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They think we doth protest too much

March in March protest Sydney. Photo by Marco Bok


Three protesters were arrested in Melbourne defending their democratic right to protest following a review of the Summary Offences Act in the Victorian upper house that had been passed on March 11, 2014.

The Victorian Bill was being debated in parliament when a group of around 20 protesters – including those engaged in an ongoing placarding of the multi-million dollar city tunnel known as East West Link Road – voiced their anger.

The disturbance occurred when the demonstrators were asked to leave the gallery for reasons of hurling abuse to council and the chamber. Police were called in to remove them, or as the legislation sites, ‘move’ them ‘on’. The three offenders apprehended had refused to be ‘moved on’.

The aim of the new reforms is to provide police and security guards with more power to effectively control organised protesting, those blocking access or traffic, and those who may potentially turn violent.

Under the new laws, people who do not follow police orders to ‘move on’ can be arrested and fined $720. Previous exemptions for a peaceful protest have been removed and the ‘move on’ directive can be issued to individuals and those in a group. Police can also impose a court order banning individuals from entering or returning to a public place for 12 months. If the exclusion order is not adhered to, offenders could receive a jail-term of up to two years.

In February the proposed laws met with an organised demonstration of 2000 protesters chanting union slogans and the rights to express freely.  The main concern is that it reduces freedom of expression through organised assembly.  The controversial ‘move-on’ Bill was first introduced in Victoria in 2009 in a bid to combat alcohol-related violence. The Federation of Community Legal Centres and Liberty Victoria were directly opposed to the laws, while business groups such as the Victorian Employers Chamber of Commerce and Industry approved.

Although the laws are yet to be proclaimed, Victorian premier Denis Napthine added his support last week when the vehicle he was traveling in was surrounded by East West Link protestors. Dr Napthine expressed sympathy for on-duty police officers whose job it was to control these situations, arguing: “It’s absolutely disgraceful behaviour by a small group of rabble-rousing professional protesters.” A member of the group was taken to hospital after the premier’s car drove over their foot during the incident.

In NSW, legislation protecting against alcohol-related violence is just as selective and arguably discriminatory. In late February, Barry O’Farrell was forced to reassess mandatory sentencing that provided arresting officers the power to jail an unruly drinker for years.

Further impacts are being felt through the lockouts and restrictions within Sydney’s central precinct. The laws continue to shape the geographical night-time movements of business operations, patronage, customer behaviour and our culture. In Newcastle, which has had lockouts for years, there are indications that people are simply going to pubs and bars earlier than they would have before the change.

If the NSW government were to seek to further protect the community from alcohol-related violence by proposing Victoria’s ‘move on’ reforms, it would effectively render NSW a police state.

Declining support for political decision-making causes many to assemble and rally against it. In Sydney, the recent March in March protest against federal government policies attracted around 12,000 protestors, and perhaps up to 30,000 in Melbourne.

While some condemned those rallies for a lack of specific grievance, they fail to realise that sometimes that is the point. In an age when the freedom to protest is demonstrably under threat, the act of public defiance is a democratic value to protect.

by Angela Stretch

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