By Joanne McCarthy
FOUR police vehicles sat in an isolated carpark for more than 90 minutes on February 4 carrying police waiting for a protest that never happened, while monitoring people meeting Hunter mining-affected communities over a weekend.
Now the NSW Government faces calls to explain the link between multinational mining companies buying up large swathes of the Upper Hunter, including villages complete with churches and businesses, and the potential criminalising of activities by people still living there or visiting.
Police “monitored the behaviour” of people on a Lock the Gate bus tour for hours on February 3 and 4 after deciding it was a “protest group”, and despite Lock the Gate publicising the event as a chance for Sydney and Newcastle supporters to meet mining-affected communities over meals at Bulga, Camberwell, Muswellbrook, Wollar and Bylong.
The monitoring occurred only days before a Mudgee magistrate rejected a police submission that a part of the Wollar-Ulan road outside Wilpinjong coal mine, where three protesters were charged in April, 2017 under the NSW Government’s controversial anti-protest laws, was a road “belonging to a mine”.
Magistrate David Day reserved his decision after telling police he was “troubled” by the lack of proof for critical elements of charges that Bev Smiles, Bruce Hughes and Stephanie Luce hindered Wilpinjong mine equipment during the protest and rendered a road “useless”. The three also argued their right to protest was implied in the Constitution.
NSW Police this week defended the diversion of considerable resources to follow the Lock the Gate bus on February 3 and 4, including four police vehicles waiting at The Drip gorge carpark between Denman and Mudgee for more than 90 minutes while people on the tour walked into the gorge.
Police provided no evidence to back a description of people on the bus as “protesters” taking part in a “protest group”.
“It is appropriate for police to monitor the actions of protest groups during planned events. This is to ensure public order is maintained, as well as the safety of all parties,” NSW Police said in response to questions.
“Whether they are a protest group, or an anti-mining action group, or whatever they choose to call themselves, as the statement says it is appropriate for police to monitor their actions during planned events to ensure public order is maintained.”
But NSW Council for Civil Liberties vice president Pauline Wright, Greens Justice spokesman and barrister David Shoebridge, Environmental Justice Australia spokesman James Whelan and Lock the Gate said the police presence raised disturbing questions about how authorities viewed areas reduced to little more than heavy industrial mining districts, where the few remaining residents are seen as potential troublemakers for speaking out.
The Lock the Gate bus monitoring raises “pretty intense civil liberties issues”, said Ms Wright, after confirming that promotional material on the group’s website made no mention of protests and concentrated on Hunter areas where expanding mines threaten small communities.
“I believe unless there is a reasonable cause for suspicion that a crime is about to be committed, people should not be under active surveillance by police. It seems to me a guided tour shouldn’t arouse that suspicion of criminal activity,” she said.
“Police will say they were monitoring protesters but I don’t know that that’s a reasonable suspicion. If a tour is a tour and not a possible protest then people should be free to tour.”
Mr Shoebridge said the Hunter incident was an extreme example of a more aggressive response by police since controversial NSW anti-protest lawswere passed in 2016, carrying a seven-year jail term for anyone “intentionally or recklessly interfering with a mine”.
“This is pretty dangerous territory when police have a routine policy to send multiple squad cars to ‘monitor’ community events,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Perhaps the police need the High Court to tell them once again that citizens in Australia are entitled, if they choose, to come together to try and make the world a better place.”
The diversion of so many police for many hours over the weekend also raised questions about the ability of police to respond to actual crimes in other areas, Mr Shoebridge said.
Mr Whelan, who travelled on the bus, said the group included researchers learning about the impacts of mining.
“I was very surprised by the level of police surveillance and scrutiny during the weekend, which seemed entirely unnecessary given the stated purpose of our trip,” he said.
“The communities we connected with during the weekend are heroes, not criminals. Their courage and determination are all that’s protecting the Hunter’s environment and community health from the impacts of coal mines and power stations.”
Lock the Gate Hunter spokesperson and tour organiser Steve Phillips said the event allowed “city-based supporters” to speak to people directly affected by mines, and particularly in the more isolated Upper Hunter areas between Denman and Mudgee where the giant Wilpinjong, Ulan and Moolarben mines are located.
“We visited Wollar to talk to locals about their struggle against the Wilpinjong coal mine expansion, a project which will wipe out their village if it goes ahead,” Mr Phillips said.
“Our supporters couldn’t believe their eyes when a convoy of NSW Police vehicles showed up and began following our tour bus around. We were there to hear the stories of local people impacted by coal mining. There was no reason for the police to show up.”
Lock the Gate NSW spokesperson Georgina Woods said the February incident was not isolated and was not confined to police surveillance. Private security firms contracted to mining companies were also reported following vehicles in areas where the majority of land was owned by mines.
“This kind of activity creates a disturbing atmosphere of intimidation that stems directly from the NSW Government, which backs coal and gas mining no matter the environmental and social cost and leaves local communities feeling like strangers,” Ms Woods said.
Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen did not respond to a request for comment.
Published by the Newcastle Herald on 19 February 2018