New NT laws an attack on human rights

Issue 

BY DAVE MURPHY
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DARWIN — "The CLP government has passed the harshest laws in the commonwealth this century", Chris Howse of the Aboriginal Justice Advocacy told civil-rights protesters on July 5. The rally took place two days after the Public Order and Anti-Social Conduct Bill was rushed through the Northern Territory parliament by the Country Liberal Party government in what effectively became a closed session of parliament.

The bill gives police the power to define any behaviour as anti-social, and thus illegal. It has been widely criticised by civil liberties groups, which believe that it is aimed at further persecuting Darwin's indigenous population.

Shortly after discussion of the bill began, eight protesters in the public gallery held up placards in opposition to it. Security officers forcibly confiscated the placards and escorted all the observers out of the public gallery.

The legislation was introduced, and then passed, in a short time. According to Veronica McClintic, the director of the Northern Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, there was no consultation with Aboriginal people even though the laws will effect them most.

Darwin has a significant population of homeless Aborigines, many of whom suffer alcoholism. The majority are unskilled and seldom able to find employment. Often they have limited literacy and English skills. The lack of social services means they receive little culturally appropriate help, and are very visible on the streets, with nowhere else to go.

The Country Liberal Party government has made "get tough on law and order" its central election slogan, having already introduced mandatory sentencing and zero tolerance policing. There is, however, no evidence that crime is decreasing. The government refuses to release any crime statistics (The NT has no freedom of information laws).

The new laws allow police to declare a home a place of anti-social behaviour, clearly targeting low income households. The CLP information sheet Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour describes anti-social houses as those with "a large flow of people coming and going, where drinking and partying is common". This description stereotypes a poor Aboriginal household.

One hundred people attended the July 5 protest. Rally coordinator and Darwin Resistance organiser Ruth Ratcliffe declared the NT parliament a site of anti-social conduct, calling the laws an attack on democracy and human rights. She told the crowd that the definition of anti-social conduct should not be left up to politicians who pass laws punishing marginalised groups while failing to provide money for youth, Aboriginal and mental health services.

Cassandra Goldie from the Darwin Community Legal Service called on opponents of the legislation to join Territorians for Effective Sentencing, originally set up to campaign against mandatory sentencing laws.

Although organised at short notice, the rally was loud and angry. Many protesters argued that only a well-organised, mass-based protest movement could prevent the Northern Territory from becoming even more repressive.