New legislation tries to criminalize protest

In the Australian state of Victoria, the Napthine Liberal government is pushing draconian legislation to restrict citizens’ right to protest.

The Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill would expand police powers to order people to “move on” from a public place. It introduces new circumstances in which move-on orders can be issued, including some which seem to be deliberately aimed at political actions like pickets and blockades, such as “undue obstruction to another person or persons or traffic” and “attempting to impede another person from lawfully entering or leaving premises”. Not merely individuals, but entire groups of people may be ordered to move on. The bill also allows police to apply for an exclusion order to ban a person from a place for up to 12 months, with anyone breaching an exclusion order to be punished with a jail sentence of up to two years.

Current move-on laws specify that a person must be a risk to public safety and include exemptions for “picketing a place of employment”, “demonstrating or protesting about a particular issue”, and “speaking, bearing or otherwise identifying with a banner, placard or sign or otherwise behaving in a way that is apparently intended to publicize the person’s view about a particular issue”. The new legislation would neutralize those exemptions by allowing protests to be treated like any other event, effectively giving police discretion to decide what is a legitimate form of protest.

New Matilda alleges that the legislation is aimed directly at the ongoing picket obstructing construction of the East-West Tunnel in inner Melbourne, and also more broadly at trade unions.

The Victorian legislation is part of a national and international trend toward criminalizing protest:

  • The Victorian government is also proposing a bill giving it the power to create “timber harvesting safety zones” from which protesters will be banned. Anti-logging protesters who disobey this law will face fines of up to $8,660.
  • In Queensland, the Newman Liberal National government is proposing legislation giving police the power to arrest and imprison any three or more members of an “unlawful association” who are assembled in public. Newman currently claims his laws are aimed at bikies, but once the legislation has been passed, the present or future government could easily extend the definition of “unlawful organization” to any protest group it doesn’t like.
  • In Tasmania, the Hodgman Liberal opposition has proposed $10,000 fines for environmental protesters who enter or impede access to workplaces, with mandatory jail sentences for second offences and property damage.
  • The NSW fire brigade recently revealed the Narrabri Council had asked them for advice on “finding a way to clear” the anti-coal protest camp in Leard State Forest.
  • The federal Abbott government has appointed a “freedom commissioner” whose comment on Occupy Melbourne was “send in the water cannons”. It also intends to reinstate a commission with draconian powers to investigate building industry unions.
  • The governments of the US, Canada, and UK (and for all we know, Australia too) have been caught spying on dissenting citizens, using the justification of opposing “terrorism”.
  • The Russian government recently introduced $9,000 fines for protests not approved by the government, and last year arrested 30 anti-oil-drilling protestors for “piracy”.
  • The Occupy protests of 2011, in Australia and several other countries, were shut down by police using various violent tactics.

Notice that in most of the Australian examples, these actions are being taken by the so-called “Liberal Party” whose neoliberal ideology is supposed to be all about protecting our freedoms, particularly free speech. So why are they introducing all these laws against freedom of assembly? The reality is that despite their rhetoric, the Liberals do not really care about social and political freedoms. They care only about the economic freedom of corporations, and protecting the operations of those corporations from dissidents.

Neoliberalism has arguably become the sort of totalitarian ideology it claimed to oppose: willing to protect economic liberalism even at the cost of social authoritarianism. Paradoxically, this authoritarian tendency may be a sign of the neoliberal establishment’s weakness. The neoliberal economic system and ideology is losing legitimacy in the 21st century, as its 20th century values of growth and economic freedom push up against their limits. Neoliberal governments may realize the public is becoming disillusioned with them and so are attempting to neutralize opposition.

These neoliberal governments see all competing ideologies as irrational, extremist enemies who must be defeated at any cost. In reality, the greatest threat to public safety and security is not opposition to the existing economic system. The greatest threat is what our present economic system is doing to the climate.

I’m concerned that our freedom from corporations is increasingly being eroded in the name of freedom for corporations – which is why tomorrow, I’ll be attending a protest march against Victoria’s move-on legislation, beginning at 10am at the Victorian Trades Hall.

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