Jesuit Priest Frank Brennan wrote a book a long time ago about Joh’s Queensland called Too Much Order, Too Little Law. Viewers of last night’s 7.30 Report might be forgiven for thinking that not much has changed in the Sunshine State since the Joh era.
The 7.30 Report last night ran a story about what appeared from the CCTV footage to be a very violent arrest of a 65 year old homeless man, Bruce Rowe.
Rowe was arrested in July outside a public toilet in Albert Street, just off the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane’s CBD. He has been convicted of public nuisance offences, despite the fact that the vision shows him being pinned on the ground by officers, while one officer repeatedly drives his knee into Rowe’s leg. A Council employee had complained Rowe, who’d been attending a church meeting, was taking too long to get changed in the toilets.
Rowe had been given a move on direction.
Such powers had originally been granted to police and, controversially, security guards at Brisbane’s Southbank parklands, in the context of concern about youth (and mostly Aboriginal) “gangs”. Later they were extended to designated areas across the state. In April this year, the powers were granted to police in any public place in Queensland.
Rowe’s arrest is not an isolated incident. In one controversial incident several years ago, police drew their guns on a young Aboriginal man in King George square, despite the fact that he had offered them no violence. This only drew media attention because the man’s mother was prominent Indigenous academic and co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, Jackie Huggins. Those working with Indigenous street kids and homeless people say the move on laws are often applied inappropriately.
The Courier-Mail and the Sunday Mail regularly campaign on alleged lawlessness in the Brisbane CBD. A mark of the beginning of Liberal Lord Mayor Campbell Newman’s term was his denunciations of the lack of police numbers in the CBD, “gang” violence, and his distaste for numbers of homeless people congregating near social service vans. The Beattie government’s response, as with most actions by Police Minister Judy Spence, was to introduce “tough” new police powers.
The move on powers have the desired effect of getting these stories off the front pages. But there is effectively no accountability and review of police powers to issue move on orders. They are merely required to file a report by phone. No avenue exists to challenge the use of the powers in court, until charges are eventually heard.
The Labor premiers who have presided over these expansions of police discretion, Wayne Goss and Peter Beattie, are both lawyers who in their youth were civil liberties activists. But in Queensland now, it seems that the more important liberties are those of respectable citizens who don’t want to have to see homeless and Indigenous people on the city streets. The consequence may be that they also close their eyes to the dirty business of how these laws are sometimes enforced.