Freedom of assembly undermined legally and in practice in Australia

Peaceful Assembly

In March 2017, the Australian Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) provided their expert opinion to the Australian High Court, stating that anti-protest laws in Tasmania violate civic freedoms. The legislation in question is Tasmania’s Workplace (Protection from Protesters) Act of 2014, which the HRLC argues is invalid because it prioritises corporate interests over the democratic rights of Australian citizens.

According to a May 2017 report by CounterAct & Beeliar Legal Support, the policing of the Roe 8 protests in Beeliar between December 2016 and March 2017 involved widespread police brutality. Between December and March, hundreds of activists protested the extension of the Roe 8 highway into the Beelier wetlands, citing environmental concerns. The lawyers’ report documents cases of police using violence against protesters, including excessive force to move or restrain protesters, pepper spray, use of police dogs and horses for intimidation, as well as threatening protesters with tasers. The report describes these incidents as “symptomatic of a widespread problem with the policing of community protest in Western Australia”.

In a separate incident, on 25th June 2017 five protesters were pepper sprayed at a right-wing “Australian Pride” rally in Melbourne that also drew anti-racism counter-protesters. One person was arrested for carrying a weapon and another one for “breaching the peace”.

Criminalisation of protesters continues in the country. On 12th July 2017, seven activists appeared before Canberra’s Magistrates Court, and pleaded not guilty against the charge of intentionally damaging property. During a protest in November 2016 against Australia's offshore detention camps for refugees, the activists superglued their hands to the railing in the public gallery of the House of Representatives, damaging the wooden balustrade. Each activist faces a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment if convicted. Another case was heard that day regarding two protesters charged under the Commonwealth public order laws for offensive behavior and carry a maximum fine of 3,600 Australian dollars on conviction.

In addition, there were a number of peaceful protests in Australia throughout July 2017, on a range of issues:

  • 1st July: Protests were held in Melbourne and Sydney to oppose the allegedly discriminatory Australian Citizenship Amendment Bill. It was reported that the new legislation “will stop many permanent residents from ever becoming citizens of the country”.
  • 19th July: Vigils and rallies were held in major cities across Australia to protest four years of offshore detention. Protesters called for the immediate evacuations of refugees from Manus Island and Nauru.
  • 21st July: A student protest was held outside Parliament House in Canberra, calling on the government and universities to address the issue of sexual assault on campus and to establish Commonwealth complaints compliance mechanism for sexual assault.

Expression

The introduction of new legislation is threatening freedom of expression and media freedom in Australia.

Amendments to Australia’s Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 came into effect in April 2017. Under the new retention laws, which were passed in 2015, telecommunications companies are required to retain users metadata. The data will be stored until at least 2019, and made available to national security bodies such as Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and Australian Federal Police. (AFP)

According to Jon Lawrence, Executive Officer of Electronic Frontiers Australia, who spoke to Huffington Post:

"People need to be aware because [the metadata collection] is indiscriminate and it's catching everyone in one big trawl of information from society […] if this information is compromised, that can do real genuine harm to people's lives”.

In one incident that exemplifies the dangers of the new legislation, on 28th April 2017 Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin revealed a metadata breach, in which an AFP officer accessed a journalist’s call records without a Journalist Information Warrant. Despite the breach, Colvin assured the public that it could have "full confidence" in the metadata laws.

Association

In March 2017, newly-elected leader of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Sally McManus remarked that she does not have a problem with workers breaking “unjust laws”. Her comment drew outrage from business groups and conservative politicians. McManus had asserted that: "It shouldn't be so hard for workers in our country to be able to take industrial action when they need to", and stated that: "It might be illegal industrial action according to our current laws, and our current laws are wrong".

In contrast to international standards for labour unions, industrial action is generally unlawful in Australia and workers have only limited rights to take "protected" industrial actions, which can potentially impede the unions' abilities to organise, mobilise and take collective action on behalf of their members.