Protestors silenced by council laws

Rhonda Dredge

The release of 26 refugees from detention in the Park Hotel in Swanston St is a victory for their supporters and a strong campaign over the Christmas period.

Instead of celebrating, protestors were back again outside Dan Andrews’ office on January 20 in a silent vigil.

The protestors were wearing crosses over their masks to signify the silencing of their campaign.

“The silent aspect of today’s action is a critique of last week’s treatment by Victoria Police and the City of Melbourne,” protestors claimed in a written message.

In a surprising move, council officers threatened protestors with prosecution under a little-known by-law that restricts noise by buskers.

The Melbourne Activist Legal Support has condemned the action, comparing it to the use of a by-law prohibiting the distribution of leaflets during protests against the Vietnam War.

A spokesperson for the City of Melbourne said, “if the use of megaphones or amplifiers at protests creates excessive noise and becomes a public amenity issue, our officers can issue verbal and written warnings, and as a last resort, an infringement.”

“We give a number of verbal warnings before any infringements are issued. Issuing fines at demonstrations is not a regular occurrence and we respect the right to protest.”

“The matter will be reviewed internally before any fine is issued.”

Two protestors were served with notices to comply at a rally on January 13 outside the Premier’s office for using a public address system. They have refused to pay the fine.

One protestor was Greta Gillies, a member of Stand Together for Justice, who organised the second rally a week later at the Premier’s office.

“Using busking legislation on protestors is a bit heavy-handed,” she told CBD News. “We were using a PA system. It’s normally what we use.”

“The point is that protestors use them all the time. When we used them on this issue, they applied the legislation inappropriately.”

The two protestors were threatened with $500 fines but say they have received no further notifications from the City of Melbourne.

The Age reported that the council has discretion over whether to proceed with the prosecution, but the question remains as to why the legislation was enacted in this particular case. 

The City of Melbourne is a Refugee Welcome Zone and the protestors were delivering a petition to the Premier’s office containing almost 40,000 signatures calling for the release of the refugees, who were transferred into the municipality in December.

According to the Melbourne Activist Legal Support, police have used these council local laws in similar ways against various protest events over recent years.  

“Megaphones and small portable speakers are regular features of protest event throughout Victoria. They provide the means for voices, political demands, arguments and protest music to be heard by large groups of participants and the public at large.  The ability to amplify voices and political messaging is fundamental to protest.”

Protestors also called on the Premier to speak up on behalf of refugee cruelty.  “We’re calling him to comment,” Ms Gillies said. “He is able to speak up. He has some influence over the police and he has OK’d them [the refugees] coming to Victoria.”

The men were transferred from Manus Island and Nauru on medical evacuation grounds. They spent a year in a hotel in Preston before being moved to the Park Hotel where supporters rally at 5 pm each day to support them. Twenty-six were issued with bridging visas on January 20. 

“It’s great to hear about the men being released,” Ms Gillies told reporters at the rally. “There are 60 men in that hotel. There are concerns about them being locked up. They’re in buildings they can’t get out of. We want them all released.”

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