The Victorian government has just passed a law that allows the issue of fines of up to $600 and jail time for up to two years, for anyone failing to move along if requested at a protest. This is purportedly to stop protests at the tunnel project, for the much maligned east/west tunnel. However it has far reaching implications for our rights to freedom of speech and assembly, and the liberties they protect.
What it means
This means that police (foot soldiers of the executive) can end a protest arbitrarily. While it is not presented as anti-protest law, protests can be disbanded if considered to have the potential of “Impeding lawful access to premises”, “causing others to have a reasonable fear of violence”, and “engaging in behaviour likely to cause damage to property”. I’m sorry, is my democracy bothering you?
People can be excluded from areas, and be given permanent bans from areas as broad as the entire CBD. If these exclusion orders are breached a protestor can face up to 2 years jail time simply for returning to the scene of the ‘crime’ to buy milk up to a year later.
Civil, peaceful protest is the cornerstone of our democracy. It is the way people can speak directly to their representatives, fellow people, and the media. It is empowering to the people, who are able to look left, and right and see fellow supporters of their cause. Rights to peaceful assembly form part of political speech, and by alienating and criminalising the behaviour the government alienates and criminalises its people.
This law is unconstitutional
This infringement on our core rights is a breach of the social contract, and the constitution. Freedom of speech is protected in Australia. It is not spelled out im the constitution, but has been implied into the constitution because of the representational nature of democracy. The high court declared that for a democracy to function, freedom of speech needs to be protected. While states have the ability to make their own laws, they cannot override the high court, or the constitution. The judiciaries very role is to protect the people from tyranny by the executive arms of government.
Protesting as freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech isn’t just about being able to like and share funny photos of Tony Abbott looking creepy, it’s about communicating a message about political action. For so many of us, who don’t control media outlets and don’t hold influential positions in the community, protest is the only channel, where small voices can join and be heard. The ruling elite are working tirelessly to strip our rights and liberties, and return the general populace to a docile working class. No longer do they represent the people, but corporate and elitist interests.
Protest is the ultimate form of political expression. Protest at the mercy of corporate footsoldiers is no protest at all.
What can we do?
There are administrative and civil procedures that allow for the challenge of government rulings and actions. But those channels are often out of the reach of regular folk. Ironically enough up until now a law like this would be met with protest, however I doubt anyone wants to risk jailtime. Then again, the anti-protest laws in Ukraine turned into a bloody, 10,000 strong march on the Capitol. I would hope that the government is wise enough to understand that taking away the right to peaceful protest leaves only one other option.
And I’m not talking about Facebook statuses.