Proposed laws introduced into the NSW parliament mean that the greater Sydney area will become a police state for two weeks around the APEC summit. The APEC Meeting (Policing Powers) Bill 2007 is expected to be passed without significant amendments.
The new laws will be in force from August 30 to September 12, and will cover the September 7-9 heads of government meeting and a planned protest on September 8 at the Town Hall.
The bill talks of "declared areas" and "restricted areas". The first can be an area the size of greater Sydney, although it currently says that it includes only Bennelong, the CBD, Hickson Road and the Darling Harbour area. However, at any time, the police minister can make all of Sydney a "declared area".
If a minister makes all of Sydney a declared area, the police commissioner can then declare all of Sydney a restricted area. With the declared/restricted area regime in place, police will have powers to:
•decide whether or not to notify the public that special powers are in operation (there is a discretion to keep the geographical reach of the special powers secret where "doing so would significantly compromise security arrangements");
•establish road blocks and cordons;
•stop people from entering or leaving a cordoned off area (if there is a risk to public safety);
•search people as a condition of entering an area (this could be entering the greater Sydney area);
•force people to surrender "prohibited items" as a condition of entering a restricted area (such as poles of more than a metre in length often used to hold up banners);
•enter and search any non-residential area without a warrant; and
•demand proof of a person's name and address.
A controversial part of the bill is the creation of a secret "excluded persons list". It is not necessary to have criminal convictions to be on the list. You can be on it if the police commissioner believes, on the basis of information given to him, that a person is a "serious threat to the safety of persons or property".
There is no mechanism for finding out if you are on the list or whether a mistake has been made so that you can be taken off the list. The list need not be made public, or there could be two lists — one for the police and one for public consumption. Who knows what would happen to the job prospects of people put on a public list?
The creation of such a list is evocative of other governments that have drawn up secret lists of people to be detained during government crack-downs. Presumably, the list will be kept on the shelf for future use after the APEC summit.
Anyone who is alleged to have assaulted a police officer, or maliciously damaged property, or who throws a missile at a police officer will have the presumption of bail being refused, and will thus be stopped from protesting, regardless of the triviality of the charge. Force is given legislative backing, indicating that private security guards, or even busybodies, will augment the regular police to enforce powers under the act.
Civil rights activists fear that the temporary laws will be re-introduced for protests in the future, or even become permanent. This occurred with "temporary" laws introduced for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, which were then re-named and made permanent.
Many Melbourne residents who protested against the G20 meeting there in November are not able to come to the APEC protests due to bail restrictions. Many Sydneysiders will be inhibited from attending because of these extreme police powers. Some individuals are under extreme pressure not to attend the APEC protests.
The lead article in Sydney's May 17 Daily Telegraph was entitled "Fortress Sydney: Police state powers to be enforced during APEC". The notion of a "police state" stems from the idea that there is a separation of powers: that the conduct of the police, as a branch of executive power, can have the lawfulness of its actions examined by the courts. A police force that can not have its decisions and powers questioned by the courts is part of a police state.
This is precisely what the new powers allow. Orders made in relation to "declared" and "restricted" areas "may not be challenged, reviewed quashed or called into question on any grounds whatsoever" before any court or tribunal.
This section of the bill is a re-statement of s13 of the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act, and is yet another indication that governments are increasingly morphing "terrorism" and "protest" into "sedition".
The sections attempting to exclude the courts from examining the acts and decisions of the police would almost certainly be held unconstitutional if such a decision was challenged in the courts. NSW is not a police state, but the establishment of such a state — at least for APEC — seems to be the aim of the Iemma government.
[Dale Mills was a contributor to ASIO, the Police and You and is an activist in the Stop Bush Coalition, which is organising the September 8 protest. For more information, visit http://www.stopbush2007.org.]