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When it is important to break the law.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The response to what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment from Sally McManus that there were times when it was necessary to break the law has been predictable from some but surprising from others. Of course, there has been faux outrage from what we once called conservatives. That is, the reactionary right. The group of “anti everythings” (except wealth acquisition) that our PM has aligned himself to.

What has surprised me has been the number of journalists who have taken umbrage at the suggestion that there are times when the “law’s an ass” and needs to be broken. Is this a sign of the times? Are once hard hitting journalists who once held all to account now being cowed by the “anti everythings”? Has the elevation of Newscorp’s Michelle Guthrie to Managing Director of the ABC so terrified once fearless ABC journos that they are now mere shadows of their former selves? Has the fear of retrenchment forced Fairfax journos into obeisance? When one of the latter smugly wrote that she had given up on the 730 Report in preference for a morally dubious (at best) reality TV show called Married at First Sight I wondered just what kind of moral compass we were following.

It is sobering to think that we have arrived at a point in our history when to stand up for what you believe in is vilified and lampooned.   

It brings to mind the infamous Summary Offences Act that Turnbull’s true spiritual forefather, Robert Askin, amended to prevent protests against Apartheid and the Vietnam War. At the time things were going pretty badly for the Liberals.  The numbers of Australians taking to the streets to voice their concern over these twin horrors of foreign policy were threatening to cause serious embarrassment to incumbent Liberal governments both Federal and State.

So, Askin amended the Summary Offences Act, making it possible to prevent people from assembling in public, therefore effectively outlawing protest. If a group of protesters looked like embarrassing the government, the relevant section of the Summary Offences Act would be read out and if they didn’t disperse they could be arrested. Sounds like the type of law that would appeal to Malcolm Turnbull’s government.

My first experience of this draconian Act was when I attended the first Aquarius Festival in Canberra. Students from all over Australia had assembled for a festival of music, film, theatre and fun. The organisers rightly felt we should show our solidarity with black South Africans and the Vietnamese people whose country we had invaded. They organised a non violent protest march. The non violent aspect of the march was important because it was inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King. They believed in non violent protest to demonstrate opposition to unjust, inequitable laws.

The march began on the ANU campus, crossed the Commonwealth Bridge and snaked past the offices of Canberra’s public servants. We were constantly reminded to keep the peace and we did.  As we passed the various offices the most extraordinary thing happened. Thousands of public servants disgorged themselves from the buildings and joined us in an incredible display of solidarity. These weren’t “long haired ratbags” like us but sober citizens who took to the streets to protest against unjust laws. As we made our way back to the city centre I looked back to see a stream of peaceful protesters stretching all the way back to the site of the new Parliament House. It was a serious display of people power.

We made our way to the Canberra Law Courts where we assembled in peaceful, if not exactly silent, protest.

Then an extraordinary thing happened. Someone, I can’t remember who it was, took a loud hailer from one of our organisers and read the relevant section of the  Summary Offences Act. We were told we were an “unlawful” gathering and had to immediately disperse. Of course, inspired by Ghandi’s example, we stood our ground. As the clock ticked down I noticed hundreds of police from NSW encircling us. I didn’t think much of this. We were protesting peacefully. We weren’t causing any harm. We weren’t doing any damage to anyone.

Then the person who read out the Act blew a whistle. The police charged at us wielding batons. We turned and ran. I was pursued by a policeman who struck me on the shoulder. I didn’t stop to argue. I knew I had to get out of there fast. It was mayhem. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and some were beaten. People who weren’t even in the protest were arrested and charged under Askin’s Act. The cells of Canberra’s police station were bursting with protesters. So much so that many were released without charge.

I later discovered that the NSW Police had removed their badges to avoid identification.

It was a black day in Australian political history. A day when peaceful protesters, demonstrating against unjust laws, were physically assaulted by the long arm of the law.

Is this the kind of Australia Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters want to create? Is this what our parents and grandparents gave their lives for in successive World Wars? Is this our children’s future?

As people like Jane Caro have pointed out, where would we be without peaceful protest? What kind of a society would we live in if our forbears didn’t stand up for what they believed in?

Our political processes and, sadly our politicians, have proved inadequate in resisting the forces that would dismantle the rights and freedoms many of us have grown up to take for granted. They have failed to protect those in most need of protection. They have kowtowed to the lowest common dominator.

The Union movement, now led by two women, may give us our last chance to resist the foul winds of change that are sweeping across this Land.

Like those public servants in Canberra all those years ago, we need to push our chairs back, get off our bums and join the fight.

We have too much to lose if we don’t.

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