The Victorian Police’s decision to issue a bill to the promoters of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux’s speech event in Melbourne is another serious sign of the decline of free speech in Australia. The event had 800 peaceful attendees on private property in a venue which regularly holds events of this size and larger without any issues. A lot of extra police resources were needed to control the violent behaviour at what would have otherwise been an entirely peaceful event.
However, when members of the extreme left resorted to violence in an attempt to prevent the event, the Victoria police issued a $68,000 bill not to the violent and rioting protesters, but to the organisers of a peaceful speaking engagement. Rather than prosecuting the violent protestors, Victoria Police Commissioner decided to punish the victims by issuing a $68,000 bill to its promoters, to keep a premeditated violent mob at bay.
It is unbelievable a law-abiding organiser can be charged because of threats by far-left activists. One of the groups that threatened patrons attending that speaking event call themselves ‘Yard’, or ‘Yelling at Racist Dogs’. A post on the groups Facebook warns: ‘What we do at YARD is stand at outside events like this and hurl personal abuse at you while you’re in the queue. We will individually attack you for your beliefs, appearance, clothing, and anything else out-of-the-ordinary. … The abuse is individual – you will be the target’, they added.
Surely protecting innocent people from violence is the core duty of the police. And yet, the $68,000 invoice was claimed for the police resources required to control the lawless protesters who incited violence, assaulted police, damaged private property, blocked the highway and abused and harassed law-abiding citizens who simply wanted to enjoy their constitutional rights to free speech, political expression, and peaceful assembly.
Although nobody in any way need to endorse the political views of either Ms Southern or Mr Molyneux, everyone who truly values freedom and democracy should be alarmed that there is any place in this country where a group of radical leftists can effectively veto a public debate with de facto power to manipulate heavy financial penalties against their targets from the Government, Premier, Police Minister and/or Chief Police Commissioner. To change law-abiding citizens because of the threats made against them makes a complete mockery of our legal system.
Of course, the Southern and Molyneux’s event is not the first to be slapped with a huge police bill in Victoria. In December 2017 the police were reportedly called to contain protestors outside a Melbourne event featuring Milo Yiannopulous. Riot police stormed the protest and used peer spray to subdue the violent protesters.
Remarkably, Victorian Policy Minister, Lisa Neville, said the police would be billing the organisers of the event up to $50,000 for the cost of police resources, used after violent left-wing protestors attacked people outside the Melbourne Pavilion in Kensington at the Yiannopulous event. Ms Neville now says the Victorian government will be taking legal action because the organisers still have not paid the outrageously expensive bill after they were ordered to do so by police. In other words, the police are taking legal action not against the violent and rioting protestors, but to the peaceful organisers of a straightforward speaking engagement.
By taking such a course of action the Victorian Police have given real power to the violent extremists to financially punish their unapproved opinions. Of course, if anyone should pay the bill, surely it should be the protestors who are the ones threatening violence. As noted in a statement by the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, These protests are organised by … members of the radical Socialist Alternative, which previously had members arrested for violently attacking attendees at a speech last year, and has already created a “Solidarity And Defence Fund” to defend members arrested for violence’.
This goes to the very heart of freedom of speech in Australia. Of course, the charge has been made against the wrong people. What should the Victoria Police be charging the organisers of a lawful gathering? Nothing. Anything more is grossly disproportionate. We cannot let those intent on politically-motivated violence impose costs on those who would be the innocent victims of that violence if the latter simply wants to peacefully assemble – for whatever reason.
The Victoria Police is the state agency responsible for protecting persons and property from unlawful interference. (See section 9(1) of the Victoria Police Act 2013(Vic). This raises serious legal and constitutional questions in relation to the behaviour of the police. As I have argued together with my colleagues Joshua Forrester and Lorraine Finlay in our recent UWA Law Review article, the implied freedom of political communication to be found in the Australian Constitution applies to executive action and the Victoria Police is the state agency responsible for protecting persons and property from unlawful interference. It does so in the context of Australia’s system of representative and responsible government.
More recently, on September 7, 2018, the presence of the police was necessary when a conflict broke as a group of protesters converged on the Melbourne CBD’s Sofitel Hotel where Nigel Farage, a former leader of Britain’s UKIP party was due to speak on that night. As the media reported, clashes broke out between left-wing activists and police, with guests being abused, harassed, and even called ‘Nazis’ outside the venue. ‘We can’t allow these people to ruin our multicultural city. We are here to tell them they are not welcome’, said one of the violent protesters to the ABC News.
The Victoria Police, once again, has informed that, instead of punishing the violent protesters, it is the organisers of the Farage tour that will be receiving a hefty bill. In other words, Police regulations in Victoria are being used to punish those that behave lawfully and to enhance the power of those who behave badly. Rather than punishing violent protestors, the Victorian police are once again punishing the organisers of a peaceful event for the use of police resources to protect them against such a violent mob, but have not confirmed how much as yet. A Victorian Police spokeswoman stated: ‘Yes, we are [charging Farage’s organisers for security]. As per the Victoria Police [fees and charges] Regulations 2014, Victoria Police has the right to charge any event organiser for the use of police resources’.
Any government that creates such regulations is betraying its vows to uphold law and order. These violent left-wing totalitarians are trying to suppress free speech in Australia. It is utterly unconscionable for the police to charge the organisers of political events for the right to free speech. They should not be billed but protected from the far-left activists who have no commitment to democratic values and the most basic principles of civility and the rule of law. Indeed, as the organiser of the Farage’s speaking tour in Australia, Damien Costas, stated: ‘It’s an international disgrace if the police in Victoria charge for the protection of a member of the European Parliament’.
That is the behaviour of the police in communist dictatorships, not a free society. Above all, it is critical to consider that the organisers of these events held peaceful and lawful gatherings to discuss matters of political consideration. It is the left-wing extremists who created public disturbance and violence the ones that the police should be charging.
What is happening in Victoria is utterly disgraceful. And I am appalled also by the silence by our federal government, although it merely prefigures a wider war that has been waged against freedom of speech in this country.
We will all be the victims of this ongoing war against freedom of speech unless there is a stronger reaction against such undemocratic attacks, and concerned citizens start mobilising and coordinating their actions to more seriously demand the protection of a fundamental right which Australian governments have regularly failed to respect, protect, and ensure.
Augusto Zimmermann LLB, LLM, PhD is Professor of Law at Sheridan College in Perth, Western Australia, and Professor of Law (Adjunct) at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney campus. He is also President of the Western Australian Legal Theory Association (WALTA), and a former Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia (2012-2017).
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