A NSW magistrate has told protesters involved in a demonstration that ground coal exports to a halt in Newcastle that it was clear they acted out of “genuine desire” to bring about change.
The protest, organised by the group Rising Tide in November, saw hundreds of people block Newcastle Harbour for 30 hours over two days in the name of climate change.
The authorised action was to finish at 4pm on November 26, but many protesters defied police orders and remained on the water.
More than 100 people were arrested and charged with operating a vessel to interfere with others’ use of the water.
Two protesters faced the courts in November where they were fined around $600 each.
The remaining 99 were listed in Newcastle Local Court today and included students as young as 20 and age pensioners in their 80s.
Magistrate Stephen Olischlager said many of the protesters had done outstanding work in their communities and had a genuine concern for the environment.
“[This was] not selfishly motivated,” he said.
“[They are] valuable contributors to society, persons who are intelligent … and making a real contribution to society.”
Police prosecutor Harry Hall had argued the protesters should be convicted as the unauthorised part of the protest was unsafe and took away police resources from other areas.
“Entering a busy shipping lane places lives at risk,” he said.
Busiest coal port in the world
The Port of Newcastle exports more than 150 million tonnes of coal each year, making it the world’s busiest coal port.
Magistrate Olischlager said, while it was a fundamental human right to protest, people did have to consider the broader impact on the community.
“There was a large vessel due to leave the port and there was some delay caused,” he said.
Despite this, those who pleaded guilty this morning left court without a conviction or fine, as Magistrate Olischlager said they had shown good character.
“Offences of this nature are [often] committed by persons who are of good character,” he said.
“It is a strength of those characters, which on this occasion [means] these are matters that can be dealt with by not proceeding to conviction.”
Journalist, age pensioners and students charged
Among those facing court today was a writer for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, Paul Gregoire.
He had attended the protest as a journalist but got “caught up” in the action.
He pleaded guilty in court today and was granted a conditional release order without conviction.
“I’m sorry to have wasted the court’s time but I thought it was a necessary, important cause,” he said.
“The climate crisis is escalating, so I thought it was time to put my money where my mouth was and show solidarity with the activists.”
Newcastle local Bryce Ham, 20, was among those who did not receive a fine or conviction.
“It’s a great sign that peaceful protest in Australia is still strongly respected by the courts,” he said outside of court.
“This is the biggest civil disobedience action for climate justice in Australia’s history.”
Some of the 99 matters are expected to be moved to another day given the sheer number of people who attended court today.