Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

Labor government undermines democratic rights

The Pope’s visit to Sydney last month brought not only the right wing agenda of the Catholic Church, but also prompted the New South Wales state Labor government to introduce a new raft of laws aimed at expanding police powers and further undermining democratic rights.

The Socialist Party is opposed to these anti democratic laws and we are opposed to governments funding religious events, but we are not opposed to events like World Youth Day. We support the right of people to believe and practice what ever religion they like as long as it does not interfere with the rights of others. This includes the right of people not to be forced to provide religions with financial support – whether that is directly or through the government.

The Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest ‘not for profit’ organisations in Australia with revenue in 2005 of $16.2 billion. It also has assets believed to be over $100 billion. They are also exempt from many taxes of business organisations of a similar size, which gives them an enormous commercial advantage.

The Catholic Church does not need financial support from the government. It also should not be supported by new laws aimed at preventing those opposed to some of its more unseemly and backward practices from expressing dissent. Unfortunately this was not the view of the state and federal ALP governments. Between them they paid $108 million and $55 million respectively for the Pope’s visit for World Youth Day (WYD).

Not content with this largess, the NSW Labor government arranged for new laws that gave the police the powers to direct ‘anyone in a WYD declared area to cease conduct that was a risk to the safety of others causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a WYD event or obstructs such an event’. Refusal to comply became a criminal offence with fines of up to $5,500!

The laws operated in over 600 locations throughout Sydney including Darling Harbour, the Opera House, the University of Sydney and railway stations including Central. Police had also told organisations planning to protest that they needed to have placards, banners and t-shirts ‘approved’ if they wanted to protest. The laws also would have made it illegal to hand out gifts or to try to sell things to WYD participants.

These laws follow on from legislation that was brought into effect for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney in 2007 and the legislation brought in during the 2000 Olympics. On both occasions the laws were designed to crack down on protests and to increase police (and military) powers.

After a group of protesters challenged the laws, the Federal Court partially struck out one of the clauses which meant that it was no longer a criminal offence to ‘annoy’ pilgrims. While it upheld the remainder of the World Youth Day powers this case was a victory in the sense that it exposed the state governments attack on free speech and protest activity.

This legislation was extremely broad and should be of major concern to the labor movement. The long term aim of the government is to use these types of laws against trade unions and other protest movements. Imagine the impact if all protests had to submit details of leaflets and picket signs to the police to be sure that they would not ‘annoy’ people! Laws like these need to be vigorously opposed.

By Gary Duffy