Australian protest crackdowns ramp up

It’s been a bad week for activists in Queensland, with the Liberal National state government making rapid-fire attacks on their political rights.

Firstly, activists Aleta Tulk and Adam Brooker were handed a three-month good behaviour bond for chalking on a Cairns footpath: “G20 benefits the 1%”. Tulk has no criminal history and says she will continue to speak out. She says she did not intend to cause permanent damage to the path, hence her decision to use chalk: “I even tested it before on my own driveway to make sure it would wash off.” The local council has indeed washed away the message.

Secondly, police raided the home of sixty-year-old grandmother Myra Gold, who had also been questioned about the chalking incident. They arrived at 7am (when she was in bed) with a search warrant to arrest her for allegedly placing a small sticker on a pole at a shopping centre bearing the same slogan, “G20 benefits the 1%”, about which there was apparently a complaint. When she asked why she was being arrested, an officer told her: “You have to learn that you can’t keep putting up stickers.” They seized as evidence 5 pages of stickers, her phone, and several items of clothing. Gold, who has not confessed, says: “This is political – many businesses and companies use stickers and posters around town and they do not get arrested.”

Thirdly, Office Works has been instructed not to print any anti-G20 protest material.

Both state and federal governments have passed laws prohibiting any behaviour “capable of disrupting” the G20. 700 extra police will arrive in Cairns for the Finance Ministers’ meeting next week, with the big G20 summit to be held in Brisbane on 15-16 November. The conference will not discuss the most important issue of our time, climate change.

Fourthly, Brisbane City Council has announced that large groups of people who want to gather in any of the city’s parks or open spaces must buy a $300 permit or face fines of up to $5,500. This is being sold as an environmental protection measure, but it’s hard not to suspect its real purpose is to hamper would-be protesters. The law is being introduced by the Liberal National Party’s Matthew Bourke, a colleague of former Mayor Campbell Newman, now Queensland Premier.

Fifthly, at 11:55pm on Tuesday, the Newman government rushed through a last-minute amendment to remove the legal right for anyone, even landholders, to object to large mining projects through environmental assessment processes. Citizens will only be able to able to object to an unaccountable Coordinator General who can ignore environmental concerns. As GetUp! puts it: “If Gina Rinehart wants to build a coal mine at the end of your street – you won’t get to object.”

3,000 km south in Tasmania, the Hodgman Liberal government introduced to the upper house the following laws, which have already passed through the lower house:

  • Protesters may not cause or threaten damage to a business.
  • Police can direct protesters to leave a business or “business access area”.
  • Police can remove any obstructions to a business and people may not prevent them doing so.
  • Inciting any of these acts is an offence.
  • These offences are punishable by spot fines of up to $10,000 (up to $100,000 for organizations), with mandatory minimum jail sentences of three months for repeat offenders.
  • Police can demand proof of identity, arrest without warrant, and remove people from a business.
  • Officers can use necessary force to perform these powers.

The laws are targeted at anti-logging protests. Lawyers say the legislation may be constitutionally invalid and its definition of “protest activity” could apply to anyone with any issue. People marching in the street could be fined for obstructing delivery or taxi businesses, and jailed if their march blocks vehicles from multiple different businesses.

Three UN human rights experts have urged Tasmania to scrap the legislation, saying it “would almost certainly run afoul of Australia’s human rights obligations… under international human rights law”.

  • Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye said: “The law itself and the penalties imposed are disproportionate and unnecessary in balancing the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly and the government’s interests in preserving economic or business interests.”
  • Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Maina Kiai said: “In democratic societies, demonstrations and protests are key to raising awareness about human rights, political, social concerns, including regarding environmental, labour or economic issues, and of holding not just governments, but also corporations accountable. The Bill, if adopted, would impede that very function.”
  • And Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said: “By listing specific industries, such as forestry, agriculture, or mining, it specifically targets environmentalists; this is shocking.”

The above examples are part of a growing trend toward criminalizing protest:

  • The Queensland government has passed a law giving police the power to arrest any three or more publicly assembled members of any group the government declares a “criminal organization” (including any non-members in attendance). These offences are punishable by jail sentences of at least six months, in specialized maximum security prisons, and those accused are kept in solitary confinement while awaiting trial. Members of criminal organizations are also prohibited from going to any location or event from which the government bans them. Even if they don’t meet with other members, they become ineligible for a long list of occupations. Police have discretion to identify members without telling them why they are being arrested. Lawyers representing people charged under these laws could also be charged with criminal association. Newman claims his laws are aimed at “criminal bikie gangs”, but the government can at any time extend the definition of “criminal organization” to any group it doesn’t like.
  • The Queensland government has passed another law which says jail sentences of 15-25 years can be imposed on anybody who commits any of a wide range of offences while participating in any activity by any formal or informal group of three or more people, unless they can prove the group did not intend to break the law.
  • In Victoria, the Napthine Liberal/National government has given police new powers to issue “move on” orders to individuals or groups causing “undue obstruction to another person or persons or traffic” or “attempting to impede another person from lawfully entering or leaving premises”. The laws give police discretion to decide which protests are legitimate. Protesters can be banned from a place for up to 12 months, with noncompliance punishable by a jail sentence of up to two years. The government admits the laws limit freedom of speech and association.
  • The Victorian government is 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.
  • The NSW fire brigade has revealed the Narrabri Council asked them for advice on “finding a way to clear” the anti-coal protest camp in Leard State Forest.
  • The federal Abbott Liberal/National government proposes to outlaw environmental boycotts, and intends to reinstate a commission with draconian powers to investigate building unions. It is cutting off government finance for anyone campaigning against government policy. It is proposing to make it easier for police to arrest without a warrant in the name of “anti-terrorism”. It has appointed a “freedom commissioner” whose comment on Occupy Melbourne was “send in the water cannons”.

And all this from the supposed party of liberty, free speech, and cutting red tape. The Liberals’ true vision might be better described as totalitarian capitalism, a society in which freedom for corporations trumps freedom from corporations.

Three years ago, the Occupy protesters warned that our public spaces no longer belong to us, that they belong to the corporate elite and the governments who increasingly serve them. The Australian protests were smallest and first to be shut down (by Liberal/National state governments). Most believed the movement was irrelevant to Australia with our supposed commitment to a “fair go” – ignoring the warning signs that Australia is heading in the same direction as the rest of the world.

Maybe it’s time we heeded the warning.

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