You usually hear them before you see them. They have an aversion to showering and shaving, are excessively opinionated and opposed to everything that doesn’t comply with their leftist world view.

They also have a preference for chaining themselves to heavy objects when they don’t get their way.

We are talking about activists, or attention-seeking pests who use up valuable public resources when the time comes to arrest or rescue them.

Let’s not mention the disproportionate amount of media attention they attract and their ability to unfairly hold multimillion-dollar investments to ransom.

As the Newcastle Herald’s environment reporter I get to interact with these characters more than most.

The battle of Laman Street, coal seam gas exploration and the expansion of coalmining and related industries have contributed to a busy couple of years for Hunter’s protest industry.

If you are a conservative-leaning, pro-development type you should probably stop reading now because I believe there is another perspective worth considering.

Fact: trespass, interfering with commercial production and disobeying police directions are criminal offences and liable to be punished by our courts.

But haven’t some of our country’s most important and progressive social changes also been the direct result of intense protest and activism?

Women’s suffrage, the Aboriginal right to vote and the abolition of the death penalty would probably still be pipedreams if ordinary punters hadn’t stood up to powerful and entrenched institutions.

History tends to focus on the end result of these campaigns.

What is not so well documented is many were started by a handful of fired-up individuals whose persistence broke through complacency and ridicule.

Maybe that’s why multimillion-dollar companies, which are otherwise immune to criticism, are so sensitive and keen to target pesky activist types.

In recent months we have seen the Hunter’s direct action group, Rising Tide, linked to ordinary citizens concerned about the impact of industrial development on their communities.

The first instance followed a community meeting in Mayfield in August to discuss the potential impact of the proposed fourth coal terminal on air quality.

The meeting was hosted by the Coal Terminal Action Group, whose membership includes some experienced environmental campaigners and activists.

Of the 80 people at the meeting I counted about 20 who I would consider to be activists. Three were members of Rising Tide.

It was enough to worry the big boys at Port Waratah Coal Services, who insist there is wide support for their $5 billion project.

‘‘A lot of the [Coal Terminal Action Group’s] members – for example Rising Tide – are ideologically opposed to coal and have histories of campaigning against anything to do with coal,’’ a media release declared.

Later that month Dart Energy, which is behind a proposed coal seam gas exploration project at Fullerton Cove, also resorted to the activist card.

‘‘Whilst we recognise that local residents might want to express their concerns peacefully, it was clear professional activists, from the Lock the Gate, Rising Tide and Greens groups from outside the area were behind the extended illegal blockading of the site,’’ the company asserted.

What wasn’t mentioned was that most of the blockade’s participants were non-political residents concerned about the impact of coal seam gas. I saw one Rising Tide member during the nine-day blockade.

The right to public protest, forcefully at times, is one of the founding pillars of our democracy.

But let’s not confuse someone who risks getting munched into a thousand bits because they have chained themselves to the top of a coal loader, with someone who pickets a coal seam gas site or a public street to stop the removal of some much loved trees.

In the end both have chosen to act because they are concerned about their community. It’s just that one chooses to break the law, spend someone else’s money and risk life and limb to make their point.

Unfortunately democracy isn’t perfect but it’s still the best option.

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