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The woman arrested 22 times

Contributor to The Saturday Paper Elfy Scott, on the woman who isn’t deterred by jail time and whether direct action leads to meaningful change.
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It had been over 10 years since anyone in the state of Tasmania was sentenced to prison for protesting.

But that all changed when Colette Harmsen faced court this year. After racking up 22 arrests, a magistrate put her behind bars.

Even as an increasing number of climate protestors face prosecution, Colette’s story shows that some activists aren’t backing down.

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Elfy Scott, on the woman who isn’t deterred by jail time and whether direct action leads to meaningful change.

You can read Elfy Scott’s piece in The Saturday Paper this coming weekend.

 

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram

Guest: Contributor to The Saturday Paper, Elfy Scott

Read Transcript
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*.
 
It had been over ten years since anyone in the state of Tasmania was sentenced to prison for protesting.
 
But that all changed this year, when Colette Harmsen faced court. After racking up dozens of arrests, a magistrate put her behind bars.
 
Even as more and more climate protestors face prosecution, Colette’s story is about how some activists aren’t backing down. 
 
Today, contributor to *The Saturday Paper* Elfy Scott, on the woman who isn’t deterred by jail time… And whether direct action leads to meaningful change. 
 
It’s Wednesday December 6. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]
 
##ANGE:
Elfy, you’ve been speaking to a woman who’s recently been released from prison for protesting. Who is she, and how did she end up there? 
 
##ELFY:
So I was introduced to Dr. Colette Harmsen's story through the Bob Brown Foundation. I found out earlier this year that she was actually serving that prison sentence for environmental protest. 
 
She was the first protest in over 12 years to actually receive a prison sentence in Tasmania. And essentially she received that sentence because she racked up something like 22 arrests. And it got to the point where the magistrate really just had warned her so many times and she kept pushing. 
 
So I decided to give Colette a ring. And we had this really long, very candid conversation over the phone.
 
##Audio excerpt – Elfy Scott: 
“...Where you usually live and work?”
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“Yeah, sure. Hmm. I live half an hour's drive from Nipaluna Hobart.”
 
##ELFY:
She's definitely resolute in her environmental beliefs.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“Direct action gave me an avenue to put pressure on the government and other people that are making decisions that didn't involve being completely ignored all the time.”
 
##ELFY:
But she is also very funny. And we had a great chat about her life. You know, she says that she's always been an animal lover. She lives in this caravan with two rats that she absolutely adores and runs an Instagram page for.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“What I call ESR, which stands for Emotional Support Rats.”
 
##ELFY:
She's a bit of a character, but overall, she's really just quite impressively intelligent and and really great at expressing these things that she's passionate about.
 
##Audio excerpt – News Reporter (ABC): 
“As protesters chant outside the Hobart's magistrate court, Colette Harmsen is embraced by her supporters knowing she could soon be behind bars.”
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“It’s a pretty big day for me. I’m facing a sentencing for peaceful forest protesting.”
 
##ELFY:
So she was actually arrested in 2021 in relation to a protest in the north west of Tasmania in the Tarkine at a mining company site. So she was charged with four counts of trespassing, one count of wilfully obstructing the use of a road and failing to comply with the directions of a police officer. 
 
She told me that on that day they had trekked through the forest and she had ended up chaining herself to mining equipment and ended up being forcibly removed. So that's where the majority of the charges came from that ended up landing her with a prison sentence. 
 
The magistrate remarked that Colette's repeated arrests were basically giving a middle finger to the entire judicial hearing. And later she was handed a sentence for three months in prison.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“I am not giving my finger to the entire judicial system, I am standing up for the forests, for Tarkine, for a safer planet.”
 
##ELFY:
After she received her sentence, she actually walked out of the court and gave this really incredible, impassioned speech to a crowd that had gathered there.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“I am not thumbing my nose at the judicial system. I am standing up to the system because it is failing our environment and it is negatively impacting human life.”
 
##ELFY:
She is really adamant that she perceives what she's doing as a fight against government inaction on climate change.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“I am standing up for the forests, for the Tarkine, for a safer planet. And if that makes me a dangerous criminal, then I think we're going to need bigger prisons.”
 
##ANGE:
And we've heard lots of stories about really passionate climate protesters who've, you know, put themselves and I guess their freedom on the line for their cause. What's unique about Colette's story and her history of activism?
 
##ELFY:
Colette is not naturally somebody who had a lot of run-ins with the police. She actually said that she was quite scared of the police for a very long time. She said that, you know, she was one of those people who every time she was driving past a police car in her car, she would drop the K's down to 40K an hour and kind of look like a very happy, participating citizen so that she didn't get in trouble.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“Like, oh my God, where's my driver licence? And the holy shit, are they going to follow me and put their sirens on? Like, you know, I got a little too, she's absolutely terrified of law enforcement.”
 
##ELFY:
But she got arrested for the first time in 2009 during this kind of inoffensive protest outside a State Parliament house in Hobart. And from there, she started to kind of escalate the things that she was participating in. 
 
She said that the first time that she locked on, which is to chain yourself to mining equipment or logging equipment, she said that her fear of the police was very quickly replaced with this immense sense of empowerment.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“We can do that with our bodies. To like, stop these great big machines from destroying what shouldn't be destroyed in the first place.”
 
##ELFY:
And what she expressed to me when I spoke to her was something that I've heard multiple times from people working in conservation, which is this kind of dejected feeling that all the work amounts to very little in the face of continued environmental and climate damage. So she's kind of been on both sides of the fence. 
 
And once she gave up her vet practice in 2015, she has just been full time protesting and chaining herself to equipment and turning up to these non-violent direct actions.
 
##ANGE:
And when Colette went into serving this sentence, she sounded really defiant about it. Did going to jail change her position at all about that? Has it discouraged her from protesting further?
 
##ELFY:
Yeah, absolutely not. And this is a really interesting part of her story. When I spoke to her, she said that she was released from prison on the Friday and she was back in the forests protesting by the Monday or the Tuesday. 
 
And about a week after I spoke to her, she also headed to the blockade action in Newcastle, which involved a bunch of canoes and boats blocking the coal port.
 
##Audio excerpt – News Reporter (Channel 7):
“Thousands of climate protestors have descended on the world’s busiest coal port in what they’re calling the largest act of civil disobedience in Australian history.”
 
##ELFY:
And it actually ended up with 100 people being arrested there. 
 
##Audio excerpt – News Reporter (Channel 9):
“A 97 year old man is among more than 100 people charged following a 30 hour blockade of the world’s largest coal port in Newcastle.”
 
##ELFY:
The fact that people were willing to put themselves on the line in Newcastle is particularly interesting because it's one of the jurisdictions in New South Wales that is covered by quite severe anti-protest laws.
 
Colette herself wasn't arrested in that particular instance. She did send me a selfie of her, like in her little life jacket with Bob Brown at the port. But a lot of people were, and it'll be interesting to see what actually happens with those people in terms of sentencing over the coming weeks.
 
##ANGE:
Coming up after the break – the protest laws being introduced around Australia, and whether they actually deter people like Colette.
 
[Advertisement]
 
##ANGE:
So, Elfy, we're talking about environmental protesting. And this year we've heard a lot about a crackdown on environmental protesting all around Australia. Where are the tightening of those laws up to around the country?
 
##ELFY:
Yeah, sure. So last year we saw a spate of what are known as anti-protest laws passed in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. And basically they are responding to this kind of protest action that we see from the Bob Brown Foundation that we see from organisations like Blockade Australia and Extinction Rebellion. 
 
And governments are really trying to clamp down against them on the basis that they interrupt industry, on the basis that they block roads. And it's really leading to this sense that there is a tension between police response to protesting and the continued desire to protest, which a lot of researchers expressed concern about because they see it as anti-democratic to try and block protest action. And there are a lot of researchers who are expressing concern over this. 
 
So I spoke to David Mejia-Canales, who is a senior lawyer from the Human Rights Law Centre, and he said that legislation passed across Australia over the past two decades has explicitly targeted environmental and climate protesters in a way that he's really worried about. So he said that the right to protest is very much under attack, in particular for this subset of people. And we're seeing a lot more people charged with these really kind of vague offences that have incredible penalties which are completely disproportionate to what is alleged to have occurred.
 
##ANGE:
You're right. And these protests get a lot of media attention. But I'm wondering just how effective they really are and if people like Colette have reflections on whether this kind of action, you know, disruptive action, is really helping to change policy because the government isn't really changing a whole lot in in this space. And some people say that, you know, these tactics, these disruptive tactics actually alienate people from the climate movement.
 
##ELFY:
Well, I think there is proof that non-violent direct action works. I mean, history shows us that it's important to recognise that in the case of the Franklin River Dam and the protest that were led by Bob Brown back in the 70s, that was a famously successful protest campaign that led to saving the Franklin River. 
 
It can get tricky when we think about that kind of response from the public when they see people participating in these kind of protests. So there's something called the activists' dilemma, which is that tension between garnering lots of attention from the public for protest, say, European protesters, who throws soup to the paintings and then the risk of turning people away from the cause. And that's a fine line that all protesters have to try and walk. 
 
But I also think in the Australian context, particularly when we're looking at these kind of heavy handed anti-protest laws, it's also important to point out that they may have unintended consequences for public sentiment regardless of whether or not people necessarily believe in the climate cause, whether they believe that climate protesters are doing the right thing by chaining themselves to mining equipment. They see these people getting extreme fines. They see them getting prison sentences, and they see that as an injustice. And that's something that a lot of Australians don't stand for. They'll think, Hang on, I actually don't think that's right. If somebody gets a prison sentence for, say, three months, as in the case of Colette. 
 
So I spoke to Dr. Robyn Gulliver, who's a researcher in collective action from the University of Queensland, and she actually warned that a lot of people don't see environmental protest as criminal behaviour, so penalising those actions could actually backfire on governments.
 
##ANGE:
And Elfy, will we see more jail time for protesters? And if the laws do get harsher, do you think someone like Colette might think twice about protesting?
 
##ELFY:
It really is up to the individuals. I think there are a lot of people who will feel deterred by prison sentences and harsh fines. I also think that there will be a subset of people who will get caught in this kind of lock step with the authorities, where we'll see escalating responses from both sides in terms of protest action and then the sentences that those protesters are receiving. 
 
When we're talking about Colette. She very clearly told me that she has no intention of backing down from protests. She said that she is a very privileged person. She said, “I'm right, I've got a supportive family and fantastic friends.” And she doesn't have children. So she sees herself as being in a position where she can make that individual choice and kind of be okay with it because she sees it as doing it for a worthy cause.
 
##Audio excerpt – Colette Harmsen: 
“I am a scientist and I am sick of the government ignoring good science. We need to keep fighting for better laws, for a better planet.”
 
##ANGE:
Elfy, thanks so much for your time.
 
##ELFY:
Thank you so much. 
 
[Advertisement]
 
[Theme Music Starts]
 
##ANGE:
Also in the news today…
 
In its last meeting for the year, the reserve bank decided yesterday to keep interest rates where they are.
 
After raising rates last month, new RBA governor Michele Bullock said that more rate rises may still be needed in the new year to tame inflation.
 
And…
 
Israel is investigating reports of short selling of Israeli shares – betting their value was about to drop – just ahead of the October 7 attack by Hamas. 
 
The Israel Securities Authority said findings from the research by two law professors in the US, was “under investigation by all the relevant parties”.
 
And a quick PSA, today you can listen to the final episode of *Rupert: The Last Mogul* - which is a special series from Schwartz Media and *7am*. The final episode features an interview with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. *Rupert: The Last Mogul* is available in its podcast feed, today, and here on *7am* this Saturday.
 
​​I’m Ange McCormack. This is *7am*. See you tomorrow. 
 
[Theme Music Ends]

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