When federal police arrested five peace activists inside the Pine Gap military base in the early hours of Thursday, they again resorted to the powers under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952 that had failed them against the Pine Gap Four in 2007.
To the knowledge of Russell Goldflam, senior lawyer with the NT Legal Aid Commission and duty solicitor advising the peace activists, both then and now, this is only the second time that this Act’s provisions relating to the Pine Gap base have been used.
After the Pine Gap Four – who entered the base in December 2005 – were acquitted on appeal, the Commonwealth sought to close the loophole that had let them off. Problem is – or appears to be – that the federal police did not apply the letter of the law. A learned judge of the Local Court in Alice Springs was alert to that and threw the charges out.
“Yet again, a prosecution under this extraordinary legislation has resulted in a great deal of embarrassment for the prosecuting authorities,” says Mr Goldflam.
That may not be the end of the story. The step the police skipped was to seek the authority of the federal Attorney-General before bringing the activists before the court. They could possibly re-lay the charges and follow that process. Alternatively, the five could be charged with trespass under the Crimes Act, which doesn’t need any authorisation by the Attorney-General and has been done hundreds of times in the past in relation to protesters entering the Pine Gap base.
A trespass charge, though, carries a lesser penalty than the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. The maximum penalty for conviction under the provisions relating to Pine Gap as a prohibited area is seven years in gaol.
“This legislation was designed for people caught spying, a sort of a primitive form of anti-terrorist legislation,” says Mr Goldflam. Applying it to peace activists is “using a badly designed sledge hammer to crack a walnut.”
It is also possible that the decision of the Local Court judge could be the subject of a legal challenge in the Supreme Court. Watch this space …
Meanwhile it is clear that NT Police are doing their best to minimise news reporting on the protests. No media releases are being issued. Activists who chained themselves to the gates of the defence contractor Raytheon’s premises in Alice Springs were not arrested, and stayed there for some six hours. Women having a tea party in the middle of Hatt Road, which leads to Pine Gap, were not arrested and police directed traffic around them.
Pictured at top are four of the “invaders” of the base this week, (from left) Tim Webb, Franz Dowling, Jim Dowling (all from Brisbane) and Margaret Pestorious (from Cairns). The fifth is Andy Paine. Jim Dowling was also one of 2005’s Pine Gap Four, from Christians Against All Terrorism.