\'Thou shalt not protest\'

Issue 

In Sydney, for the month of July, you can be arrested and charged $5500 for causing "annoyance" or "inconvenience" to others (but mainly to the pope, or his supporters) in more than 600 places across Sydney — including railway stations, schools and tourist icons, such as the Harbour Bridge.

In Sydney, for the month of July, you can be arrested and charged $5500 for causing "annoyance" or "inconvenience" to others (but mainly to the pope, or his supporters) in more than 600 places across Sydney — including railway stations, schools and tourist icons, such as the Harbour Bridge.

Think this is a joke? You're wrong: the increasingly draconian NSW Labor government is again trying to thwart peaceful protests — this time, protests are against the pope's reactionary stance on safe sex, reproductive rights and HIV/AIDS.

Civil rights advocates, activists and the public are angry at this latest assault on our rights. But Kristina Keneally, the Iemma government's World Youth Day spokesperson, doesn't know what all the fuss is about. "Bag checks are a sensible safety precaution which any young person who is going to a major event in Australia … would expect", she told the July 1 Sydney Morning Herald.

But these new regulations are about much more than bag checks.

Rachel Evans from the NoToPope Coalition believes the measures are designed to intimidate people away from joining the peaceful protest called for July 19.

"The NSW government has a record of trying to intimidate people from acting on their conscience: from heavy-handed treatment of the high school student-led Books not Bombs protests in 2002 to last year's draconian APEC laws. It still hasn't dawned on them that such outrageous acts bring more people into action", she told Green Left Weekly.

More than 500 secondary schools across Sydney, 35 train and bus stations and at least 100 other locations, including museums, galleries and cinemas, as well as Darling Harbour, the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge, Randwick Racecourse and parklands, form part of the "declared areas".

Authorised officers at these places can insist that people causing an "annoyance" or being an "inconvenience to World Youth Day participants" must virtually strip on demand, or face massive fines and, possibly, arrest.

The regulations allow controllers to conduct searches of the person or articles in their possession, or request the person "remove his or her overcoat, coat or similar article of clothing and any gloves, shoes or hat (or other headwear) and allow for an examination of those items".

Some reports indicate that even local councillors may be commandeered into becoming shock troops, alongside personnel from the State Emergency Services and the Rural Fire Service. A source told GLW that the World Youth Day organisers received many thousands fewer SES volunteers than they needed. SES volunteers and firefighters have said they will not become the controllers.

Opponents of the pope's Australian visit, from July 15 — 20, have condemned the new "thou shalt not protest" regulations, which were gazetted on June 27 under the World Youth Day Act, 2006, on the last parliamentary sitting day before the long winter recess.

They say the ambiguity of what causes "annoyance", and to whom, will be used to silence critics of what the pope stands for and of the state government.

@subh = Ambiguity

Cameron Murphy from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties believes that the meaning of "causes annoyance" could encompass any activity. "This sort of amendment is extreme, unnecessary and is likely to escalate conflict when officers issue directions", he said, according to the SMH article. Stephen Blanks from the CCL said on July 4 lawyers would challenge the regulation in the courts.

In the same article, Anna Katzmann, president of the NSW Bar Association, described the regulations as "unnecessary and repugnant". "The mere presence in the vicinity of a person wearing the apparel or insignia of another religion might be annoying or inconvenient to a participant in a World Youth Day event", she said.

Socialist Alliance national coordinator Dick Nichols told GLW he thought the Iemma government had "lost it". "Iemma and Co. have decided to try to prevent the possibility of a Chaser-style stunt against the pope by becoming a Chaser skit themselves. They are showing weird similarities to the autocratic and unanswerable papacy."

"Just like the heavy-handed police powers introduced in the lead up to APEC to intimidate people out of protesting, Iemma's latest effort will have exactly the opposite effect to its intention", Nichols added.

Evans said she wasn't surprised by the government's move. "This government is so out of touch, nothing it does shocks me anymore. Even though the heavy-handed APEC laws backfired badly on the NSW police and government, helped in large part by The Chaser, Iemma hasn't learnt anything. Judging from the letters pages, he has really overstepped the mark again: only the most hardened right-wing conservatives would describe these laws as fair", she said.

@subh = What would Jesus have said?

"Even the teachings of the Catholic Church uphold human rights, civil liberties and freedom of speech. This approach from the NSW government is straight from Emperor Nero's book", Kristian Bolwell from the NoToPope Coalition told GLW on July 1. "What happens when people like me are offended by the pope's visit?"

The police have apparently told groups representing victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, which are planning to protest during World Youth Day, that they need to have their placards, banners and T-shirts pre-approved. While Keneally denies this, it has spurred on the outrage across the community.

On July 3, Jesuit priest and lawyer, Frank Brennan, spoke out against the "dreadful interference" in civil liberties by the state, saying that it was contrary to Catholic teaching. "I am saddened that the state has seen fit to curtail civil liberties further in this instance than they have for other significant international events hosted in Sydney", the July 3 SMH quoted him as saying. "The rights of free speech and assembly should not be curtailed only because visiting pilgrims might be annoyed or inconvenienced in public places."

Dr John Sweeney, from the Edmund Rice Centre, believes "Jesus Christ had paid the price for saying what he thought and the right to free speech [needs] defending", according to the July 3 article.

"[When] Jesus went into Jerusalem people yelled out things the religious leaders in their time didn't like and they rebuked Jesus and he said he couldn't quieten his supporters."

@subh = Right to protest

The pope's visit is being funded by the public to the tune of $108.5 million. According to the NSW Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon, this is four times more than the Canadian and German governments paid for similar such events. Rhiannon has managed to get the auditor-general to agree to conduct a preliminary investigation into World Youth Day costs "to ensure proper scrutiny of the government's role in organising and funding the event", she said in a June 26 press release.

While the government insists the new regulations are not unusual for a big event, lawyers disagree. Anthony Jucha, from Human Rights Monitors, told GLW that these new laws restricting freedom of movement "leave the APEC laws in the dust".

"They don't need to wheel out the Cronulla riot laws, the APEC laws, or anything else, as this new regulation, in place for the whole month of July, trumps all others", Jucha told a NoToPope meeting on July 2. The "designated zones" under APEC were restricted to the city, but the new "designated areas" are much more widespread.

Members of the NoToPope Coalition say that they will stand up for their rights and march, as planned, along the original 1978 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras route on July 19, and hand out condoms to young people at Moore Park.

"We will protect our civil liberties, and help young people to protect their health. No pope or premier will stop us", Evans said. The coalition is appealing for assistance in what is shaping up to be a major protest in defence of civil liberties and protest rights.

GetUp.org.au is organising its members to design and wear their most annoying and inconvenient T-shirts, competitions for the best of these are being promoted on various websites; Julian Morrow, an ex-Chaser, has appealed for people to engage in "attention-grabbing act[s] of defiance" against the rotten laws. Don't be intimidated, he advised in the July 3 SMH, because "[that's] what they want … be smart about it and prepare carefully".

[The next NoToPope meeting is on July 9, at 6pm at the University of Technology, Sydney. Visit http:///www.notopope.com.