Activists are taking the Victoria Police to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) after the police refused to destroy archived footage and information after a peaceful protest outside Hazelwood power station in 2010. Police surveillance comes as no surprise to political activists and trade unionists who have faced intimidation, infiltration and surveillance by Victoria Police since the gold rush era.
Victoria Police have long maintained special units for spying on individuals and organisations who offer even vague resistance or opposition to the interests of the ruling elite of the day. In 1931 for example the ‘Special Branch’ was established, during a period of heightened class struggle.
This branch was set up to keep a check on socialists and working class organisations. It was officially disbanded in 1983, although its functions have continued on in variously named branches, like the ‘Security Intelligence Group’ (SIG). The Special Branch and its successor units cooperate with similar agencies in other states and territories through the central coordination of the ‘Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’ (ASIO).
In recent years the SIG has concerned itself particularly with environmental activists and protesters. In April this year SIG officers visited the home of ‘Quit Coal’ activist Paul Connor. They warned him about future protests after he locked himself in the foyer of Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu’s office.
‘Memorandums of Understanding’ (MOUs) between Victoria Police and major infrastructure developers – like those behind the Wonthaggi desalination plant – have been agreed in recent years. These MOUs give the developers access to police archives on activists and protest organisations and obligate the developers to conduct their own ‘intelligence gathering’ to share with police.
During the ‘Switch off Hazelwood, Switch on Renewables’ protest at Australia’s dirtiest power plant in 2010 police conducted heavy video and photo surveillance amid a generally over-the-top police operation. Socialist Party activists were present on the demonstration.
Lisa Caripis, an environmental activist, was also present. She has since requested that police material collected about her at the demonstration be destroyed, but her request was denied. Police say that someone could complain about her conduct in the future. Lisa is now taking the matter before VCAT on the grounds that her privacy has been breached under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and the Information Privacy Act.
Socialists would welcome a victory for Lisa as a small blow to the anti-democratic powers and practices of the police, wielded on behalf of their big business masters against those struggling for a clean and secure future. As cause for protest and struggle intensifies, these powers and methods will be employed on an even larger scale to try and stifle any resistance to the consequences of the profit-first system.
To counter this push it will be necessary to go further than the legal system. Community groups, progressive political parties and trade unions will need to combine in a campaign for basic democratic rights to be restored.
The demand must be made that police agencies that are set up purely to stifle political dissent are closed down. The police force more generally should be supervised and directed by transparent, elected committees of ordinary people – rather than appointed officers from the ranks of the rich and powerful.
By Kirk Leonard