New protest laws anger Civic Hall group

LAWS enhancing police powers to tell protestors to move on, and increasing the penalties against them, have concerned those working to save the Civic Hall in Ballarat. 

The Save Civic Hall group  reminisce about their march in 2011, when a gathering of 500 walked from Town Hall to Civic Hall, and they wonder if they will be able to do that again. 

Chairman Jonathan Halls said it was basically taking away people’s right to freedom of speech. 

“It’s a direct attack on democracy if it’s taking away people’s rights to gather in a public space,” Mr Halls said. 

Mr Halls said it wouldn’t stop him protesting in the future if he felt there was a reason to.

“I’d like to see (the police) try them on. These laws are laughable.” 

Mr Hall said gatherings in a public space was an effective way of getting authorities to take notice, and Save Civic Hall did it peacefully. 

The proposed laws will allow police to disperse groups and tell them to move on from a site when impeding lawful access to a premises, causing others to have a reasonable fear of violence and engaging in behaviour likely to cause damage to property.

The Victorian lower house passed the laws last week, with a margin of one vote.

The Legislative Council will vote on the matter in the next sitting week. 

Save Civic Hall committee member Merle Hathaway said it would be interesting to see how the police responded. 

“This is pretty depressing we’ve gotten to this stage, where our freedom of expression has been limited. You think it wouldn’t happen in Australia,” Ms Hathaway said.

Several thousand unionists took to the streets of Melbourne last Thursday to protest against the laws, arguing they will reduce basic legal rights.

Labor also opposes the laws, comparing them to those enacted by former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Attorney-General Robert Clark told parliament on Thursday that lawful and legitimate protest would not be affected by the laws.

He said the laws were aimed at stopping protesters impeding people from entering premises.

Mr Clark has previously said every Victorian had 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,” he said.

“Police should be able to focus on protecting the community, not having to deal repeatedly with the same individuals at the same unlawful blockades. Exclusion orders will empower the courts to make longer-lasting orders to tackle serial law-breakers intent on causing trouble for hard-working Victorians and their businesses.”

nicole.cairns@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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