Victoria's anti-protest laws pass lower house by one vote

Controversial new laws give police powers to disperse protests and arrest people for breaching a move-on order

Images by Annaki Rowlands & Tony Iltis

Michael Safi 20 February 2014

Images by Annaki Rowlands & Tony Iltis

Controversial new laws giving police unprecedented powers to disperse protests have passed Victoria’s lower house.

The summary offences and sentencing amendment bill passed by one vote on Thursday afternoon, and will now go to the upper house, the Legislative Council, for approval.

The laws will allow police to issue move-on directions, in which a person or group is ordered to leave a particular area or cease an action, on a range of new grounds.

“Impeding lawful access to premises”, “causing others to have a reasonable fear of violence”, and “engaging in behaviour likely to cause damage to property” can all result in a move-on direction under the changes.

The amendments also beef up the penalty for breaching a move-on order, currently a fine totalling $500, to potential arrest.

A spokesman for Victoria’s Coalition government said in a statement the laws were designed to “end unlawful union pickets and protester blockades that threaten to shut down businesses”.

Work on East-West Link, a major road project, was briefly halted in September last year when protesters blockaded the site and clashed with police.

“Every Victorian has the right to protest and express their views. However, when individuals resort to unlawful tactics that threaten the livelihood of law-abiding businesses, employees and their families, they must be held to account,” the Victorian attorney general, Robert Clark, said.

But critics in the legal fraternity said the laws threaten the fundamental democratic right to protest.

“If people believe they’re engaged in non-violent protest, they won’t be able to hold their ground against police,” Fitzroy Legal Service solicitor Meghan Fitzgerald said. “As soon as the move-on direction is issued, on a reasonable suspicion that your conduct, including future conduct, is likely to cause a breach of the peace, then people can be arrested.”

Powers currently available to the police allow protesters to be excluded from a public area for around 24 hours, Fitzgerald said. “Under these amendments, if people return to the protest site, the police can apply for an exclusion order that lasts up to a year,” she said.

If an individual receives three move-on orders in six months, or five in 12 months, the amendments allow police to apply for an exclusion order, completely banning them from a public area. Breaching an exclusion order will be punishable by up to two years’ jail.

Community groups have warned: “These laws will disproportionately affect marginalised young people, people experiencing homelessness, poverty and mental health issues.”

They fear that the vulnerable people might be excluded from public spaces by the new system, but have nowhere else to go, and find themselves imprisoned as a result.

Clark has conceded the new powers limit “an individual’s right to move freely within Victoria … and may, in certain circumstances, limit the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and freedom of association”, but he maintains that the new powers comply with Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

Protests against the new police powers held in Melbourne’s CBD on Tuesday drew thousands.

If passed in the upper house, as is expected, the laws will come into effect on 1 September this year, just months before November’s state election.

Up until the vote on Thursday it was still uncertain whether the government had the numbers to pass the bill. Victoria’s Coalition government lost its one-vote majority in the lower house when Frankston MP Geoff Shaw left the Liberal party in March last year, facing charges of misconduct and fraud. At the time, he made a verbal agreement to guarantee the government confidence and supply.

The charges against Shaw were dropped in December, but he remains at odds with his former party. Earlier this month he refused to repeat his guarantee that he would back the Napthine government when it presents its budget in May.

Labor is strongly opposed to the new police powers. Which way Shaw would go was a mystery until Thursday afternoon, when he voted with the government to pass the bill by the narrowest margin, a single vote.