Is the Right to Protest in Australia Weakening?

Human Rights are central to rebalancing power when it comes to excessive authority without functional checks and balances.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) arose out of the carnage of the Second World War.  Approximately 70 million to 85 million people were killed.   Refer UDHR http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

I would venture – is war a a revocation of the right to life?  If wars are impacting human rights and targeting civilians given business interests not defence, then are they legal? Democracies have laws to restrain violence and protect human rights either through laws or a Bill of Rights.  The latter is required here in Australia as there is a push to weak democratic rights.

Here are links regarding rights:

Right to freedom of Assembly, Attorney Generals Department:  https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/HumanRights/Human-rights-scrutiny/PublicSectorGuidanceSheets/Pages/Righttofreedomofassemblyandassociation.aspx

The Right to Equality and Non discrimination https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/HumanRights/Human-rights-scrutiny/PublicSectorGuidanceSheets/Pages/Rightsofequalityandnondiscrimination.aspx#1what

The Right to Life https://www.ag.gov.au/RightsAndProtections/HumanRights/Human-rights-scrutiny/PublicSectorGuidanceSheets/Pages/Righttolife.aspx

The Right to Peaceful Protest https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/HRC_assembly_Burnett.pdf

Tasmania: https://www.hrlc.org.au/news/2017/3/9/tasmanian-anti-protest-laws-unreasonably-restrict-free-speech-and-protest-hrlc-high-court-submission

A key quote:   “A key reason the HRLC argues that the Tasmanian law is invalid is because it prioritises corporate interests above the basic democratic right of people to discuss their government and political matters. The law is written in terms so broad that it could stop people from expressing political views in a public space, even temporarily, if that would hinder business activity…

This law is part of a worrying trend of anti-protest laws proliferating across Australia. The right to protest has played a critical part of Australia’s history. Protests have secured many of the rights, laws and policies we now take for granted. The eight-hour day, women winning the right to vote, ending Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war – these things didn’t just happen by themselves, protests played a vital role…

…We are seeing a clear and worrying wave of state-based laws that restrict the ability of Australians to stand together and speak out on issues that they care deeply about. The government may disagree with protesters’ views on a particular issue, but shutting down peaceful assemblies only serves to weaken our democracy, said Ms Howie.”

Environmentalists:  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-19/anti-protest-law-to-be-attempted-again-by-hodgman-liberals/9461252

A very insightful statement that reflects a lack of empathy or interest in democracy:

“We believe that it is a fundamental right for Tasmanians to be able to go about their lawful work without the threat of protesters intentionally shutting down and harming Tasmanian businesses,” Mr Barnett said today…”

NSW:  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-26/new-protest-regulations-labelled-attack-on-democracy/9905676

A noteable comment:  “Mr Ricketts said the new regulations were bigger and broader than those imposed under the Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland in the 1970s…

This era was described as a police state, I transcribed police interviewing police during the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corruption.  He was given a knighthood!  Wikipedia states:

Sir Johannes Bjelke-Petersen[a], KCMG (13 January 1911 – 23 April 2005) was an Australian politician. He was the longest-serving and longest-lived Premier of Queensland,[2] holding office from 1968 to 1987, during which time the state underwent considerable economic development.[3] His uncompromising conservatism (including his role in the downfall of the Whitlam federal government), his political longevity, and his leadership of a government that, in its later years, was revealed to be institutionally corrupt, made him one of the best-known and most controversial political figures of 20th century Australia.

United States also:  https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/emily-howie/we-must-protest-restrictions-on-our-right-to-protest_a_21662128/

Legal rights provide barriers to human rights violations but the real work in my view is developing social intelligence, notably emotional intelligence (empathy).  There is little discussion around emotional detachment as the basis of abuse which is encouraged or normalised as a form of masculine strength, professionalism and pragmatically getting the job done. There is a disconnect between social conscience, awareness and empathy for others and a detached professionalism that ignores what is intuitively known in order to carry out an order.  These days we are witnessing an attitude towards any form of dissent as somehow disruptive of business interests or government narratives.  The principle of democracy and freedom of speech is being undermined in my experience by self interest often touted as economic growth.  The influence of multinational companies as contractors here in Australia raises issues about the Trans Pacific Partnership where provisions to sue governments exist if their profits are impacted, this includes by public dissent. In my view it represents the shift of power from governments to powerful private interests.  In a company structure there is no democracy, it is rule by decree.  This is not compatible with a democratic culture where people have rights, this is increasingly perceived as a threat to power in my view. As we see across the world more governments infiltrated by foreign interests, investments they curry influence through Political Action Committees, Associations, Thinks Tanks or Defence relationships.  The cross ownership, subsidisation and collaboration silently erodes the power of citizens perceived as impediments to power and interests. This in my view reflects the rise of totalitarianism.

From a civilian perspective protest typically arises out of conscience, where people come together distressed or horrified at events unfolding or actions taken in their name that do not represent them.  They may be standing up for what they feel is right and in the public interest.  We saw this as large protests during the War in Iraq, most people were against it.  It was not actually in Australia’s national interests as we were not attacked by Iraq and it was found there were no weapons of mass destruction.  The Australian involvement in that war was not dissuaded by public opinion.  I also recall in the ACT there was a referendum for Self Government, the outcome was no to self government, it was then imposed.  The results of the plebiscite showed that 63.75% of electors were in favour of continuing the present arrangements (under Federal jurisdiction).  I note it is hard to find any discussion about this.   So we are not heard is the reality of this point. I have written in plenty of times giving my views, standing up for what I believe is right to experience being ignored or given a standard letter ignoring my questions.  So this creates frustration in people.  From a conflict resolution perspective it is the intransigence of government non response, non representation that stimulates in people the desire to protest, it is a call for help in my view.

Protest is a safety valve enabling those suppressed to air grievances.  As a peacemaker this then provides the ground for other parties to listen to what is a problem.  What we often observe is power exercised where there is no interest in power sharing or acknowledgement of the ‘other side’ as there may be reasons why actions are taken or there could be corruption being hidden.  We are experiencing across the world more revelations about government corruption and crimes.  Thus if the right to protest is watered down, if surveillance is increased and as we are seeing here encryption legislation passed to allow access to private messages, then freedom of speech can be suppressed.    I personally have no issue with honest policing or investigation providing there is evidence to suggest this activity is warranted.  If it is simply politicisation of the arms of government to ensure any dissent is suppressed given business interests, then this has to be looked at in a public inquiry.  As a peacemaker if you want to stop violence you have to establish a strong civil society, encourage dialogue, create conflict resolution mechanisms, allow freedoms and train the society in nonviolence, values and peace building.  That is what I would advocate.

However, if it is about control then legislation, regulation and policing powers will be changed to be able to pick people up on suspicion without any evidence or probably cause.  I see that as the development of a police state and always in this framework corruption is occurring as there are no checks and balances.  I believe it is the duty of citizens to protest if they are aware of illegality or harm being caused.  It is a form of social responsibility and indeed corporate social responsibility.  Here is a wise quote:

‘…Is the the duty of those who know to tell the blind horseman on the blind horse that he is heading toward the abyss‘ (Lao Tzu, 600BC)

Protest is necessary to avoid violent conflict.  That is why human rights were created.

Human Rights Law Centre

Protecting our right to protest right in Australia

Protest has been a critical part of so many positive social changes.

From winning the vote for women to saving the Franklin and the Daintree, from advancing Aboriginal land rights to the #LetThemStay campaign – a key ingredient has been ordinary people coming together to speak out on issues they care deeply about.

But governments all around Australia have been chipping away at our protest rights.

We need your help to push back.

Donate now during our Human Rights Week Appeal and your donation will be doubled.

Today we launched a major report, Say it loud – Protecting protest rights in Australia. The report highlights the corrosive trend of undermining protest rights and provides a blueprint for defending them.

With your support, we can challenge laws and policies that restrict protest and push for enduring protections, including through an Australian Charter of Rights.

Donate and stand up for our protest rights

Governments shouldn’t be allowed to sell off our democratic rights to protect vested business interests or shield themselves from dissent. We need to stand up for our right to protest.

Thanks for your support

Hugh de Kretser
Executive Director
Human Rights Law Centre

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Human Rights Law Centre
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Melbourne VIC 3000
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Mohandas Gandhi

“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.”

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