woodside CEO] by any electronic means, including by using the internet and any social media application” or “cause or allow any other person to engage in conduct of the type referred to in any of the preceding paragraphs of this order on your behalf.”

This could only be taken for what it was: a violent effort to stomp on speech, especially of the critical sort. Barrister Zarah Burgess, representing Disrupt Burrup Hub, described it as “a transparent and extraordinary attempt to gag climate campaigners from speaking about Woodside’s fossil fuel expansion.” Never before had she seen the VRO system used in such a manner. “The intended purpose for granting VROs is to protect people, predominantly women and children, usually in the context of family violence.”

A dismayed Alice Drury of the Human Rights Law Centre was blunt: “Woodside and the multibillion dollar fossil fuel industry are trying to send a chilling message to anyone who dares to speak out: you will be intimidated and silenced.”

This brutal reaction from O’Neill and company says everything about Woodside and its place in Australian society. It advertises itself as “a global energy company, founded in Australia with a spirit of innovation and determination.” And, just in case you forget, the company provides “energy the world needs to heat and cool homes, keep lights on and enable industry.” To that, can be added another jotting: it will seek to prevent, and even criminalise free speech and protest on the environment if permitted. The legal authorities in Western Australia, at least pending appeal, agree.


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  1. uncletimrob

    The right to peaceful protest should be a fundamental human right in Australia. For too long, resource extraction companies (logging, mining etc.) have had a free reign with no consequences for their actions, current or proposed.

    So a protester can be fined/jailed for damaging a truck, but the company is free to fuck over the environment for profit? Not OK!

    No I’m not against mining, I’m against environmental and cultural vandalism.

    Violent protest? Well imo that’s quite another issue and should be dealt with severely.

  2. Peter

    “…Former Greens MP, Alison Xamon, questioned the wisdom of the protest, suggesting that there “is a sense that people’s homes should almost be off limits.”…. And isn’t that the point? Mining magnates are too quick (and disrespectful) to admit that their enterprises are frequently “within the limits” of places significant to our Indigenous people.

  3. Harry Lime

    The Albanese LABOR government has to decide whether it comes down on the side of the people it purports to represent,in regards to climate change,or whether it continues to enable the planet fucking fossil fuel wallahs to screw everyone via subsidies ,tax breaks, and new, climate fucking mining approvals.Or is that a redundant question? Regarding protestors…the signs are not propitious,and we don’t need to examine the entrails of a pigeon for omens.

  4. K

    Contextually, activism has frequently been criminalised, sometimes to the detriment of those doing the criminalising. But that’s a topic for another day.

    I do wonder what the local constabulary statistics are on responding to VRO calls from mining elites, as opposed to from (generally) women and children getting their heads beaten in. And the associated response times for the average beat cop, and the suite of charges laid (at taxpayer expense, of course). Or the court stats on VROs being refused for forms of abuse other than physical, as opposed to granted for potential damage to someone’s front fence.

  5. New England Cocky

    The concluding paragraph omits possibly the most important ignored fact ….. Woodside provides others with the ability to increase CO2 emissions, so causing climate change and the likelihood of increased dramatic & dangerous weather events now and in the future.
    But let me return to poor little didums Meg O’Neill. If you lead a corporation that wants to destroy civilisation as we know it, then do not expect thinking people to agree with you. Rather, expect them to react to protect their families in whatever manner they believe is appropriate.
    The government reaction clearly demonstrates that WA politicians dance to the piper called ”mining corporations”, rather than recognising that Australian voters are being ripped off by these same corporations often legally paying no taxation and certainly responsible for making Australia a third world export economy just like Africa and the Middle East.

  6. Clakka

    Without doubt the protesters knew what they were in for, including various forms of legal redress. Also, the nature of their protest was designed for reasons of publicity and sensation.

    They could have opted for continuing protest of a non-personally invasive kind, organised with the media and via social media, but they opted otherwise. It’s no surprise they have been warned-off AND muted.

    We are all well aware of the contentions regarding the fossil fuel producers, it’s in the MSM and social media every day, and also debated across academia continually. This is a good thing and appropriate due to the massive complexities, technically, financially, and ecologically as we transition industry and energy to renewables etc for climate change abatement.

    It brings frustration and a sense of helplessness to us all. For sure, we all wish there was a ‘magic wand’ available to make instantaneous change, but there isn’t. Many, many ordinary Australians do what they can given their means and the technology available to them, and (the majority) of governments seek to assist with this, and through other macro measures, whilst seeking to maintain a balance against calamity in this near ‘catch22’ complexity.

    For example, as we desperately seek to accelerate the vital eastern states grid interconnections to facilitate integration and efficiency in renewables effectiveness, a cohort of central Victorian farmers / land-holders whose land is to be traversed, are kicking-up and blocking the process. Three tiers of government and numerous stakeholders and innumerable statutory authorities are seeking to resolve this without imposing mandatory acquisition. AEMO warns the process is going too slow, but as we know, it takes more than one to tango.

    AEMO has also warned that in 2025 (or maybe as soon as 2024), the eastern state’s grid is likely to be subject to repeated brown-outs, and this is purely and simply, because of politics and perception, we rushed out of existing coal-fired generation before the renewables system was sufficient to take over. Accordingly, the NSW government is working (among other measures) to extend generation from Eraring Power Station, until the ‘gap’ can be filled.

    Not forgetting the absolute LNP thought-bubble stuff-up that is Snowy2 – a good idea in principle, but marginal at best in its delivery, and likely a loser. It’s a destabilising farce and a hugely costly calamity wrought by abject stupidity.

    It’s all complex, yet despite that the workforce, resources and finance is ready, willing and able. But it is not easy, and will go on for many decades. It’s no small irony that the feckless LNP blocked progression of these matters for more than a decade, and they’re still niggling away building barriers where-ever they think they can get away with it.

  7. totaram

    “we rushed out of existing coal-fired generation before the renewables system was sufficient to take over.”
    I am with you on all other points but this needs a bit of correction. Who is “we”? These power generators are all private. They have decided to shut down coal-fired stations because they know they will not be economically viable. Similarly, the “market” has not stepped into the breach because of the lack of policy and incentives from the previous government, and possible penalties if they incurred disfavour (gas-fired recovery, remember?).

  8. Clakka

    Yeah totaram,

    Fair nuff and right on. The ‘we’ was my sloppy recall of a statement from AEMO, which would more likely have been ‘the market’

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