After two community meetings on public housing estates and the start of legal action, the Department of Housing has partially backed down from its ban on politics in public housing estates.
Just three days after a March 24 rally on the Atherton Gardens public housing estate in Fitzroy, the Department of Human Services released a policy banning political meetings and door-knocking on public housing estates.
The restrictions on housing estates included a ban on electoral or campaign material from being displayed on common area noticeboards, political rallies of any kind held in common areas. It also included a ban on elected political representatives, political candidates or representatives of registered political parties from accessing common areas, booking community facilities located on public housing estates and door-knocking the units of residents.
The March 24 rally had been organised to oppose the state government’s plan to privatise the open space around the Fitzroy and Richmond public housing estates for private housing. The campaign forced the government to defer its plan for these estates for several years.
Two tenants from the Atherton Gardens estate are challenging the policy legally, with the support of the Human Rights Law Centre.
In a letter to housing minister Wendy Lovell and the Department of Human Services, Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser said: “Certain provisions of two departmental policies relating to access to public housing estates are unlawful and incompatible with the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic).”
Grassroots group Hands off Melbourne’s Estates organised a public meeting on April 19 to defy the ban and invited Yarra councilor Stephen Jolly as one of the speakers.
Brandan Sahnkovich from the Atherton Gardens Residents Association told the meeting: “The Office of Housing is barring people from having any political get-togethers, rallies or meetings on the estates. This is a breach of our basic human rights. We don’t want our rights trampled on, regardless of which government is in power.”
Another tenant of the Atherton Gardens estate, Mohammed Mohammed, described the harassment that he and other tenants had experienced as a result of the ban. “People are frightened of taking action”, he said.
“Security is always watching me and following me through the building to my door to make sure that I am not handing out leaflets. They look at me like a criminal for handing out leaflets.
“We’re going to fight this to the end. If they get away with this, it will mean that people here [on the public housing estates] won’t have the right to participate in political parties.”
Jolly told the meeting that the ban “must be defied, it must be fought legally and through mass action”.
Jolly pointed out that Office of Housing workers had been instructed to tear down posters and stickers and that the Brotherhood of St Laurence, which organises bookings for the common room, had been instructed to implement the political ban.
Jolly said although Labor Party MP Richard Wynne had come out against the political ban and was threatening legal action over it, a weaker version of the political ban had been in place previously when Wynne was the housing minister in the former state Labor government.
One public housing tenant told the meeting there had always been harassment of tenants for displaying political material on the estates. She had been instructed to take down a Eureka flag. That was when the Labor Party was in government.
At this stage, it is not clear whether the Department of Human Services has dumped all aspects of its ban on politics on the estates, or if it has just dumped the proposal for political meetings in community rooms on the estates.