On Tuesday 11 March, the Australian state of Victoria passed a controversial law giving police wide-reaching powers over protesters.
Police can now move on, fine or arrest people they believe are ‘causing or likely to cause’ obstructed access to buildings or impeding the movement of people or traffic, or people they anticipate may become violent. Additionally, courts can issue exclusion orders (bans on being in a designated public space for up to 12 months). Breaching a penalty order can result in two years’ imprisonment.
Officially this law is the Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill. Colloquially it’s called the anti-protest law. It’s unpopular (protesters disrupted the debating of the bill in parliament and opposition rallies have attracted large crowds) and opponents argue it is part of a wider move by conservative state and federal governments to curtail democratic rights.
The right-wing Victorian Liberal government, led by Premier Denis Napthine, says the law “will give Victoria Police the power to end unlawful union pickets and protester blockades that threaten to shut down businesses.”
Attorney-General Robert Clark adds: “When individuals resort to unlawful tactics that threaten the livelihood of law-abiding businesses, employees and their families, they must be held to account.”
But National Vice-President of the Labor Party Jane Garrett says: “It’s a slippery slope for government to go down when they restrict people’s right to protest. The right to be heard is hard-won and cherished and we’re deeply concerned about conservative government policies that make it difficult for people to speak, particularly those who already have limited power or influence in our community.”
In a curious twist, Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, also a Liberal, plans to use the law to move anti-abortion protesters away from clinics to assist “the young women who get harassed as they enter that clinic at a very vulnerable time in their lives.” The Napthine government has yet to respond to this interpretation of the law. Mayor Doyle and Premier Napthine are known to have a strained political relationship.
Many people believe the trigger for the introduction of the anti-protest law was the increasing number of public objections to government initiatives, including the East-West road link. But political theorist James Muldoon argues: “The main target of these laws, the big fish on the end of the line, is the union movement in Victoria. The government is keen to crush the remaining power of the unions through outlawing and delegitimising one of their strongest weapons: pickets.”
Legislation of this type is not unprecedented in Australia. In 1971, Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a State of Emergency allowing bussed-in police to arrest anti-apartheid protesters during the tour of the Springbok rugby team. In 1977 the same Premier outlawed street marches, leading to repeated violent clashes between police and protesters (more than 2,000 people were arrested during several years of public defiance). Those laws were not overturned until after a Royal Commission into police and government corruption in the state.
Depending on your political views this is either a time of dynamic reform or draconian backsliding in Australia. Either way, things are changing quickly. And given Australia’s key role in the politics of the Asia-Pacific region, and as a longtime ally of the United States, the changes are worth watching.