Two Ways Victoria Is Clamping Down On Protest


Debate commenced on the Sustainable Timber and Wildlife Amendment Bill 2013 in the Victorian upper house this week. This is one of two anti-democracy bills currently before the state parliament. The other is the Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill 2013.

Far from ensuring that logging is sustainable or that wildlife is protected, the Sustainable Timber and Wildlife Amendment Bill 2013 aims to shut out the public, with increased penalties for people who enter public forests or wetlands to rescue injured wildlife or simply observe what is happening on public land.

Amendments in the bill provide that entry into a "timber harvesting safety zone" can be prohibited even before work has started. As soon as the minister decides that the government wants an area to be a no-go zone, it and 150 metres all around it, will be declared as such.

The bill also allows for a person to be excluded from a timber harvesting zone or area of state forest for up to 12 months. This could be applied to persons who are objecting to timber operations or conducting scientific studies to ascertain whether certain protected animals are present, which would preclude logging.

With regard to duck shooting, the bill triples the penalty for "hindering or obstructing hunting" and increases penalties six-fold for "entering or remaining in a specified hunting area" or "approaching a person who is hunting". The new penalties could see people fined up to $8600 for these offences. There has been no event or any valid reason given that would warrant such a massive increase in penalties.

On the contrary, the most horrendous event for many years occurred on the opening morning of duck shooting season last year, when at least 760 "game species" and 155 protected species, including 104 rare and threatened freckled ducks were massacred and illegally left on the water to die by around 150 shooters at just one site – Box Flat private wetland near Boort in northern victoria.

Despite a police and DEPI investigation where duck shooters who admitted being present and the landowners were interviewed, no-one saw anything and no charges have been laid.

The government’s response to this behaviour by duck shooters at Box Flat – described as "deplorable" by the deputy secretary of DEPI, has been to increase penalties for Victorian citizens who are trying to stop the annual slaughter of native water birds which the majority of Victorians oppose.

The Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill 2013, which has not yet been debated in state parliament, significantly expands the circumstances in which police and PSOs may direct a person, or group of people, to "move on" from a public place for up to 24 hours. It is not clear how police will ascertain what a "group" is or which individuals are part of a group.

Currently, under section 6 of the Summary Offences Act 1966, "move on" powers can be exercised if a person is or is likely to breach the peace, endanger or likely to endanger the safety of any other person, or is likely to cause injury to a person or damage to property or is otherwise a risk to public safety.

Move on powers do not apply in relation to picketing a place of employment or when demonstrating or protesting about a particular issue. The bill expands the grounds on which police can use "move on" powers and it essentially removes the exemptions for demonstrations and pickets.

The new provision allowing for a person to be moved on if they are attempting to impede another person from entering or leaving a premise will effectively shut down community pickets, which are a traditional form of protest and up until now have been protected under the law.

No evidence has been produced or case been made for this significant extension of police powers against the rights of citizens to protest. The additional "move on" grounds are unnecessary – police already have more than sufficient powers under the current act.

Under the bill, police will also be able to apply to a court for an exclusion order in circumstances where a person has been directed to move on from a particular place, three times in six months, or five times in a year. The person could be banned from the specified place for up to 12 months. This will effectively prevent people who feel strongly about an issue from protesting about it on multiple occasions.

If passed, this bill will fundamentally curtail the rights of citizens to protest, demonstrate or take part in a picket. Whether people are demonstrating about environmental, social or industrial issues, they will now be subject to extended and discretionary "move on" and arrest powers.

This is a draconian piece of legislation, designed to shut down community protests, pickets and activism, including community opposition to government projects and decisions. The government should withdraw it.

The Sustainable Timber and Wildlife Amendment Bill 2013 and the Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill 2013 are both serious attacks on the rights of citizens to scrutinise and, if they wish, to oppose and protest against the decisions and actions of government.

All Victorians should be concerned at the erosion of their democracy that is occurring at the hands of this state government.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.