Unions and community groups have strongly criticised a bill that aims to give Victorian police unprecedented power to disband protests and ban individuals from taking part in protest activity.
The Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill 2013 will increase powers available to police under “move on” laws.
The new laws will make it easier for police to issue directives to break up protests, including picket lines. People who do not follow such orders from police can be fined and jailed for their refusal, or banned from the area. Move-on directions can be given to a whole group and do not need to be issued to each individual.
The right to protest was safeguarded under previous move-on laws, but the new bill would mean that picket lines and protests seeking to block access to premises can now be directed to move on. The new law could be applied even when police simply believed that such activity might occur because, for example, protesters had done so the previous day.
The government has explicitly said the purpose of the bill is to restrict “illegitimate” and “illegal” protest.
In the second reading of the bill in parliament, it was said the bill “makes clear that if protesters go beyond legitimate expression of views and instead resort to threats of violence or seek to impede the rights of others to lawfully enter or leave premises, police will have the power to order those protesters to move on. To this end, the bill provides that move-on powers may be used in respect of people engaged in picket lines, protests and other demonstrations.”
The new law can easily be used to prevent peaceful picket actions, whether by unions or community groups. Even if supporters are not intending to picket, to protest only symbolically, the law allows police to issue move-on orders if, for example, the person or persons at the protest have in the last 12 hours committed an offence at the location.
The current “move on” laws have been criticised for giving too much room for officers to make subjective judgements in enforcing them against people, on the basis of what the officer believed they might be going to do. The bill would increase these subjective powers available to police officers.
The proposed laws also give police the ability to issue “Exclusion Orders”, which ban individuals for up to a year from entering or remaining in a particular public place. Police can seek the orders from a court against individuals who have been subject to several previous move-on directions.
Further, individuals involved in ongoing protest activity — such as union pickets or community protests against the East West Link freeway tunnel — could become subject to exclusion orders to prevent them attending any protests in the area.
A court can grant an exclusion order if a person has been given a move-on direction more than three times in six months, or five times in 12 months.
People who ignore an exclusion order would face a sentence of two years in prison.
Most picket lines rely on a small group of people who maintain the protest. With the ability to move individuals or groups on and then issue exclusion orders, it becomes very easy for police to shut down a protest by preventing protesters from continuing their involvement.
It is not just people involved in protest action who will be affected by the new laws. The laws could be used to make the lives of marginalised people more difficult.
Fitzroy Legal Service's Meghan Fitzgerald was quoted in the Guardian saying the new laws "are framed to facilitate social exclusion in the absence of criminal offending. For example, the provision relating to a reasonable suspicion that persons are present to buy or sell drugs”.
The Human Rights Law Centre’s Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said: "Protest rights and free speech are particularly threatened, but the proposed laws may also have an impact on young people and the homeless.
“These laws go too far. Police already have considerable powers when it comes to handling protests and public order issues. They don’t [need] these additional wide reaching and vague powers to move people on. The potential for misuse is very high."
The Victorian Trades Hall Council has called a rally to defend the right to protest and launched an online petition calling on the premier “to reconsider the need for these amendments, given the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of Victoria's protest movements.”
[The rally will be held at 10am on February 18, at Trades Hall on the corner of Victoria St and Lygon Streets, Carlton.]