Victoria Goes After Protest And Picket Rights


Victoria's Coalition Government is preparing to pass draconian move-on laws that will radically limit the ability of unions, activists and community groups to assemble and protest in public.

The laws are slated to be rammed through Victorian Parliament on February 4, the first day of the new parliamentary sitting year. They are a reaction to the ongoing picket that has been obstructing drilling on the East-West Tunnel toll road in the inner Melbourne suburbs of Collingwood and Carlton North, says Councillor Stephen Jolly, who represents the Langridge Ward where the work is taking place.

The Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill 2013 expands the grounds under which police may require anyone to move-on from a public space, including "causing a reasonable apprehension of violence in another person", "undue obstruction to another person or persons or traffic", and "impeding or attempting to impede another person from lawfully entering or leaving premises". 

Matt Wilson, a lawyer with Rob Stary Lawyers who has experience in defending activists, says the new bill relates to "fairly broad scenarios … It increases the subjective process conducted by police officers, as to whether those categories or scenarios justifying the move-on powers have been met," Wilson told NM by phone. 

He is also concerned about the abolition of many of the protections currently in the act for people protesting or picketing.

"The exclusions relating to political process, as they relate to summary offences, move on powers previously — that changes," he told NM. "The mindset changes: now a rally will be the same [to the police]as any other large group of people …  there is no protection relating to the nature of the activity. That distinction is gone." 

The act also allows police to apply to a magistrate for an "exclusion order", a ban from any public space for up to 24 hours for those repeatedly disobeying move-ons. Anyone breaching the exclusion order risks two years jail. 

Wilson says the new laws are also likely to bleed through into restrictions on bail regarding protests. 

"Restrictions are often put on bail applications and are often granted," he said. "[But] there's a protection recognised by the Supreme Court against those conditions on bail being used to prohibit people returning to protests."

"We've successfully argued in accordance with that precedent that people should not be subject to restrictions on their right to return to protests and magistrates have consistently recognised that as a fundamental safeguard against police attempts to use bail restrictions in that way. That will be history after this legislation."

Councillor Stephen Jolly has been active at the tunnel picket and says the laws will be rushed through to clear out the activists, who have been impeding drilling since September. He points to a November poll in The Age, which gave only 23 per cent support for the road as a priority over public transport, as evidence the picketers have the "overwhelming support of the Victorian community".

"If they think we’re going to be cowed by these laws they're dreamin'," Jolly told NM by phone. "We'll get arrested, we'll go to jail, we'll resist and we'll build a mass movement to get rid of these laws like people did many years ago in Queensland."

The tunnel picket has been going since September last year, and has been the focus of intense police attention. Sean Bedlam, a Melbourne activist and comedian involved in the picket told NM that from last week the police presence increased dramatically.

"We've always had plainclothes from day one doing information gathering with cameras and stuff," Bedlam said. "But last week it went up another notch, we had loads of detectives swarming around. They started approaching people, including myself, asking us questions and letting us know we might be getting summonsed."

Jolly said the State Government rarely communicated with him over drilling for the East-West Link, and he had heard nothing regarding the amendments.

"They haven't talked to us about this [the amendments], they haven't talked to us about setting up drilling rigs outside peoples' homes, locking the entrance to peoples' driveways, locking old ladies inside their houses in 43 degree heat all day – to push through the most unpopular road in Australian history," he said.

The changes to the Summary Offences Act also sit uneasily with the State's Charter of Human Rights, which, Matt Wilson says, the Liberal Government treats "like a piece of toilet paper." 

In a Statement of Compatibility tabled in parliament in December last year when the amendments were introduced, Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark acknowledged the amendments would "impose a limitation on an individual's right to move freely within Victoria … and may, in certain circumstances, limit the rights to freedom of expression (section 15), and peaceful assembly and freedom of association (section 16)."

Clark appealed to "express internal limitations for each of the rights in relation to measures that are necessary to protect public order, public health or morals, or the rights and freedoms of others", and wrote that the laws strike an "appropriate balance". He also wrote that magistrates would have discretion when it came to imposing exclusion orders.

Victoria's Coalition Government did not take submissions on the proposed changes, according to Wilson, unlike the last time the Summary Offences Act was altered.

Stephen Jolly, who is also a delegate with the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMEU), says the State Government plans to test the new laws out on the tunnel picket, and then move on to bigger game.

"In the long run they're aimed against the trade union movement. Everyone knows the CFMEU is the jewel in the crown of Australia's trade union movement. The right wing, the bosses, the Liberals, they've got the CFMEU in their sights. If they can smash the CFMEU … they can crush trade unionism in Australia," he said.

The picketers' morale is "staunch", say Jolly and Bedlam. Nonetheless, the two are both prepared to be jailed under the new laws, if it comes to that. "The only thing we can do is get locked up and do a jail sentence. The effect of the law would end protest and dissent in Victoria," Bedlam said.

"I'd be very, very happy if I were the first to be arrested," Jolly said.

Attorney-General Robert Clark's office did not respond to NM's questions by deadline. A meeting will be held at Melbourne Trades Hall at 3:30pm this Thursday to discuss the new laws.

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