Sydney city council is preparing a vicious crackdown on the ability to distribute newspapers such as Green Left Weekly and leaflets advertising political rallies and events.
The council has adopted a draft policy titled "Distribution of Printed Matter or Other Material on Footways (February 2007)", which will go through a period of public consultation before becoming law.
Under the current policy, anyone who hands out a leaflet, even if it is to advertise for a lost cat or flatmate, requires a "permit" from the council. This system is so unworkable that council rangers don't even try to enforce it, but the new draft policy adds extra requirements and affirms that the new policy will be enforced.
The new requirements include giving the council beforehand a copy of the leaflet to be handed out, notifying NSW police of the "event" and, unbelievably, obtaining $10 million public liability insurance. For charities, a permit is needed but the fee may be waived. This waiver would not apply to political organisations.
A firm specialising in public liability insurance to the not-for-profit sector quoted $153 for five people leafleting for two hours in the Sydney CBD. Even the charities would have to pay this.
Political and other groups would have to pay, in addition, a non-refundable permit fee of $117, with an extra charge depending on the number of people and for how long the leaflets are to be distributed. Five people handing out leaflets for the same two hours would have to pay a $309 permit fee.
The new policy makes no distinction between the mass distribution of commercial newspapers and advertising materials, and the distribution of GLW or political leaflets.
Submissions already drafted to the council point out that the implied freedom of political communication contained in the federal constitution probably means that the council does not have the legal power to introduce its proposed requirements.
If the new law is passed (and before it can be challenged on constitutional grounds), rangers will inevitably exercise discretion as to whom they prosecute given the very large number of people who distribute leaflets in the city. Prior experience indicates that people handing out religious literature, for example, will be left alone, while those handing out left-wing literature will be targeted for attention. The implications for activists in the lead-up to the APEC meeting in Sydney in September are obvious.
The council is also reconsidering its permission to the Murdoch-owned MX newspaper for mass distribution on the streets of Sydney. In 2005, the council agreed to give distribution rights to the tabloid for a reported annual fee of $360,000.
It is not yet known when the council will invite public submissions. The council did not reply to a request for comment on the points raised in this article. The draft policy is available at