The Queensland government this week announced an extraordinary set of expanded police search powers, designed to crack down on environmental protesters. The centre of Brisbane has seen a series of demonstrations led by climate change activists Extinction Rebellion in recent months, and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk argued that their “sinister” tactics and disruption of traffic warranted tougher laws.
But the basis for Palaszczuk’s expansion of police power appears questionable. The premier cited advice from police commissioner Katarina Carroll, alleging that protesters were using locking devices, and devices loaded with fragments of glass to stop them being removed. Yet there is no evidence of climate protesters using such devices.
Politicians’ rhetoric around the issue has reminded some of a dark chapter of Queensland’s past.
Queensland’s authoritarian history
“Queensland has a long history of authoritarian governments,” Michael Cope, president of the Queensland Council of Civil Liberties, told Crikey. That history hasn’t escaped Palaszczuk’s political opponents, who have drawn parallels between the new laws, and the reign of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the state’s long-serving National Party premier.
Greens MP Michael Berkman said Palaszczuk’s changes risked making Queensland “the kind of draconian police state that Joh would be proud of”.
The Bjelke-Petersen era, which lasted from 1968 to 1987, was infamous for vast institutional corruption; staunch social conservatism; systemic gerrymandering; and above all, a hostility toward protest and civil liberties.
Cope, whose organisation was founded following a series of protests against the Vietnam War a year before Bjelke-Petersen came to power, told Crikey that those years were the toughest in his organisation’s history.
“It was an era in which the special branch was hassling people, and photographing people at demonstrations who were doing nothing other than being at a demonstration, ” Cope said. “There was widespread corruption, no source of remedy for abuse of police powers, and regular police bashings — none of which was constrained because Bjelke-Petersen had the police on his side.”
Perhaps the most insidious feature of Sir Joh’s reign was his weaponisation of the police. The special branch, a secretive unit of the police created in the 1940s to crack down on “subversives” (usually communists), spied on and harassed protesters, and in some instances infiltrated groups to act as provocateurs.
In 1989, when the Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption finally brought down Bjelke-Petersen, the special branch shredded all its files rather than face scrutiny.
In 1971, when the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby union team, held a tour that became a flashpoint for anti-Apartheid protest across the country, Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency. For 30 days, hundreds of police officers were bussed into Brisbane from rural Queensland and given unfettered power. Years later, it was revealed that Bjelke-Petersen had cut a secret deal with police, promising officers they wouldn’t be punished for any action they took in suppressing the protests. A pay rise was also thrown in to sweeten the deal.
Voices of dissent against Bjelke-Petersen’s authoritarian turn were ignored and purged. In 1976, police conducted a large-scale military raid at a hippie commune in far-north Queensland, burning the property down. The incident drove a further wedge between Bjelke-Petersen and reformist police commissioner Ray Whitrod. After a chilling campaign of harassment and intimidation, Whitrod — who warned Queensland was on the road to becoming a police state — was turfed out.
His replacement, a relatively unknown cop called Terry Lewis would later become the face of corruption in the “moonlight state”, and spent over a decade in prison.
But Joh kept on winning, and as dissentients were eliminated, his repressive tendencies sharpened. In 1978, the premier announced that “the days of street marches are over”, and told protesters not to bother applying for a permit. That pronouncement led to more protests, in which 2000 people were arrested.
The spirit of the Hillbilly Dictator
Extinction Rebellion’s Brisbane protests — which deliberately set out to provoke — have caused calls for the kind of tough crackdown reminiscent of the Bjelke-Petersen era. Pauline Hanson called for police to target protesters with cattle prods. Liberal National Party opposition leader Deb Frecklington has referred to protesters as “ratbags” and “muppets”, and claimed they could be in breach of anti-terrorism laws if they staged a Hong Kong-style airport protest.
Cope says that while Queensland isn’t necessarily travelling back in time to the Bjelke-Petersen era, he warns that as pressure ratchets up over the protests, politicians may forget the worst moments of the state’s past.
“People forget what Queensland was like in the ’70s and ’80s — it wasn’t quite the Soviet Union, but we had a pretty authoritarian government. What we do know from that time is that the police will seize on any opportunity to increase their powers, and turn a little bit of smoke into a fire”.
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