Last month, university student Daniel Jones was walking home after a protest where, according to the Australian Associated Press, police outnumbered protesters by a ratio of three to one, when he heard someone calling out his name.
Buoyed by a few post-rally beers, Daniel at first ignored the shouts, thinking it might be an acquaintance from the protest, but as the man got closer and tried to get him to stop and have a chat, Jones realised he was a police officer.
The man identified himself as ‘Ahmed’, and asked Jones if he would consider passing on information about other activists’ plans for the APEC summit to be held in Sydney in September. In return, the police might be able to help him out with the charges he was facing as a result of the G20 protests he had attended in November last year.
At first Jones was hesitant, thinking of ‘running away’, but then a better idea came into his head. He would listen to what the man had to say with the plan of taking it to the media later. The Sydney Morning Herald picked up the story, which caused a small splash in the days following, but both the police and the NSW Government declined to comment directly on the allegations and the story has now largely faded out of the public debate.
Jones is no stranger to the media. You might remember him as the fiery activist from season one of the SBS reality TV series Nerds FC. On the show, he proudly displayed his collection of campaign T-shirts and quoted philosophy. His exuberance and unashamed passion for politics made him a favourite with the show’s audience.
Since Nerds FC, however, a lot has changed for Jones. Even though he knew he had done nothing wrong, he was shaken by his run-in with ‘Ahmed’. Because of his involvement in the G20 protests in November last year, his Balmain home where he lives with his parents was raided at dawn in March of this year by members of the Victorian Police’s ‘Taskforce Salver’, the Australian Federal Police, and the NSW Counter-Terrorism Command. He says the last few months have left him feeling ‘depressed’, constantly dealing with ‘cycles of up and down’.
It’s not surprising that Jones was approached to be a police informant. His social position, being acquainted with many people from a number of different political groups combined with the serious charges he was facing from the G20 protests, made him a perfect target.
The police are on the look out for such targets because of the fierce political pressure coming openly from the NSW State and, to a lesser extent, Federal Governments.
Both have an interest in taking credit for a smoothly run APEC conference, and both will attempt to leverage the success of the conference to cement their positions as the strong leaders of a safe and thriving electorate. The Federal Labor Party cannot afford a State counterpart that appears to be weak on crime or that doesn’t take economic conferences such as APEC extremely seriously.
So far, things are not looking good for the activists. As the NSW State Parliament has passed significant new legislation to increase police powers during APEC, activist groups have reported an unprecedented level of police suspicion and intimidation.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Police have been questioning political groups that are unaffiliated with the APEC protests, such as the National Union of Students, as far back as 2 May this year. And the NSW Police Minister, David Campbell, has made clear in speeches to Parliament and the media that he considers ‘large organised and sustained violent protests’ to be as much a threat to the safety and security of Sydneysiders during APEC as possible acts of terrorism.
Jones believes that such incidents do not show that the police really perceive him or other activists as a threat, but that they want to intimidate people out of their activism. ‘I mean, we’re a public movement, everything we do is public,’ he says. ‘Anyone can go to a Stop Bush meeting, and if the police want to they can just get dressed up in plain clothes and go as well.’
‘My feeling is that they just want to let it be known that they are around and watching. I think it’s part of a general tactic to intimidate people. We don’t pose that much of a threat,’ he says.
Sylvia Hale, a Member of the Legislative Council in the NSW Parliament and representative of the Greens, would agree with Jones’s sentiment. She believes that the NSW Government has been increasingly keen to ‘feed on public concerns about violence and safety,’ while at the same time becoming open to the idea that political ‘dissent should not be condoned’.
Hale was part of a joint press conference that condemned new legislation giving police extraordinary powers to deal with protesters during the APEC conference. She says, ‘I think the legislation as well as the activities the police have engaged in so far are designed to create an atmosphere which suggests that dissent is always violent, and that dissent is really verging on impermissible.’
The APEC Meeting (Police Powers) Bill gives police a number of serious and unusual powers. The power that has received the most media attention thus far allows police to compile a list of ‘excluded’ persons who, according to the Minister for Police David Campbell, have engaged, ‘in very serious and disruptive protests and violence’. These people will not be told that they are on the list, but if they attempt to enter certain ‘declared’ areas, they will be prevented from doing so.
Hale has ‘very, very great misgivings’ about the power of the Police Commissioner to compile such a list. ‘What concerns me is that there is no notification of people that they are on the list, and therefore they have no ability to appeal against being on it. There are no checks and balances to assure that the information on which the police are acting is correct or has not been maliciously supplied.’
The powers potentially affect many more people than those who are on the excluded person’s list.
The legislation gives the Police the ability to establish both ‘restricted’ and ‘declared’ areas. Anyone who attempts to enter those areas can be searched and must show identification. Any person who is accused of assaulting police, malicious damage or throwing missiles at police in a restricted or declared area will attract a presumption against bail. Anyone caught in a restricted area can be subject to six months imprisonment, and, if ‘aggravating’ circumstances exist, the penalty can be extended to two years.
When Hale signed a petition against the legislation, The Hon Michael Gallacher, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, criticised her ‘bleating’ opposition to the Bill. He said, ‘I suspect [those on the petition]might be the start of the list of people who should not be in the security area.’
Hale is outraged that Gallacher would imply that her opposition to the list of excluded persons should be grounds to see her name added to that list, saying it ‘is really incredibly suggestive of the Macarthian period’.
One must wonder, then, with all this talk of secret lists and police informants, what activist groups have planned for the APEC period.
A quick glance at the Stop Bush website paints a picture of a small group of people who are in the process of organising a rally to be held on 8 September and as Jones points out are eager for any interested parties to attend their planning meetings. They have made an effort to foster an approachable public face, which Alex Bainbridge, one of the organisers of Stop Bush, claims has been a conscious decision in order to try and encourage people who might otherwise be scared off by the ‘intimidation campaign’ that has been run by the Government.
Perhaps, then, it is not Stop Bush that the NSW Police are worried about. When Sylvia Hale raised her opposition to the APEC Police Powers Bill in NSW Parliament, the Hon. Rev. Fred Nile made specific mention of the anarchist group, ‘Mutiny’.
Nile claimed that Mutiny and other anarchist groups are ‘something completely different’ to teenage and university protesters. Groups such as Mutiny are certainly under watch by the Australian Police, and Jones says that Mutiny members and other anarchists were mentioned to him by name when he was approached by the police officer.
Nile was particularly concerned by an incident, mentioned in some media reports, in which Mutiny had convinced the Stop Bush Coalition to remove the term ‘peaceful protest’ from their literature.
I asked a representative from Mutiny, Tobi Miller,* why they had wanted to remove the term from APEC material. Miller said: ‘If you read [the letter]in its entirety, it makes it quite clear that it’s not about Mutiny or any other group having plans for violent action or any other action at all at APEC but a political critique of the language and the way that Stop Bush have been organising, which has been very much encouraging the idea that protesters have to repeat that they are peaceful, [while]not putting any emphasis on [the violence of]the State and the police.’
While Miller concedes that there has been a lot of violence and disruption at recent big protests such as G20, she doesn’t believe that the new police powers are a response to the violence that occurred at the G20 protests. ‘The NSW Police have been preparing for this for a lot longer than G20.’
Another anarchist, Mick Smith,* says he hopes the APEC protests will ‘radicalise’ people by which he means that they will want to be more involved than simply going to a rally and walking down a street. He is also trying to organise other APEC-centred events, such as a ‘convergence space’ where groups can meet to plan and listen to talks.
When I ask him if the police have a responsibility to prepare for protester violence, he responds that they have over-reacted to the threat of violence. Smith argues that because the Australian authorities are seeing large, militant protests in Europe and some parts of Asia, they think that ‘the shit is hitting the fan all over the world.’ In response, they prepare for protests similar to those seen overseas, where numbers have been estimated at between 25,000–80,000.
Smith says that while he has not yet been approached about APEC, he has been harassed about other protests. He claims the day before John Howard was scheduled to meet with Dick Cheney, in February this year, a man he assumed to be a plain-clothed police officer chased him down City Road, near Sydney University, and told him: ‘We’re watching you. You better not be doing anything tomorrow. You tell your mates that they better not be doing anything tomorrow.’
Smith believes he is still being watched by police and will continue to be so in the lead-up to the APEC conference. He responds cynically to the idea that the police are only attempting to do their jobs. Like many of the activists I spoke to, he simply has no faith that the police will refrain from violence during the APEC protests, or that they will allow protesters to participate even in peaceful protests.
Yet there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm towards APEC amongst Mutiny members and anarchists such as Smith, who feel that Stop Bush’s desire to emphasise the peaceful nature of the protests is a misguided solution to the problem of protest violence. Smith says that he is ‘quite surprised at the lack of planning [for APEC]being done on the Left’.
In a sense, then, the Government has been successful in weeding out some of those people such as Mutiny members who they consider a threat. The process has been subtler than simply banning the groups, instead instilling a fear of being associated with the more radical groups among other protest organisers.
However this dispute plays out, there is no doubt that the NSW Police have a big job ahead of them in securing the APEC Conference. There is no doubt too, however, that as is the case during any closed gathering of economic leaders and high profile figures such as the President of the United States many people will want to exercise their legitimate right to protest.
If the dynamic between police and protesters thus far is anything to go by, the two groups are heading towards a bitter conflict come September — a conflict that should worry not only those who are involved with it, but all of us who are concerned about the protection of civil liberties in Australian public life.
*Names have been changed.
Both the Minister for Police, David Campbell, and the Minister for Justice, John Hatzistergos, were contacted for this story but did not reply.
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