When the police in Box Hill raised the red flag of communist China over their station, on 1 October last year — the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China — it was a warning. ‘It’s a police station honouring a police state,’ observed 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell, presciently.
The extent to which the Victorian police force has become a politicised arm of the government has become painfully apparent under the extraordinary powers seized by Premier Dan Andrews during the pandemic. It is not as if they have made a secret of their agenda; incapable of arresting Sudanese crime gangs while touting for informants to mount a trumped-up case as against Cardinal Pell, but as restrictions on freedom of speech, mobility, assembly and religion have mounted, their overbearing presence has been inescapable.
Porky officers — caricatures of the ‘fascist pigs’ loathed by leftists in the 1960s — ‘took the knee’ in Melbourne’s Black Lives Matter protests. It was a grand pantomime for the politically engaged. Of the 10,000 who attended, no one was arrested and only the organisers were fined.
Yet unlike the BLM movement, there has been no suggestion of defunding the Victorian police. Quite the contrary. Minister for Police and Emergency Services Lisa Neville announced last year that the Andrews government had delivered a record $3 billion funding boost to VicPol. That translated into new crime fighting technology, drones and intelligence surveillance systems and an extra 2,144 officers, an increase of 16 per cent over four-and-a-half years, bringing full time equivalent officers to a total of 15,295, with an additional 319 police deployed to regional and rural towns.
None of that would come as a surprise to a tearful Zoe Buhler of Miners Rest, on the outskirts of Ballarat. The young pregnant mum was arrested and handcuffed in her pink flannelette pyjamas, in front of her toddlers, an hour before she was meant to attend an ultrasound. Her crime? Posting a message on Facebook about a Freedom Day rally in Ballarat in which she implored attendees to wear masks and adhere to all social distancing directions, not that there’s much chance of passing on Sars-Cov-2 in a town with only two active cases.
‘Here in Ballarat we can be a voice for those in stage 4 lockdowns,’ she wrote. ‘We can be seen and heard and hopefully make a difference. End lockdowns. Stand for human rights. We live in a “free” country.’ Or so she thought.
The spectacle made headlines around the world. The premier claimed not to have seen it but his corpulent assistant police commissioner Luke Cornelius thought that all his officers had got wrong was ‘the optics,’ presumably meaning he wished they’d confiscated her partner’s phone before he live-streamed her arrest.
Four years earlier, when Cornelius spoke at a ‘Respect and Responsibility’ launch at Victoria University, he said, ‘Ask yourself what do I need to do as a man to make this a very different society for women and girls?’ Who can be surprised that the answer he came up with was ‘arrest them in their pyjamas for daring to express an opinion; get them out of their homes and into a prison cell.’
Being seen to arrest a pregnant woman was ‘terrible’ Cornelius conceded but he thought that she posed such a risk to his burly officers that they had no choice but to handcuff her, for their own safety. The president of the Victorian Bar begged to differ. She said the Bar was concerned that the enforcement action of the police appeared disproportionate to the threat Buhler presented.
Cornelius however said he had no sympathy for Buhler; she was not just ‘selfish,’ she was engaged in ‘serious criminal behaviour.’ Indeed, he was ‘outraged’ that she was ‘inciting a public protest at a time when public protest is unlawful.’
Another young man who had simply said that he was planning to attend a Freedom rally had his front door smashed down when he asked the police to state why they wanted to come into his house before allowing them to enter.
It may come as news to Cornelius and Andrews but even during a pandemic, freedom of expression is an inalienable human right that cannot be disposed of by administrative fiat. Why? Because it is ‘a principal pillar of a free government,’ as Benjamin Franklin put it, and ‘when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins.’
It was a former leader of the Labor party, Attorney-General and Foreign Minister, Herbert V. Evatt, a man as sympathetic to communists as Andrews, who played a leading role in the founding of the UN and was President of its General Assembly from 1948 to 1949, who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which enshrined freedom of expression in Article 19.
When Freedom Day finally dawned, a small crowd of 1,000 turned out. Unlike the BLM protest, there were 17 arrests and more than 160 fines issued. Police threatened to arrest journalists from two of the major TV stations and half a dozen officers threw online journalist Avi Yemini to the ground while he was standing alone delivering a piece to camera and handcuffed him as he explained he had his permit to cover the rally in his pocket. Later that night after he’d been released with a caution they turned up at his house to ‘check he was compliant with the curfew.’
The parallels with China are unnerving. In Hong Kong, on Monday, five police officers in Hong Kong crash-tackled a petite, ponytailed, 12-year-old schoolgirl to the ground who was out with her family shopping for art supplies. She and her brother were issued with penalty tickets for violating social distancing rules that prohibit gatherings of more than two.
On Tuesday, the last two Australian journalists working in mainland China fled the country after police arrived at their homes late at night and threatened to detain them. Ironically, when they arrived back one of the journalists said, ‘The late night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now,’ while the other added that ‘it’s a relief to be back in a country with genuine rule of law.’ It’s fortunate that they didn’t fly into Melbourne where, in three weeks, one assumes, the red flag of communist China will flutter again over Box Hill police station as the state’s botched battle with Covid-19 morphs seamlessly into Covid-1984. Or is it Danimal Farm?
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