Australia’s Rulers Are Clamping Down on the Right to Protest

As we face a mounting ecological crisis, combined with racism and violence against First Nations people and refugees, Australia’s state and federal governments are ramping up anti-protest laws and even harassing the media. We need an organized fightback.

A man is surrounded by police as he attends a protest for Australian Aboriginal rights in Brisbane, 2014. (Daniel Munoz / Getty Images)

As we face escalating social, economic, and ecological crises, the Australian authorities are ramping up police powers and restrictions on the right to protest. Community support for Aboriginal sovereignty has grown, but indigenous-led movements have been met with harsher restrictions and increased police harassment, including fines and arrests.

While it is the Aboriginal sovereignty movements that have borne the brunt of this, the attacks are broad-ranging. Journalists have also found themselves under fire, as have movements supporting refugees and opposing the Adani mine in Queensland.

This forms part of a long-term assault on freedom of speech and the right to organize, backed up by the conservative media. We urgently need to mobilize in response.

Police Powers Grow

Since at least 1938, which marks the 150th anniversary of Australia’s colonization, January 26 has been a day of mourning and organizing for indigenous people. In recent years, “Invasion Day” protests have grown in size and determination. At the same time, organizers have faced mounting intimidation every year.

This year, New South Wales police minister David Elliott described the protests as “illegal” and threatened fines or jail for people who attended. Citing alleged intimidation by police, organizers decided against holding a planned march, instead gathering in a park where participants socially distanced under large trees. Police soon forced attendees to disperse, before arresting people who had moved to a nearby park.

Meanwhile, both state and federal governments have refused to seriously address police violence and racism. More than 441 indigenous people have died in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody thirty years ago. Indigenous people in Australia are incarcerated at the highest rate of any people on Earth (2,253 per 100,000). More than thirty UN member states recently criticized archaic minimum-age laws that have seen indigenous children as young as ten years old held to be criminally responsible in every Australian state and territory.

Priscilla Atkins, cochair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), told Jacobin that policing of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests has been “heavy handed.” In addition to facing pepper spray and arrests, protesters have been met with “disproportionately large numbers of police with greater powers than ever before,” who have “engage[d] with peaceful protesters in a way that was punitive and posed a risk to public health.”

This escalation of repression is not limited to Invasion Day or New South Wales. In October 2020, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announced the elimination of community transmission of COVID-19. At almost exactly the same time, police violently dismantled a protest camp that had been in place for several years protecting sacred Djab Wurrung trees from a highway expansion.

The state’s response to the public health crisis relied heavily on policing, in part because Victoria has seen its police budget and prison population soar with a “tough on crime” stance. By contrast, the state initially struggled with its public health response: its budget for public health in 2019 was $1 billion less than that of neighboring New South Wales.

Tennis Before Democracy

The Aboriginal sovereignty movement is not the only target for this creeping criminalization of protest. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison was happy for audiences to return to the cricket, state and federal politicians have continued to condemn and ban peaceful protests. Even where protest organizers have taken care to ensure that protests pose minimal public health risks, the authorities have met them with disproportionate responses.

A schoolteacher is still facing incitement charges for organizing a car convoy protest in April 2020 in solidarity with refugees held inside a Melbourne hotel prison. Police imposed fines worth $49,560 on thirty activists who joined the protest, even though they remained socially isolated in their own cars. More recently, police used a law meant to prevent ticket scalping to stop a small group of activists peacefully handing out information outside the Australian Open.

Journalist Jim Malo, who said that a security guard pushed him onto a road and tried to stop him from taking photographs while interviewing refugee activists outside the same hotel in November 2020, told Jacobin:

I hope that the public is not fooled by these tactics of heavy policing. It’s a tactic to try to prevent these things from gaining power and legitimacy and momentum.

A Hostile Media Climate

Australian journalists have also been targeted, with two high-profile police raids on the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, in 2019. Instead of defending journalism, Australia’s conservative media has effectively cheered on the government’s crackdown on freedom of speech.

Despite its own experience of state harassment at the Telegraph, News Corp — which accounts for 59 percent of daily newspaper sales in Australia — has repeatedly run news stories questioning the legitimacy of Black Lives Matter and environmental protesters. Over the space of several weeks last winter, Australian newspapers ran dozens of stories trying to link a single Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne to the second wave of COVID-19 in the state, ignoring the chief health officer of Victoria’s statement that an “extensive investigation” had found “no evidence” linking cases to the protest.

The main cause of the second wave actually included a lack of protections for low-income workers in aged care homes and abattoirs, many of whom were also migrants. Despite this, some 42 percent of people surveyed believed that the protest was responsible for the second wave of infections in Victoria. During the same period, News Corp itself published articles with data showing that much bigger protests in cities like Minnesota and New York had not led to a spike in cases.

Murdoch-owned media outlets have also mounted sustained campaigns to discredit environmental activists, alleging that “greenies” were responsible for Australia’s catastrophic fires in December 2020 and January 2021. Sky News host Peta Credlin, a former adviser to conservative prime minister Tony Abbott, went so far as to claim on air that “so-called experts” have been forced to admit “climate change isn’t the cause of these bushfires” and that “two decades of climate change activism is making them worse.”

Meanwhile, for years now, Coalition MPs have levelled attacks on Australia’s public broadcaster ABC, pressuring it to toe a more conservative line. At times, this government pressure has been tantamount to censorship. For example, earlier this year, the ABC removed a reference to Invasion Day protests from the headline of an article after criticism from communications minister Paul Fletcher.

However, the most concerning attack on freedom of information may well be Australia’s increasingly harsh treatment of whistleblowers. Former PM Malcolm Turnbull attempted to prohibit health workers from reporting abuse in offshore detention centers with threats of imprisonment. Since then, the Coalition government has passed harsh laws preventing whistleblowers — and even their lawyers — from speaking out.

No Reprieve

While Australians are enjoying a slight reprieve from last year’s East Coast fire conditions due to a mild, La Niña summer, environmental activists are facing worsening restrictions on the right to protest.

In Queensland, several years of sustained protests have failed to halt Indian billionaire Gautam Adani’s plans to build a coal mine that threatens the already imperiled Great Barrier Reef. Both Australian and Indian activists have paid a price for opposing this project and others associated with the billionaire, a close associate of hard-right Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

Protest at Adani’s rail construction site stopping work on the mega coal mine in Central Queensland, 2017. (Julian Meehan / Flickr)

Adani, which recently changed its name in Australia to Bravus, has been accused of intimidating an activist by taking photographs of him walking his children to school. In 2019, authorities arrested four journalists working for the French public broadcaster France 2 while they were covering a protest against the mine.

Adrian Burragubba, a Wangan and Jagalingou man and traditional owner of the land in question, was bankrupted by Adani’s bid to make him pay $600,000 in legal costs. Other protestors in Queensland face fines of up to $61,000 for protesting — a disproportionate sum compared to the minor penalties imposed on mining companies for major breaches of environmental law.

The Liberals and the Labor Party have both doubled down on an extractive economy, spruiking a “gas-fired recovery.” Although there is strong popular support for ambitious climate action measures and the right of refugees to seek asylum, both parties seem to be preparing for the climate crisis in a very different way, clamping down on dissent and implementing increasingly harsh border controls.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who made no secret of his closeness to the Trump-Pence administration, has thus far escaped the same kind of backlash that sank Morrison’s US allies. But if Australia’s progressive movements are going to push for ambitious alternatives to the crises that face us, including Indigenous sovereignty and a Green New Deal-inspired recovery program, they will have to steel themselves to fight against repressive laws at every level of the Australian state.