Local comedian Pauline Fartson (aka Helchild) summed up the sentiment of the Busk for Free Speech rally on August 6 when she held up a giant permit, which said “Permit to breathe in public places in Moreland”.
Busk for Free Speech was held to highlight some of the anti-democratic and discriminatory local laws being proposed by Moreland City Council as part of its review of local laws. Most of the proposed laws already exist under the current local laws but they are also being included in the draft general local law.
About 10 local community organisations set up stalls at the event. These stalls are currently illegal and will be illegal under the proposed local laws because they do not have a permit.
Public pressure resulted in some of the worst features of the proposed local laws being removed at the July 12 council meeting that voted on a draft General Local Law to be sent out for public consultation. The deleted clauses included proposed bans on protests, hand bills, soliciting for money and leaving goods unattended in a public place.
However, a number of undemocratic or discriminatory laws are still being proposed, such as bans on community stalls, busking, street art, public drinking, and camping without a permit. The draft law does not include the criteria for being granted a permit, having an application rejected or appealing against a rejection.
Michael Petit from the now defunct Moreland Community Against the East West Tunnel told the crowd it had “nine months of activities from one end of Moreland to the other. Did we ever ask for a permit? No way. If they tried to fine us, we would have been in court pleading not guilty on the basis of freedom of speech and assembly.”
Petit acknowledged that the council had killed off some bad local laws but had retained permits. He raised a number of questions about permits — who decides, what is the criteria, in what areas do they apply?
Petit said: “MCAT would oppose any permits. We wouldn’t [apply for one]. And if they want to fine us, we’ll see them in court. We need to stick together to kill the rest of the bad laws.”
Petit added that a village is a place where you can "measure what [council] thinks about the community by whether or not they allow people to peacefully protest and get their views out in the public.”
The camping ban has been amended to include: “camping for recreational purposes is not permissible in other public areas unless (a) a person is homeless or is in need of secure accommodation (b) a person is experiencing challenging circumstances and is in need of additional support.”
This is still too much for Spike from the Homeless Persons Union, who told the protest: “These by-laws enshrine in legislation a centralisation of power with increased power to the council officers to … stop and interrogate people who are already having a difficult time. The Homeless Persons Union is concerned about the impact that these by-laws will have on people already experiencing discrimination and vilification in the media.
“Fundamentally, the public space belongs to the public. Any law or regulation that attempts to prescribe where and when people can sit, lie down, have a rest, have a drink, tie up their pets is wrong.
“[This law] provides council with the right to stop and interrogate. It’s undemocratic; it’s overreach. It’s going to disproportionately impact on people on the street.”
Australian Services Union organiser David Nunns has been a resident of the area for many years. He said: “This is one of the most anti-democratic and regressive things I’ve seen from the City of Moreland. We all like to claim that this is the Republic of Moreland and it must become that, not just in theory but in practice.”
Nunns recently saw an elderly man enjoying a bottle of beer in the Coburg Mall. “It was not a public order issue. There was no threat to people’s safety and well being. It was just an old geezer enjoying the afternoon.
“People have posted on social media about having a glass of wine at Harmony Park in the summer over some fish and chips. Now that would have a fine because it may not be a prescribed area.
“These laws are motivated by some political activity last year where the Victoria Police sought to influence the council to stop a particular rally. No council should have the power to shut down any rally.”
Local Moreland councillor and Socialist Alliance member Sue Bolton said she was proud she had initiated the protest to defend free speech outside the July council meeting.
“Without that protest, most Moreland residents would not have known about the plans to propose anti-democratic and discriminatory local laws. The protest and the public concern was effective in ensuring some of the worst local laws were deleted.”
Bolton highlighted the hypocrisy whereby councils over-regulate the activities of ordinary people in a public place while only lightly regulating or not regulating corporations.
She said Socialist Alliance members had been involved in free speech campaigns all over Australia — in Brisbane, Wollongong, Hobart, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin — mostly over the right to set up community stalls in public places.
She added that Socialist Alliance wants to defeat these undemocratic local laws in Moreland and then turn our attention to other local councils with undemocratic local laws on their books.
“We don’t believe there should be permits for street stalls. As long as permits exist, they can be rejected,” she said.
Caroline Beattie from Librarians for Refugees explained that the Busk for Free Speech rally was occurring opposite the free speech monument. This monument marks the occasion when Noel Counihan, a renowned artist and member of the Communist Party of Australia, was arrested and jailed for addressing a street meeting in Brunswick in the 1930s. Beattie said we need to resist, just like Counihan, after whom Moreland Council’s art gallery is named.
People can speak about the issue at a meeting in October and the council will have a final vote on the General Local Law in November or December.
A local campaign group called Free Speech Moreland has been established to oppose anti-democratic and discriminatory local laws.