Ted Baillieu wasted no time in dragging Victoria back to the 1950s; increasing public funding for non-government schools at the direct expense of government schools, vetoing a Yarra City Council’s decision to set up a safe injecting room in Richmond, preferring instead to harass drug addicts with a higher police presence, and telling his caucus that they’re no longer required to acknowledge traditional custodians in a welcome to country. The latest throwback to the postwar era though, is particularly stupid.

The Victorian government has decided that you can be given an on-the-spot fine for ‘antisocial behaviour’, including offensive language, under the Summary Offences Act (1966), whereas previously, you would have had to be dragged before a court to be issued a fine.

I personally find it unbelievable that Victoria still has legislation against offensive behaviour and ‘obscene’ language. Being curious, I went to the legislation and found the relevant section (17):

17. Obscene, indecent, threatening language and behaviour etc. in public
Any person who in or near a public place or within the view or hearing of any person being or passing therein or thereon-

  1. sings an obscene song or ballad;
  2. writes or draws exhibits or displays an indecent or obscene word figure or representation;
  3. uses profane indecent or obscene language or threatening abusive or insulting words; or
  4. behaves in a riotous indecent offensive or insulting manner-

shall be guilty of an offence.

Penalty: 10 penalty units or imprisonment for two months; For a second offence-15 penalty units or imprisonment for three months; For a third or subsequent offence-25 penalty units or imprisonment for six months.

Six months imprisonment for thrice singing an obscene ballad? Jesus fucking christ!

The ostensible reason Baillieu gives for this move is that it would free up the court system by allowing police officers the discretion to hand down fines themselves rather than having the matter go to court. In reality though, no one currently gets charged for swearing because there’s bugger all chance of a conviction (as in the Townsville case discussed here). So this move just gives police the power to circumvent the courts and issue fines to whomever they deem to be offensive, according to the delightfully vague ‘community standards’.

Dee Madigan wrote about this yesterday, and as she points out, laws like this are used disproportionately and affect minority groups most:

Empirical evidence in New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory shows that laws which focus on offending behaviors have a disproportionate impact on juveniles and minority groups. For example, in Western Australia, Aboriginals are 15 times more likely to be charged for swearing.

If I’m subject to a law, I generally like to know how I can avoid breaking it. I know for instance, that if I refrain from killing anyone, then I won’t be prosecuted for murder. But how do I know if I’m being obscene if it’s ultimately the decision of an officer who might just be having a bad day? We’ve all got stories of cops abusing their powers to detain, search and intimidate using the slightest discretionary power – it happened to me twice before I was even 15. It might clog up the courts, but I’d prefer an impartial judge to decide what’s obscene.

But above all, the law is stupid and should be scrapped altogether.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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