Australia: Democracy is essential

We present the statement of the campaign “Democracy is essential” that the comrades of Australia´s Socialist Alternative are promoting. This campaign seeks to confront the restrictions on social protest that the government of New South Wales, the state in which Sydney is located, is imposing. It arises in response to an escalation of acts of police intervention against social and political mobilizations. At these events there have been arrests, including of Socialist Alternative comrades. We call for carrying out the broadest solidarity with the comrades, adhering to the declaration with the signatures of representatives of political and human rights organizations, legislators, union, student and social movement representatives.

Democracy is Essential – Open Statement

Restore the right to protest in NSW. Democracy is essential.

We call for protest gatherings to be granted an exemption under the NSW Public Health orders.

Protests have effectively been banned, indefinitely, in NSW. This is the situation as it currently stands, following the NSW Police’s recent interpretation and enforcement of the COVID-19 restrictions. Any public gathering of more than 20 people, for the “common purpose” of protesting, no matter how distanced the participants or large the area, is deemed illegal. The crackdown began in earnest with the Black Lives Matter rally on 28 July, which saw 5 arrested and the rally broken up by police before it could begin, then was followed by 2 arrests at a student demonstration at Sydney University against job cuts on 31 July, and again at another rally at Sydney University against job cuts and education fee hikes on 28 August, which saw 10 arrested. All those arrested have been issued $1,000 fines, and protesters at the most recent rally reported that police had lists of known activists to target and were threatening to charge people with multiple offences. The maximum penalty that can be applied is an $11,000 fine and 6 months imprisonment. To all those who value democratic rights, this situation is outrageous and intolerable.

The crackdown on protest cannot be justified on the basis of legitimate health concerns. We, along with the majority of Australians, support the various restrictions and lockdowns that have been in place in recent months to control the spread of the deadly Coronavirus. Indeed, many of us have argued that they should go further. But at the moment, protests are being singled out in an absurd and hypocritical way. In NSW, up to 10,000 are now allowed to attend NRL matches, and 50 in a single corporate box. 300 can be in a casino, pub, or restaurant. Schools are not closed. Thousands are once again flocking to beaches. 500 can attend community sporting events. And yet 21 protesters, socially distanced and wearing masks, is deemed illegal.

Furthermore, not a single documented case of Coronavirus spread has occurred at a protest in Australia. We now know that outdoor activities, combined with mask-wearing, are one of the safest things you can do, and we are committed to organising protests in the safest possible way. The virus is overwhelmingly being spread in indoor, enclosed environments.

Some will say that protests should be put on hold for the moment, given the danger of COVID-19. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, we don’t know how long this ban on protests could last. If a vaccine can be developed, it could still be 12 or 18 months away. The case numbers in NSW are currently very low, and yet this ban is in place. We are not willing to accept a ban on protests for such a long and indeterminate period.

Secondly, the injustices and urgent causes about which we are protesting have not been put on hold. Black deaths in custody and racism in the criminal justice system continue. Refugees continue to be imprisoned on Nauru and in city hotels. The climate catastrophe rolls on, with the Morrison Government green-lighting a further expansion of the fossil fuel industry. The working class faces an unprecedented crisis of mass sackings, unemployment, and attacks on wages and conditions in the coming months. We need the right to protest more than ever.

We therefore demand that protests be exempted from the NSW Public Health (COVID-19 Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order, in order to preserve our democratic rights. This would be an incredibly easy step for the NSW Government to make. They have already granted exemptions to ski resorts, recreational vessels, places of worship, and netball associations. 

We call for the end of the over-policing of demonstrations by NSW Police and an end to the use of move on orders to break up public assemblies.

You can sign here