Victoria’s new anti-protest bill is a threat to our freedom of assembly

Guardian Australia: Victoria’s new anti-protest bill is a threat to our freedom of assembly. Asher Wolf. Wednesday 29 January 2014 09.20 AEST

It is utterly disgraceful that the Victorian state government would place the power to decide what is ‘legitimate protest’ in the hands of police

Police engage Occupy protestors on horseback in Melbourne in 2011. Photograph: AAP/Julian Smith

Next week, Victoria’s government is expected to attempt to pass a piece of deeply anti-democratic legislation which would massively increase the ability of police forces to “move on” workers and activists engaged in peaceful protests, pickets and demonstrations. If passed, it would be a substantial blow to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

The proposed bill creates a new scheme of “exclusion orders” which could potentially be used to ban individuals or groups from public spaces for up to 12 months. Contravention would carry a penalty of two years imprisonment. Under the new proposals, an oral direction to “move on” would apply to an entire group of people, even if not given to each member of the group in person. The legislation would also require that people must give police their name and address when faced with a “move on” direction. The bill suggests failure to comply with a police request would result in a penalty of $600.

The appallingly broad range of discretionary powers the proposed legislation hands to police has shocked unions, activists and lawyers alike, and has inspired a momentous gathering at Melbourne’s Trades Hall last week. A broad range of people and organisations all deeply concerned about the implications of the bill attended. Representatives from community legal centers, as well as Victoria trades hall council representatives, union representatives, activists and independent media outlets packed the meeting room to explore what the legislation’s ramifications for protest rights.

Occupy Melbourne protest. Photograph: Takver/flickr

Victoria already has laws which police can use to move people on if it is suspected that people are breaching or likely to breach the peace, if people are endangering or likely to endanger the safety or any other person, or if behaviour of people is likely to cause injury to other people or damage to property. Contravening these laws already potentially results in a $600 fine.

However, the new legislation appears to have the unions and protest groups firmly in its sight, and the bill could be a serious threat to Victorian workers’ right to organise to improve working conditions. Brian Boyd, secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, noted that “there’s a lot of concern about what the changes could mean to our day to day functions for unions.”

In the second reading of the proposed legislation before the Victorian Legislative Assembly in december, Victorian attorney general Robert Clark said:

It makes clear that if protesters go beyond legitimate expression of views and instead resort to threats of violence or seek to impede the rights of others to lawfully enter or leave premises, police will have the power to order those protesters to move on. To this end, the bill provides that move-on powers may be used in respect of people engaged in picket lines, protests and other demonstrations.

The changes effectively mean that purely symbolic protests will still be protected from police “move on” powers, but protest action which attempts to achieve objectives through picketing or blockading could be criminalised. It is utterly disgraceful and entirely unacceptable that the government would place the power to decide what is “legitimate protest” in the hands of police.

Simon Frew, president of the Pirate party, was present at the Trades Hall meeting. He told me:

It is vital that people with grievances, whether the government believes they are legitimate or not, have the right to demonstrate their opposition in public. Passing laws aimed to give police the power to break up protests seriously limits this right and weakens the ability of society to carry on a free and open debate about important issues of the day.

Elizabeth O’Shea, a lawyer with Maurice Blackburn who has represented a number of refugees with adverse security assessments from ASIO, as well as the Tecoma 8 anti-MacDonald’s activists, was also present. She said:

This is a direct attack on democratic freedoms that people have historically fought hard to protect. It effectively criminalises a range of behaviors that are fundamental to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. The right to protest has resulted in hard won freedoms we all enjoy and curbed excesses of corporate and political power. Why is the Victorian government so frightened of people congregating to express their views?

Why indeed? Is the Victorian government so terrified of the voices of opposition? The violent crackdown on Occupy Melbourne would suggest so. As it is, the bill would do nothing less than legalising clamp-downs on free speech and congregation. One would suggest bringing the issue to the notice of current Australian human rights commissioner Tim Wilson, if it wasn’t for his prior Twitter comment:

While the proposed legislation has raised the ire of activists, there is the frightening potential it may also be used to further criminalise the homeless and individuals suffering from mental health issues, since exclusion orders would be based on entirely subjective, predictions of the future. This was a point underlined by Fitzroy Legal Service’s Meghan Fitzgerald, who pointed out that these provisions “are framed to facilitate social exclusion in the absence of criminal offending. For example, the provision relating to a reasonable suspicion that persons are present to buy or sell drugs.”

It is as yet unknown how authorities plan to monitor individuals under the exclusion orders, and what the implications on privacy for the broader community will be. What we do know, however, is that cracking down on freedom of movement and congregation will require greater policing and surveillance.

Protesters shouldn’t face the threat years in jail just for making their point heard. Victorians don’t want a police state, and we simply don’t need these laws. They won’t make us a safer society and they will only serve to undermine basic human rights.

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