A convoy of protesters calling for COVID-19 disaster payments to be extended to welfare recipients is appealing to the New South Wales government to rescind their fines for breaking public health orders.
Last week NSW Police Minister David Elliott urged anti-lockdown campaigners to call off their planned protest and find other ways to express their discontent that would not risk spreading the virus.
“You can still protest … There are plenty of ways for you to express your emotions right now without putting people’s lives at risk,” he said.
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As he spoke, Elliott was sitting on a request to waive nine fines given by police to a group of protesters who had organised a protest they say was COVID safe.
Protesters including members of the United Workers Union who were supporting stood-down staff at the Annette Kellerman Aquatic Centre were stopped and fined for a “safe from COVID, safe from poverty” car and bike convoy that drove past NSW Liberal Party headquarters on August 1. Fifty people took part, protesting how income support recipients were excluded from the federal government’s COVID-19 disaster payment. (The next day Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the payments would be extended to welfare recipients.)
Dominic Thomas, 22, was issued a $1000 fine for not having a “reasonable excuse” for being in Sydney’s CBD. He says he decided to protest to draw attention to how vulnerable Australians who had lost their income were receiving no further government support.
“When [NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian] and [NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard] and whoever go on to the 11am press conference, they don’t get asked how people on Centrelink will get by,” he said.
Thomas says the protest was organised in a way to avoid virus transmission. Only people who were in households were allowed to drive together, and they even wore masks inside the car.
His car first did a test run of the planned route without being stopped, but Thomas claims they were pulled over less than 30 seconds after they put a sign on their car.
“It was a blatant misuse of public health order,” he said. “Clearly everyone was acting in a way to protect public safety.”
Thomas wrote to Berejiklian to ask for the fines to be waived, to stop deploying large numbers of police and military in Sydney hotspots, and to lobby the federal government for more income support.
“It is frankly ridiculous that I can legally walk those same streets in the city without a mask, mingling with others, but if I drive around masked, with a sign on my car demanding greater financial assistance, I am supposedly a danger to the community,” he said.
“With the ever-extending lockdown, how can you in good conscience fine us when so many of us are just scraping by?”
Thomas has been told that his letter has been directed to Elliott’s office but he has not had a response yet. The nine protesters have crowdfunded to pay their fines and are considering whether to challenge the fines as being unconstitutional.