Victoria’s Parliament is poised, without much fanfare or scrutiny, to pass a bill that would drastically increase police powers and severely curtail our basic human rights.

I’m talking about the Summary Offences and Sentencing Amendment Bill 2013. Haven’t heard of it? The bill was introduced last year during the Christmas rush and represents a significant expansion of the “move on” powers, which currently allow police officers to give a direction to a person or group to leave a public place for 24 hours. At present, there is a protest exception to these provisions, meaning they do not apply to pickets, demonstrations or speaking and publicising a point of view.

If passed, the bill would bestow unprecedented power upon police officers to issue “move on” orders in a range of new situations and could be used to move homeless people along. If you are part of a group, an officer can issue you a “move on” order if he or she merely suspects you are likely to breach the peace. You do not have to get this order personally for it to apply.

The protest exception has also been watered down, meaning any kind of direct action, including picketing a workplace, will no longer enjoy protection from the expanded “move on” powers. The effect is that people exercising democratic rights can be arrested, fined and — here is the kicker — ultimately could face jail. If the bill is passed, police could apply to the court to obtain an exclusion order against certain people to prevent them from entering or remaining in a public place for up to a year. If you breach an exclusion order, you could be sentenced to up to two years in jail.

The proposed reforms essentially serve to criminalise a whole set of behaviours that form the bedrock of liberal democracy. Quite simply, this is an assault on freedom of association and freedom of assembly. A law like this would have fined that pesky Mahatma Gandhi, would have cleared the lunch counters in America’s Deep South and issued the Freedom Riders with an exclusion order. This law would have locked up the union movement that started the eight-hour work day campaign here in Melbourne, which took off around the entire world.

I get where the government is coming from, I really do. It is hard defending millionaires like Daniel Grollo, whose construction company Grocon is currently facing accusations of obstructing the investigation into the wall collapse at its site in Swanston Street that killed three pedestrians. If those nasty unions continue to protest about Grocon’s safety record, in future the police will be able to use move on powers to end that swiftly.

It is also hard for the Liberal government to defend a policy like the East West tunnel, a project so good the government is just too nervous to show everyone why the investment of $8 billion of taxpayers’ money is justified. But now they can relax! The police will be able to seek exclusion orders all over Collingwood and Fitzroy so they can drill in peace, without all that trouble caused by people rudely trying to prevent the demolition of their homes.

News flash, Victorians: this bill is a scandal. It sits in stark contrast to a number of provisions in our Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (let alone many international standards). It is a small-minded response from a small-minded government, but it has potentially big effects.

The bill could be pushed through Parliament before February ends. So it’s time to start a freedom ride of our own. We need to remind the government that power is not theirs to abuse; it is the people’s to bestow.

*Opponents have organised a protest rally against the bill on February 18 at 10am on Spring Street

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey