Federal and state governments have both passed successive legislative amendments in recent years that threaten fundamental rights to protests and freedom of speech in Australia.
The latest installment, amendments to the Crown Land Management Act in Victoria, have been described as “a fundamental attack on democracy”, leaving many experts calling for an audit of increasing draconian measures introduced in the last decade.
According to changes of the Crown Land Management Regulation 2018, it has been revealed that low-ranking bureaucrats will now be given broad powers to disperse or ban protests, meetings, rallies and gatherings on any state-owned land. This includes:
- Entering Crown land at a time when the Crown land is not open to the public.
- Entering any building, structure or enclosure or part of Crown land not open to the public.
- Holding a meeting or performance or conducting entertainment for money or consideration of any kind.
- Taking part in any gathering, meeting or assembly.
- Selling, offering or exposing for sale any article or thing, or conducting any commercial activity.
- Displaying or causing any sign or notice to be displayed.
- Distributing any circular, advertisement, paper or other printed, drawn, written or photographic matter.
- Having or operating photographic or video devices for commercial purposes.
- Planting any tree, shrub, vine, flower or other plant.
The provisions include the ability for public officials to be given new powers to “direct a person” to stop “taking part in any gathering, meeting or assembly”.
The new measures will apply to almost half of all land in New South Wales – including parks, heritage sites, community halls, nature reserves, coastal lands, sporting grounds, government infrastructure and showgrounds.
The legislation continues on from contentious laws initially introduced in 2014, which give police broad powers to currently be able to move against protesters who are blocking access to buildings, obstructing people or traffic, or who are ‘expected to turn violent’.
They also mirror controversial changes found in the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 that was passed last year, allowing the Australian government to criminalise dissent, and gag journalists and whistleblowers.
Civil liberty campaigners and peak privacy groups in Australia have denounced the new changes, citing an increasing shift to a world where any form of political dissent is targeted and attacked – similar to the two-year ban on protesting introduced under the Bjelke-Peterson era of the 1970s that saw 1,972 people arrested.
A NEW TREND
The new legislation is an example of a growing trend in recent years, both on a state and federal level, to silence dissent to protests, demonstrations and grassroots movements.
UNSW Law Professor George Williams said in November last year that 67 national security bills had been enacted at the federal level since 9/11. Many campaigners have been calling for an audit of them with the aim of revoking the laws that are never used.
Plans first began to give Victorian police anti-dissent powers in 2009, after “move-on” legislation was first introduced in a bid to crack down on alcohol-related violence. Victoria is not the only state that has passed restrictive laws like this, either.
In fact, laws in NSW already give police excessive powers to stop, search and detain protesters, seize property, and shut down peaceful protests that obstruct traffic.
NSW passed this legislation a week after expanding the offence of “interfering” with mining, which carries a penalty of up to seven years’ jail, to cover coal seam gas exploration and extraction sites.
Across the country, the UN has raised concerns that Tasmania is targeting environmental protests with broad and vague new offences, including “hindering” access to business premises or “obstructing” business operations – with penalties of up to $10,000 and four years’ imprisonment.
UN experts urged the Tasmanian government to reconsider the introduction of the laws, stating they “contravene Australia’s human rights obligations”.
Similarly, in Western Australia, legislation introduced in 2015 contains extremely broad offences of “physically preventing a lawful activity” and “possessing a thing for the purpose of preventing a lawful activity”, with proposed penalties of up to two years in prison and fines of up to $24,000.
Many citizens have expressed concerns that eroding basic civil rights and undermining political protest will change the face of Australian democracy.
Northern Rivers academic and activist, Aidan Ricketts, told the ABC recently that the new laws are ‘a fundamental attack on democracy’:
“It’s creating this arbitrary power to disperse any crowds whatsoever — not just protesting but simply meeting and discussing issues even.
“This is something that’s been done effectively at the stroke of a ministerial pen under the auspices of the pre-existing piece of legislation — the Crown Land Management Act.”
Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre, spoke to the press about how anti-protest laws are a threat to fundamental human rights:
“We need to call out regression like anti-protest legislation for what it is. We need to recognise the cumulative democratic harm being inflicted by particular environment, counter-terrorism or refugee policies.
Ultimately, if we truly care about protecting our democratic rights and freedoms, we need to guarantee them in an enforceable national Human Rights Charter.”
James Muldoon, political theorist and philosopher from Monash University, also spoke on the underlying greater concepts to be concerned over:
“Ultimately, these laws are unnecessary because the police already have powers to arrest people who are breaking the law. It is clear what the new laws are about: political control and shutting down dissent.
Greater police discretion means more power for those in charge and more ability to use force when it is expedient. It is good news for someone in power looking to get their way and bad news for anyone who may disagree with them.”
A spokesperson for the government said the suggestion that new regulations were designed to ban protests was wrong.
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Crown Land Management Regulation 2018 [NSW] | Legislation
After Democracy: Victoria’s new anti-protest laws | RightNow.org.au
Erosion of Privacy in Australia: Basic Facts | TOTTNews.com
NSW’s Anti-Protest Package: Unconstitutional? | Sydney Criminal Lawyers
Street marches ban in Queensland [1970s] | The Australian