"What do we want?"
The right to March!
"When do we want it?"
In the late 70s and early 80s, this was just about Queensland’s official anthem, echoing throughout university campuses and Brisbane’s concrete canyons as Queenslanders demanded an end to the corrupt Bjelke-Petersen government’s draconian street march laws. The unjust approach to protest united surprising bedfellows—campus radicals and teachers, lawyers and trade unions—groups who rarely saw eye-to-eye were able to find common cause in the right to protest.
It was a pretty brave thing to do back then as well. Members of the notorious Special Branch often infiltrated street marches, pretending to be protesters and then starting brawls which gave the police licence to intervene, and allowed Joh to label protesters as violent thugs. In days before mass electronic communication and instantaneous picture-taking, Joh could spin a few official photographs into the impression that right-to-marchers were looters and rioters, thus validating his brutal approach to supressing them.
Thankfully, what Joh couldn’t control was the media and the lawyers, and some very brave reporters, uncompromising lawyers and of course Tony Fitzgerald’s fearless enquiry allowed the people of Queensland to eventually see the truth. Sadly, we are seeing history repeat itself as legislative over-reach in terms of protests is again being attempted, and if Joh were alive he might well laugh, because these days some of the protesters are doing his work for him.
The right to protest is essential in a democracy, and there were even protests in ancient Rome. Indeed, the Secessio plebis (withdrawal of the commoners) events contributed to the evolution of democracy and the creation of the Roman Republic. If even the ancient romans understood the need for an avenue of protest, it shouldn’t be too hard for us to grasp it.
That said, the tolerance of the general public for protest is necessary for the right to flourish, and of late we have seen that tolerance tested. It is in these circumstances—when the public’s patience is exhausted by extremists in a movement—that draconian laws can be passed, because the public are sick of the disruptions and stunts and want the government to take action. When the public get to that point, it can be a dangerous time for us all.
Suspending people over train tracks for mine trains, or putting derailment devices on those tracks, is simply a tragedy waiting to happened; shutting down Brisbane in peak hour punishes the very people the protesters want to support their cause. The irony is that it is impossible to imagine that such stunts have swung any doubters to the cause of Extinction Rebellion, although many will have been turned off by them.
A similar irony exists in the government’s proposed response, the curtailing of the right to protest. That has actually prompted even people who are sick of extinction Rebellion’s antics to get out and protest for the right to protest; by trying to curtail protests, the government has created more of them. Does anyone think we are getting anywhere with this?
There are better ways of getting your message across, and they are far more effective. When the Newman government brought in unfair laws that made bikies (and indeed, anyone the government pointed the law at) guilty until proven innocent, Queensland Law Society did not take to the streets, but we did do things.
We drafted logical and well-researched policy submissions and engaged with government and even police to lobby for fairer laws. We went to parliamentary committee hearings and forcefully but reasonably stated our case; and every time someone pointed a camera or a microphone at me, I outlined just how bad these laws were.
The effectiveness of this approach is there for all to see. If you look at the QLS Call to Parties statement for the 2015 state election, and compare it to the legislative agenda for the first year of the Palaszczuk government, you will see that our document was largely the government’s law and order policy. Thanks to a lot of hard work across 2015, the government committed to almost all of what we wanted—and more hard work across 2016 and 2017 held them to those commitments.
It isn’t as enthralling as a street march or as subversive as eluding security to try and stop coal trains, but it is far more effective (and it has to be more fun than gluing yourself to a road!).
You can be a part of our efforts to ensure good laws for the public good. Put your hand up to join a committee, help with our submissions—or better yet, nominate for a spot on council, or one of the leadership positions. QLS has an election on now and nominations are open; there is about a week left to put your hand up and get involved in some real democracy, and I urge all members to give it some thought. Even if you aren’t nominating, don’t forget to vote. This is your chance to have a say in the direction of QLS for the next two years; don’t miss it!
Bill Potts, QLS President