When the NSW parliament rushed through harsh new laws to crackdown on protestors without public consultation, two of our Mid Coast Knitting Nannas, Helen Kvelde and Dominique Jacobs, supported by the Environmental Defenders Office, (EDO) launched an action in the NSW Supreme Court.

The decision is still pending, but the two Knitting Nannas hope it will come down in their favour. The laws as they currently stand are so broad that a person can face civil charges simply by protesting near a railway station if it causes others to be redirected around them. This means peaceful protesters like the two Knitting Nannas could be fined $22,000 or two years in gaol. 

“This has a chilling effect on our ability to speak up. We are simply trying to transform our protests into change and action,” says Helen. “We have tried everything from sending letters and signing petitions to meeting politicians and still the government continues to dismiss climate science and destroy native forest habitat and Approve new coal and gas projects.”

Adds Dominique, “Our communities have felt terrified, angry and stressed. Protest can transform those overwhelming feelings into change and action.” 

So Helen and Dom decided they had to challenge these harsh laws arguing the legislation infringes the implied right to freedom of political communication and is therefore unconstitutional.  o freedom of political communication and is therefore unconstitutional.  If they are successful, the worst excesses of the new laws in NSW will be struck out.

The decision by the court is being closely watched. Both Tasmania and Victoria passed tougher anti-protest laws last year with Victoria’s specifically targeting protesters who enter native forests which are being logged. In Western Australia police are targeting climate protesters searching their homes and possessions. 

Civil society and human rights advocates are hoping this case will help them push back against the erosion of our democratic rights to stage protests. 

Protesters like Helen and Dom play a vital role in our democracy say the EDO. Without collective, peaceful and public demonstrations, we would all be without many of the rights and protections we take for granted today.

The story of the Knitting Nannas began in 2012 when a handful of older women joined an anti-coal seam gas (CSG) group in Lismore NSW. The Northern Rivers region was being targeted by CSG mining and their male compatriots appeared to be out of ideas and getting nowhere. 

The women became so frustrated watching this inaction and indecision, they decided to join them. They were further annoyed when the men began asking them to make tea and take the minutes of their meetings. 

Rather than remain frustrated and used for menial tasks, the women devised their own alternative activism in the form of “guerilla surveillance”.  Small groups calling themselves Knitting Nannas went out into the countryside, parked their cars by the roadside and with their knitting, folding chairs and thermos flasks sat down to “scope out the works”, by counting truck movements.

Initially, knitting was a way of productively passing the time, but it soon became a form of environmental activism that older women could engage in.

The Nannas welcomed membership to their group and decided to work to address a collection of crises. They began highlighting the crisis of confidence in politicians who they believed were too close to corporate greedy mining companies. They demanded that a social contract and representative democracy be upheld in all government decisions and that politicians work for people and not for big business.  

By challenging misinformation and denialism with evidence-based research, they contributed to the communities understanding of climate science and the destructive role of the fossil fuel industries. As visible and vocal older women, they challenge sexist and agist stereotypes. 

They support families in rural communities suffering the toxic effects of air, water and land pollution; they assist townsfolk who realise they have been duped by mining companies and politicians and they embolden younger protesters who are emotionally fraught and frustrated by the lack of serious action to combat climate warming.

In the case of the Nannas, their older ages empowered them to challenge gender and age-related stereotypes and become vibrant and central actors in the broader social movement. They further enlarged their commitment from not only fighting CSG extraction, but to include all sorts of oil and gas extraction, stop the logging of old growth and native forests and protect the bio-diversity of forests and wildlife. In the process, they have become part of the feminist ‘me too’ movement towards gender equality.         

The Environmental Defenders Office firmly believes Australians shouldn’t have to risk imprisonment or bankruptcy to participate in our democracy and the Government should not be taking away our democratic freedoms.

Sherry Stumm

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