OPINION: Just as you start to come to terms with the latest draconian police powers, a new set are introduced, writes Greens MLC David Shoebridge.
Under the guise of terrorism, the protection of public safety and safeguarding corporate interests from ‘ragtag protesters’, the Baird Government has continued to strip civil liberties and create a parallel criminal justice system based on rumour, innuendo, suspicion and prejudice.
The laws seem geared towards those cases where police don’t have enough evidence for a conviction, or even to charge a person, but they have some unprovable gut-feeling about it that they nevertheless want to do something about.
Enter “serious crime prevention orders”, that can be imposed without any requirement to prove the person has or was going to engage in serious crime, a mere suspicion is enough. Add to this “public safety orders” where if a police officer decides a person in a public place is a danger to anyone, with no requirement to prove this in a court and no right to appeal, they can direct them to leave the area.
What these laws have in common is they do not require the police to be able to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt to be able to impose punishment on a person. They can stop them from going about their daily activities, they can ban them from events and places, and impose almost any conditions they decide are reasonable – with no need to prove this is actually the case.
And there’s more to come as we see a new attack on civil liberties called “investigative detention.” This will allow police to hold people without charge and without any rights, for the purpose of interrogating them. Where such schemes have operated overseas serious human rights violations have occurred. There is no reason to think NSW will be any different.
Though it has some competition, we believe this is the most serious breach of human rights proposed yet by this Government. Even children can be subject to the laws, with the possibility that 14-year-olds could be subject to two weeks of intensive police interrogation without contact with their families or a lawyer.
These laws go far beyond existing laws where a terrorism suspect can be detained to prevent an immediate threat to the public. Those subject to preventative detention, who have not been charged with any political offence, currently have the very limited protection that they cannot be questioned during this time. This is in recognition of the fact that they are often held on the basis of secretive police intelligence, including hearsay evidence, and do not have access to legal representation.
While the past few weeks have seen a particularly aggressive assault on basic freedoms, these changes are just part of a longer term pattern by this Government to consistently increase to police powers and erode longstanding civil liberties and legal rights.
In 2011 they re-introduced drunk and disorderly laws in NSW to expand police powers in relation to people in public places. A whopping 33,000 of these were issued in the following year with over 40 per cent issued against vulnerable people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the homeless and young people. In 2012 and 2013 they introduced the so-called Bikie Laws which have done little to challenge organised crime in NSW, but which have been used to target and criminalise Aboriginal people.
The consorting laws criminalise people from associating with convicted offenders, regardless of the activity. You can be done under these laws for playing mini golf with an old school friend, if many years ago your friend was convicted of an indictable offence. These laws apply to associating with around 200,000 people in NSW who have been convicted of an indictable offence in the past 10 years.
More recently anti-protest laws have passed the Parliament but not yet come into law. These laws are the Government’s sop to the mining industry, and they once again expand police powers in the name of public safety and protecting commercial interests. The interests of the protesters and general public suffer.
So why is all of this happening in NSW? Why has the Government surrendered to the demands of the Police Commissioner to degrade the civil liberties of residents in NSW? There are two key reasons that work closely in tandem.
Traditionally, the first law officer in NSW has been the Attorney-General, who has also held the Justice Ministry. The Attorney-General is expected to exercise a unique and independent role by standing up for the rule of law and liberty in Cabinet and Parliament. But now under the Baird Government, in an unprecedented move, the Police Minister has been elevated to also be the Justice Minister. The Police and Justice Minister now sits above the Attorney-General, pushing and promoting the interests of the police to the detriment of centuries of legal tradition.
Rounding this off nicely is the absence of a Bill of Rights. There is nothing in our system to protect citizens from an excess of parliamentary power. The absence of a Bill of Rights means the Parliament can effectively do whatever it likes. When the agenda is set by the Police Minister this can be a frightening prospect.
This is Mike Baird’s NSW, it is routinely tramping on our traditional freedoms and its citizens are supposed to just cop it. It’s time we fixed that.
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