This week, I will be the first person to be prosecuted for protesting against Woodside’s Burrup project. This is the story of the raid on my home and the six-month wait for a hearing. By Joana Partyka.
On trial for protesting against Woodside
When the knock came, I was brushing my teeth. For a moment I considered ignoring it: I wasn’t expecting anyone. Eventually I opened the door and standing there were the police. There were six of them, all armed, members of the Western Australia Police Force’s counterterrorism unit, the State Security Investigation Group. In that moment, I felt dazed, almost sun-drunk. My apartment seemed immediately smaller. As I tried to process what was happening, I knew one thing: they were there for me.
A month before the raid in February, I had spray-painted the Woodside Energy logo onto the plexiglass covering Frederick McCubbin’s Down on his luck at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, thrusting into the headlines Woodside’s grotesque mega-project on the Burrup Peninsula. In the intervening period I’d been charged with criminal damage and pleaded guilty. I’d been convicted and issued with a fine and costs, which I paid.
It was after that case had been resolved that these officers arrived at my small apartment. They handed me a search warrant that outlined two suspected offences: criminal damage and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence.
As the first Disrupt Burrup Hub campaigner to receive that unexpected knock at the door, I was unprepared, uneasy and above all unclear why the police were there. I had no greater clarity when they left with my phone and laptop an hour later.
Now, six months later, I have not been charged in relation to the suspected offences outlined on the warrant. Instead, I have been charged with two counts of failing to obey a data access order – for refusing to provide police with the passwords to my devices.
Later this week, I will defend myself in the first criminal trial to come out of the Disrupt Burrup Hub campaign. It is believed to be the first time a peaceful climate activist has faced trial on this charge in Western Australia – a symbol of just how extraordinary a time it is to be a climate activist in this state.
The six months since the raid have been marked by a chronic uneasiness that can flick to acute anxiety without warning. It might be a passing police car, the motion sensor light outside my front door, someone sitting in a car parked outside my apartment building. The hypervigilance is tiring, but more exhausting is knowing this is all happening in defence of fossil fuels. The industry wants to stall the inevitable erosion of its social licence to squeeze sovereign Country for all it’s worth, and the state is willing to compromise our hard-fought civil rights in exchange for a measly cut of it.
You don’t need to have been the subject of a search warrant to understand the massive intrusion it involves. Indeed, the High Court’s George v Rockett (1990) characterises the process as “an invasion of premises without consent”. Having experienced a police raid on my home three times now, I can say this is exactly what it feels like. Three times now, armed strangers have breached the sanctity of my private space to root through my washing, scrutinise my private journals and record me on video. Three times now, I’ve had no other choice but to watch on, defenceless.
The sense of violation and vulnerability lingers long after the police leave. Paradoxically, as the target of a search undertaken ostensibly in the service of public safety, I no longer feel safe anywhere – least of all at home.
For these exact reasons, the bar for issuing a warrant is happily quite high. In defence of our inviolable rights to privacy and liberty in this country, police must apply to an independent judicial officer – that is, a magistrate, judge or justice of the peace – to authorise a warrant before they can legally execute it.
The function here is not to act as a rubber stamp but to exercise careful judicial discretion. As Parker v Churchill (1985) tenders, a justice of the peace “should stand between the police and the citizen”, serving as a critical check and balance that determines an individual’s right to enjoy their otherwise inalienable civil liberties.
A foremost consideration in upholding these rights is whether the application for a warrant is sufficiently substantiated. Under the law, a search warrant in Australia must clearly disclose the nature of the offence to which it is pursuant. It must do so with a degree of specificity that leaves no space for ambiguity, a justification so robust that there remains no doubt about its necessity.
My legal team – Zarah Burgess, along with representatives from the Environmental Defenders Office in Sydney – will contend at trial that this basic legal threshold was not sufficiently met. If successful, it will mean police acted unlawfully when they entered my home and seized my devices, that the data access orders they served me to obtain my passwords had no legal basis, and that the criminal charges I face for defying that order are null.
It’s an argument that’s been heard and won before. After the Australian Federal Police raided the Canberra home of Annika Smethurst in 2019, the journalist filed a legal challenge to their search warrant in the High Court of Australia. The warrant was ultimately deemed invalid on the basis it did not adequately satisfy the requirement of specificity, rendering the AFP’s entry to her home an act of trespass. As one of the presiding justices said, the warrant “lacked the clarity required to fulfil its basic purposes of adequately informing Ms Smethurst why the search was being conducted”.
Replace “Ms Smethurst” with “Ms Partyka” and therein lies my defence.
Western Australia is typecast as a law unto itself, and for good reason. Our cultural identity is firmly embedded in the magnetite from which our state’s wealth is extracted. We love to remind each other that the omnipresent energy corporations in the state “keep the lights on” and “power the national economy”.
Last week it emerged that former premier Mark McGowan pressured WA’s independent Environmental Protection Authority to drop its ambitious emissions guidelines in 2019. After leaving office, McGowan has gone to work for resources giant BHP and as a consultant to Mineral Resources. Fossil rules this town with an iron ore fist, and challenging its dominion will land you on the front page of The West Australian. Throughout my case, I have been described as a vandal in the WA press and it has been noted each time that the charges against me relate to terrorism.
The alternative is much worse: the development of Australia’s most polluting new fossil fuel project. Woodside’s Burrup Hub in WA’s Pilbara region is slated to pump out six billion tonnes of CO2 over its 50-year lifetime – roughly equivalent to the emissions of 50,000 homes every day until 2070. It will destroy our chance at limiting global heating to 2 degrees. It will quite literally erase 50,000-plus years of First Nations history, culture and songlines.
There is too much on the line to protest the “right” way. We need to do what works.
The exceptional pushback against Disrupt Burrup Hub from authorities is a clear signal that what we’re doing is working. Since that first raid on my home, we’ve been subjected to at least another 12 search warrants between us, resulting in the seizure of about 30 electronic devices, four of which are mine, and more than a dozen data access orders. There’s a hotchpotch of non-association bail conditions, a quartet of violence restraining orders that enforce a ban on speaking publicly about the Woodside chief executive, and legal threats from Woodside itself to sue three individual campaigners.
Some of these measures have never before been applied to peaceful climate campaigners in Australia. I can’t recall the number of times a new development has drawn reactions of disbelief from Disrupt Burrup Hub’s legal team. Together we are navigating largely uncharted waters. That’s the price of getting in the way of business as usual.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "On trial for protesting".
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