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Big fines, jail threat as SA passes tough protest laws

South Australia's upper house has passed controversial laws to increase maximum fines to $50,000 for disruptive protests.

A union boss has blasted South Australia's government after the state passed laws to ramp up fines for disruptive protests following a mammoth upper house debate.

The new measures were rushed through SA's lower house last week with both the Labor government and the Liberal opposition supporting the changes.

After a more than 14-hour debate, the upper house passed the laws on Wednesday morning, after the failure of proposed Greens amendments including a reasonableness test and an expiry date.

An SA Best amendment did pass, ridding the bill of a reckless intention clause.

The changes increase maximum fines from $750 to $50,000 along with potential jail time.

They were prompted by three days of action by members of Extinction Rebellion earlier this month, including a woman who abseiled over a city bridge, forcing a main road to be closed for about 90 minutes. 

Premier Peter Malinauskas defended the changes on Wednesday, saying the government received legal advice confirming the new penalties were commensurate with other penalties for similar offences.

"There has been no change to protest laws in South Australia," the premier told ABC Radio.

"One of the things that I have found rather disconcerting around some of the commentary on this piece of legislation is that somehow, it curtails or diminishes people's right to protest, which is simply not true."

The premier described the laws as quite a modest change.

He rejected the suggestion more people would be arrested and thrown in prison because of the laws.

"All the protests that have happened in the past, including many that I've participated in, have never resulted in an issuing of a fine," Mr Malinauskas said.

"The majority of people who protest do so passionately, vigorously, obstruct traffic, close streets, march and so forth - none of that will change.

"But we have got a very deliberate action here to affect those people who take to an extreme (protesting) that has an adverse effect on others in our community, who also have rights that need to be protected."

In a later statement, the premier said penalties for obstructing a public place had not changed in two decades, and they no longer gave lawbreakers an adequate disincentive.

Mr Malinauskas cited Extinction Rebellion activists who "travel the country with the sole intention of breaking the law, then crowdfunding to pay their fines".

SA Unions on Wednesday decried the government's failure to respond to the majority of its concerns as well as those raised by the legal profession.

"Not only did the government rush this bill through the lower house in 22 minutes, they have taken the next available opportunity to force it through the upper house," SA Unions secretary Dale Beasley said.

"We will not accept that this is how laws are made in South Australia, especially laws that can land workers in jail for standing up for their rights in public places."

There needed to be careful consideration of the amendments achieved on Wednesday morning, SA Unions said.


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