New anti-protest laws were introduced by the Victorian Labor government in May this year. While the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Public Order) bill still has to overcome some hurdles before being enacted, it has the potential to seriously undermine the right of ordinary people to take to the streets and demonstrate.
The bill seeks to replace the offences of affray, rout and riot with new statutory offences of affray and violent disorder.
Victoria Police already have the ability to create “designated areas”, within which they have expanded powers; now they will be able to demand a person said to be wearing a mask in such an area reveal their face. Existing charges of affray and violent disorder carry penalties of 5 and 10 years respectively. If someone is wearing a mask, the charge of affray now carries a maximum penalty of 7 years.
Individuals charged with violent disorder could now be jailed for a maximum of 15 years if they are masked. There is no doubt that the penalties are excessive, but just as concerning is the scope for the police to misuse these new powers.
The real aim of these changes is to target protestors who seek to hide their identity by wearing masks, but even those involved in performance art or wearing innocuous clothing could be targeted.
The amendments came after an outcry from the Fairfax and Murdoch press after minor scuffles took place between far-right supporters and anti-racist protesters at a rally held in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg last year.
While socialists do not promote the wearing of masks at political demonstrations, we are opposed to their banning, as well as other restrictions on the right to protest.
By Corey Snoek