Cross-posted from The Age
Philip Dorling January 7, 2012
Some environmental activists and groups are being continually monitored by the federal police. Photo: Rebecca Hallas
A FEDERAL government minister has pushed for increased police surveillance of environmental activists peacefully protesting at coal-fired power stations and coal export facilities.
Documents released to The Saturday Age under freedom-of-information laws reveal that federal police are continually monitoring anti-coal mining groups, and other environmental bodies.
They also show that Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, who requested the additional surveillance, has been prompted by energy company lobbying to urge stronger criminal penalties against protests that disrupt critical energy infrastructure.
Much of the intelligence collection is carried out for the Australian Federal Police by a Melbourne-based private contractor, the National Open Source Intelligence Centre, which monitors activist websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
Australian Greens leader Bob Brown yesterday condemned the surveillance, saying it was ”intolerable that the federal Labor government was spying on conservation groups” and wanted to criminalise political protest. ”This is clearly Labor being leaned upon by largely foreign-owned coal corporations,” Senator Brown said. ”It involves wasting public money on police efforts directed against peaceful protests, an essential element of a functioning democracy.”
Documents released by the Resources, Energy and Tourism Department show that a surge in environmental demonstrations prompted Mr Ferguson to write to then attorney-general Robert McClelland in September 2009 to raise concerns of ”issues-motivated activism, and the possibility of disruptions to critical energy infrastructure sites”.
The document say Mr Ferguson sought advice on whether the resources of the attorney-general’s portfolio, and in particular the intelligence-gathering services of the Australian Federal Police, could be further utilised to ”assist the energy sector and jurisdictional police to manage the increasing risk of disruptions”.
Mr McClelland replied in November 2009 that ”whilst I recognise the right to protest, when actions jeopardise energy security and the delivery of essential services, it is important that measures be taken to prevent and deter unlawful activity”.
Mr McClelland confirmed that the AFP ”continually monitors the activities of issues-motivated groups and individuals who may target establishments through direct action, or action designed to disrupt or interfere with essential services. Information is gained through a number of sources, including open source, and state and territory law enforcement agencies.”
In addition to AFP intelligence collection, Mr McClelland also highlighted the role of ASIO ”in intelligence-gathering, analysis and advice in relation to protest activity [that] focuses on actual, or the potential for, violence … Where warranted, ASIO advice may take the form of security intelligence reports, notification of protest action or threat assessments.”
Past and current government security sources confirmed to The Saturday Age that monitoring of environmental protests had increased in recent years.
One senior police officer acknowledged the political sensitivity of gathering intelligence on ”groups that are part of the Greens’ activist base”, but emphasised the potential for Greenpeace and other environmental groups to go ”beyond trespass”. Security sources emphasised that intelligence on protest activity came largely from publicly available sources.
But federal police have also confirmed that ”on very rare occasions, the AFP conducts covert operations targeting individuals who may be members of [protest] groups where specific intelligence exists relating to criminal activities by those individuals”.
FOI documents show the Energy Security Branch of Mr Ferguson’s department was proactive in ensuring the Australian Energy Market Operator, Macquarie Generation and TransGrid were warned of a ”peaceful mass action” at the Bayswater power station in NSW in 2010. Seventy-three protesters were arrested and fined $250. Most convictions were overturned on appeal. The documents show that only four protests briefly interfered with electricity generation, though disruption of coal export activities have been more frequent.
Moves to criminalise protest actions arose after Brian Spalding, then head of National Electricity Market Management Company, complained to the Ministerial Council on Energy in July 2008 that existing penalties did not deter activists at energy infrastructure sites.
Mr Ferguson referred the issue to the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG), which reviewed legislation. In July 2009, Mr Ferguson further stressed ”the importance of this work program in light of the continuing trend of incidents that have threatened to disrupt the energy supply chain”.
His department has refused to release the SCAG review of penalties, completed in November 2009, because revealing ”gaps and inadequacies” in current laws would lead to further protest activities.
In late 2009, in the wake of protests at the Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley, the then Labor state government sharply increased criminal penalties for protest-related disruption of critical energy infrastructure.
The federal Attorney-General’s Department is now undertaking a study to determine whether new offences targeting the disruption of services provided by critical infrastructure are required.
A spokesperson for Mr Ferguson said yesterday that governments at all levels were concerned to maintain energy security and economic activity. ”This includes maintaining the rule of law and energy supply where issues-motivated groups actively seek to engage in unlawful activity.”
AFP spies targeting green activists The Sydney Morning Herald
The watchdog’s kennel in clandestine Croydon The Age