Why are we opposed to the Police Offences Amendment (Workplace Protection) Bill 2022
WHT’s Board is very concerned about the potential impact the proposed changes to the Police Offences Act is going to have on civil society protests.
At WHT we are very concerned that these legislative changes have been developed to address one issue that the government sees as a problem (protests in the forests) but it is actually creating a set of perverse outcomes on organisations like ours and the communities we represent.
The legislation appears designed to deal with a small minority of protests that aim to stop access to workplaces in remote places. Here are some examples of the peaceful protests in cities we have seen in the last few years that would potentially be affected by the legislation:
- March4Justice protests after Brittany Higgins spoke out
- protests against homicides that have happened in the context of family violence
- protests about poor access to abortion services
- protests to uphold reproductive rights
These ‘civil society’ protests vary in size and in sophistication of organisation. The protests against domestic violence homicides are usually organised by distraught families. The rallies to demand abortion care services are often organised by passionate young women who don’t know the laws around protests so they would almost never have a permit.
Why do people protest?
This is a really important question. The rallies we are involved in aren’t protests about commercial activity and they are not industrial action. At our protests, people rally and protest
- Because they are experiencing discrimination
- Because they are distressed and they want something to change
- Because they want to change norms – they don’t want abortion care services to be stigmatised and hidden, or the murder of women to be considered unfortunate but inevitable
- Because they want to engage with decision makers.
These rallies are very important.
- They have led to important changes, including law reform
- They have led to the creation of new service systems (eg equitable and accessible abortion care in Tasmania now held up nationally as ‘best practice’)
- They bring into the public debate matters for which there are no avenues for policy discussions
These rallies are always peaceful. They do not intend to block businesses.
The potential impact of the proposed Bill on Tasmanian women
We are concerned about the following:
- The Bill would mean people who are peacefully protesting in relation to urgent issues (such as reproductive rights or women’s safety) could be charged with the new criminal offence introduced by the Bill if they don’t obtain a permit
- Even if a permit is obtained, it’s possible that an otherwise lawful protest could become unlawful for reasons outside the control of the organisers or participants
- For example, people may attend an organised rally or demonstration in good faith that a permit has been obtained.
- The protests may be organised by well meaning people who are not familiar with the process of obtaining a permit. It’s possible that, in good faith, an organiser may not understand the terms of a permit and unknowingly breach the conditions, and they could be charged with unlawful obstruction of the space
- It’s also possible attendance at a protest may be larger than anticipated. This is not unusual for protests raising awareness around issues impacting women’s rights, as we have seen from the size of the March4Justice rallies. The large rally in support of trans women in response to the ‘Save Women’s Sports’ forum is also a good example. In both these instances the large crowds turning up to attend the rally may unknowingly breach the conditions of a permit by straying into areas beyond that which is permitted by the permit
- The introduction of a new offence which could be applied to protesters may influence women’s decisions about whether or not to protest, and have a chilling effect on how women are able to voice concerns or raise public awareness about particular issues.
- Police don’t have to ask you to ‘move on’ before arresting you.
The potential impact of the Bill on our organisations and community groups
People organising or attending our rallies could be subject to aggravated penalties if the rally is said to obstruct a business or undertaking. All our rallies are held in urban centres, surrounded by businesses. We do not know what an undertaking is and the Bill does not provide a definition.
The fact that we did not intent to obstruct a business or undertaking will not be a defence, as these new provisions do not require intention to obstruct. This means a person might be completely unaware they are obstructing a business or undertaking, or posing an indirect risk, but still charged and subject to heavy penalties.
The Bill also targets ‘bodies corporate’ with heavy fines if they are involved in rallies that obstruct workplaces. What are the implications for non-government organisations like ours? Perhaps the Government is hoping this will deal with a particular environmental organisation. But all non-government organisations have similar legal status and governance structures, so it could equally apply to Women's Health Tasmania. What NGO Board will carry the risk of being hit with heavy penalties if a rally is organised and the turnout is larger than expected and participants exceed the area described in the permit?
Responding to the reassurances we have been given by the Government
‘But you wouldn’t be charged’, ‘public rallies are important and they will not be affected’.
Community rallies and protests, organised by us, by families, by concerned citizens do many of the things this legislation is making punishable by large fines.
The application of this law may not begin by affecting these rallies but there are two concerns.
The application of laws changes over time if laws are vaguely drafted or contain ambiguous inclusions. Working on law reform we have often used second reading speeches from the original law makers to try convince current legislators that the application of a law has drifted far from its original intention.
Too much scope is being given to police discretion, and too much confidence that in 10 years’ time police officers put on the spot, dealing protestors for whom they may have no sympathy, will understand what the Parliament of 2020 meant to do with this law. By then the people who drafted this law will be gone, and its original intentions lost. It can be applied the way it is written. This is unfair on the police, who will be blamed for overreach.
So why are we worried?
Protest has been an effective tool in raising awareness of issues impacting people in Tasmania, and for creating a better, kinder society.
The way this Bill stands we would have to urge people to be very cautious if they are planning a rally or asking us to speak at one.
We would say, ‘The law has become very unclear and your actions could unknowingly fall under the new provisions of this bill’.
We would say, ‘You can get a permit but in our experience some protests are larger than expected and can end up with people on streets or footpaths which extend beyond the area covered by the permit."
"And if you get too many people and your activity inadvertently goes beyond what is specified in the permit the police might charge people even if there is no sign they meant to obstruct a street or a footpath."
"And if your protest inadvertently ends up impacting a businessor an ‘undertaking’ – even if you had no intention to - very significant penalties will apply. The police just have to decide your attendees are obstructing an ‘business or undertaking’ (and no, we don't know what an 'undertaking' is - the law doesn’t say)."
We would say if you volunteer for an NGO that has an interest in this area, or you work in a related field, you should not go to a protest because your employer could be deemed to be a corporate body with responsibility for the protest and could be hit with heavy penalties.
We’d have to tell people that this Bill has stopped your capacity to engage with democracy.
This Bill is being rushed through the Parliament. It needs a lot more time and discussion.
This Bill is going back to the Legislative Council next week. Please write to them. Their addresses are here Legislative Council Members (parliament.tas.gov.au)