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In Western Australia, the pursuit of anti-Woodside climate protesters by the government and police echoes crackdowns in other states, where democratic rights are being trampled. By Jesse Noakes.

The cost of the protest crackdown

Environmental activist Joana Partyka outside the Central Law Courts in Perth.
Environmental activist Joana Partyka outside the Central Law Courts in Perth this week.
Credit: Disrupt Burrup Hub

Joana Partyka thought the knock at the door was strange. She lives in a secure apartment complex and visitors usually need to be buzzed in. “I kind of briefly thought, ‘Ha ha, what if it’s the cops?’” she tells The Saturday Paper, “never really thinking that was a possibility.”

Two weeks earlier, on February 10, Partyka had pleaded guilty to criminal damage for her role in protesting against Woodside’s destruction of Murujuga rock art on the Burrup Peninsula. She had been arrested after she spray-painted the Woodside logo on the Perspex sheet protecting Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his luck at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Partyka was fined $7500 and thought that was the end of it. Now, however, she was opening her front door to find six police officers with a warrant waiting to search her one-bedroom apartment. “It was pretty cramped and intimidating,” she says. “They spent about an hour in my home, searching through my personal belongings. All of the things that you don’t want other people to see … It felt really violating.”

The police seized her phone and laptop, a notebook that Partyka uses for work and some offcuts from a stencil. Barely a week later they were back, this time with a court order demanding Partyka provide password access to her devices within seven days.

She declined, citing contractual obligations as a communications adviser to WA Greens senator Jordon Steele-John and ongoing doubts about the validity of the order.

Partyka’s barrister, Zarah Burgess, says that despite this “reasonable excuse”, authorities had provided her client with no assurances about how the data would be handled or stored.

“It is unfortunate that WA Police continue to push for the prosecution of my client in these circumstances,” she says, “but also unsurprising given the shoulder-rubbing that we have come to expect between the state government and Woodside.”

On Monday last week, a one-day trial was set down for September. Police retain her devices in the meantime.

Partyka is not the only recent target of a police crackdown on the group Disrupt Burrup Hub, the campaign she represents. Another activist, Trent Rojahn, had his mobile phone seized in a WA police raid on his home a week after he coated Woodside’s headquarters with yellow paint from a fire extinguisher and sprayed slogans on the exterior glass.

Shortly afterwards, a third activist from the group sprayed a number of Woodside logos on the WA parliament building and was charged with criminal damage.

Burgess described the response from Western Australian authorities as “state-sanctioned intimidation”, designed to protect the McGowan government’s fossil fuel donors. “These kinds of heavy-handed tactics have been used before by the WA Police against members of other environmental activist groups,” she said.

Julia Grix, managing lawyer for the Environmental Defenders Office’s Defenders program, which provides legal advice and representation to environmental activists across Australia, considers the excessive response of law enforcement in WA as part of a national trend that disproportionately targets climate protesters.

“Unfortunately, it is increasingly common to see police overreach of this kind in jurisdictions along the east coast, many of whom have also enacted anti-protest legislation,” she says.

In New South Wales, a 15-month prison sentence for climate activist Violet CoCo was thrown out on appeal last month when it emerged police had made false assertions that saw her jailed under NSW anti-protest laws.

In London last week, two men who blocked a major motorway as part of a Just Stop Oil protest were jailed – one for three years and one for two years and seven months – under new British police powers.

“The recent spate of anti-protest laws have sought to criminalise conduct that was otherwise lawful, increase the penalties available and, ultimately, operate to have a chilling effect upon those wishing to participate in our democracy through engaging in protest action,” Grix says.

WA Police Minister Paul Papalia refused to say whether the McGowan government was considering expanding existing protest laws, instead deflecting queries to police.

The officers who conducted the raid on Partyka’s home were from a unit of the WA Police called the State Security Investigation Group (SSIG), whose ordinary duties include counterterrorism matters. They have increasingly been used to target climate protest, however, executing a series of raids in late 2021 against six people accused of writing anti-Woodside messages in chalk paint on a footbridge near the energy company’s Perth headquarters.

Those activists who fought the charges, including one who merely captured images of the action, subsequently had the cases against them dismissed. The Saturday Paper has seen freedom of information requests seeking details about the decision-making behind these previous raids. Police initially said there was no correspondence that met the request but, on subsequent appeal, allowed that there were relevant communications but insisted material pertaining to the SSIG was exempt under WA FOI laws.

WA Greens MP Brad Pettitt says there has been a concerning pattern of excessive treatment of peaceful protesters by WA police at the behest of the government.

“Putting chalk on a bridge is not about state security; putting spray-paint on Perspex over a bit of art is not about state security,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “It feels to me like this is fundamentally a misuse of that police power.”

Earlier this month, the WA government announced expanded stop and search powers at ports and other entry points into WA, ostensibly to control drug-trafficking. Late last year, Perth police were also granted powers to issue exclusion orders barring people from certain “entertainment precincts” for six months without laying charges or securing a conviction first.

“I think there are real concerns that we will see further steps in this direction that will actually specifically target protests, and especially climate protest which is pushing back against vested interests in oil and gas,” Pettitt says. “I’ve got no doubt that conversation is happening at a state level. I think it’s a question of timing.”

Pettitt is concerned there is little public debate about the incremental increase in police powers and says the changes have received no pushback from the WA opposition. “All of this is radical, long-reaching stuff which will be hard to undo … [and which] fundamentally changes the nature of protest and police powers in this state.”

Sophie McNeill, a WA-based senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, echoed Pettitt’s concerns about the heavy-handed government response and described the use of data access orders as “alarming”.

“Unfortunately, in Western Australia, CEOs of fossil fuel companies are lauded by the local media and politicians, while peaceful climate activists are targeted by authorities with disproportionate punishments and vindictive legal action clearly designed to intimidate them into silence,” she says.

“Climate action will mean more people peacefully taking to the streets, not fewer, and WA authorities need to accept that.”

Partyka agrees that the crackdown from WA authorities will not deter activists. “I think they’ve made clear that they want us to go away and stop,” she says. “But as long as Woodside and all of the other entities are going ahead with developing the Burrup Hub, we serve a purpose.

“I don’t doubt that [WA premier] Mark McGowan has [Woodside chief executive] Meg O’Neill on speed dial, and that he has the police commissioner on speed dial and is kind of the intermediary between the two,” Partyka says. “So he gets his directives from the fossil fuel interests and feeds them to his henchmen, essentially. These raids definitely have the fully developed flavour of political motivation.”

Partyka describes the pursuit of both her and her personal information as a breach of her human rights. “They’re not going to find anything on my devices,” she says. “It’s a matter of principle. Police shouldn’t be able to walk into people’s homes for participating in the democratic right to protest.

“My sense of the pursuit of me is that it’s pre-emptive policing and that has no place in a democracy and that’s frightening to me. They don’t have the right to do that.”

In response to questions, the WA Police said: “The WA Police Force conduct investigations based on evidence and reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or behaviours that may affect peace and public safety.” 

 

This piece was modified on April 29, 2023, to correctly attribute Joana Partyka’s final quotes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Litmus for the prosecution".

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