Quasi-terrorist treatment for tea-and-biscuit protesters
December 14, 2009 - 3:04PM
Government reaction to protest groups says much about freedom of speech.
Jo Knorr recently noticed a man filming her. The mother-of-two was on a neighbour's property with Jan Beer, the 62-year-old anti-pipeline campaigner. The women were watching as water from the Goulburn River flowed into the north-south pipe pumping area. Some distance away a security guard hired by Melbourne Water and its private partners recorded them on a video camera.
It was not the first time Knorr, a former local government senior executive, or her neighbours have been in these films. One neighbour was filmed at close quarters as he inquired about construction noise. He was in his car in his driveway. On the recent occasion near the pump station, several police attended, apparently in case the women made trouble.
Melbourne Water says the footage is used to identify people involved in breaches of the peace or obstruction. But this approach - and recent revelations that police files on desalination protesters can be handed over to private companies - forms part of a worrying pattern. Waving a placard against the State Government's agenda has become no simple matter.
Aside from the demonisation - with John Brumby and his ministers variously labelling protesters liars, ugly and Molotov-cocktail-throwing quasi-terrorists - groups have been crippled because the state has, occasionally but strategically, left open the threat of court costs. Last month, Parliament significantly jacked up penalties for protesters caught within coal-fired power stations.
Melbourne Water Minister Tim Holding says a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a pipeline worksite in the Toolangi Forest in January. Some protest action has been illegal, dangerous and disruptive, but much of this anti-protest overkill - including numerous arrests - has not been aimed at militant environmentalists or industrial saboteurs.
From channel deepening to desalination and the north-south pipeline, the Government and police are targeting peaceful, superannuated, community-leading, Subaru-driving parents and grandparents. In Police Life, a sergeant recalled arresting a 72-year-old woman under the Water Act. Before her arrest she was seen distributing home-made biscuits.
''There seems to be a disturbing trend of this Government over-reacting to relatively low-level and, in most instances, peaceful and lawful protests,'' Liberty Victoria's president, Michael Pearce, said. ''It's a worrying trend if a government that is entering its mature phase starts to lose sight of the principles of open and accountable government and becomes overly focused on achieving particular objectives.''
These particular objectives include cutting the ribbons on the north-south pipeline and desalination plant. But protests, generally, are not welcomed by the Government because they cannot be stage-managed. They are unpredictable and disrupt the smooth-running news opportunity. A protest that makes the television news is particularly unwelcome if it overshadows a minister ''taking action'' on something.
Last week, the Government and police argued that the deals allowing private companies access to police data only existed to help with prosecutions. But when asked about the memorandum of understanding that gave the desalination consortium AquaSure access to ''law enforcement data'', a police spokeswoman told The Age that if police intelligence identified a risk to the plant, "we would share that information with the company to enable it to manage that risk". But surely it is the police's responsibility to manage this risk.
Perhaps the most worrying revelation was that the MOU was not a one-off. Chief Commissioner Simon Overland admitted that these deals were numerous. He promised to release them, but then said they must be requested under freedom of information (this makes little sense considering that the desalination MOU is on a State Government website).
What the public deserves to know is what projects are covered by these deals and, more importantly, what information has been released to the corporate sector. Already, the Environment Defenders Office - which provides legal help for green groups - has been contacted by people worried that their private data has been handed over.
Jo Knorr feels powerless after being filmed and, it seems, dubbed ''a person of interest'' by police. Now she wonders if police have handed over information about her.
''It has defied every principle that I consider fundamental to our democracy,'' she wrote last week to the Ombudsman.
Melissa Fyfe is the state politics reporter for The Sunday Age. Follow her at twitter.com/melfyfe.
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/quasiterrorist-treatment-for-teaandbiscuit-protesters-20091212-kpmb.html