Here is the text of my article (with a selection of accompanying photos) which I submitted to the Pen Melbourne Quarterly
for inclusion in its
issue on Freedom of Speech
. This issue was distributed at the Melbourne Writers' Festival:
THE ‘SILENCING ACT’: THE NAPTHINE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE TO
THE EAST-WEST LINK PROTESTS
In February this year, in the face of massive
public opposition, Premier Napthine’s ‘Anti-Protesting Bill’ became law. It
comprises three main elements: it removes protections for peaceful assembly; it
enables people who have been cautioned but return to a banned protest or picket
line to be jailed for up to two years; and it empowers police to ‘move on’
protests and protestors.
government’s announcement in May 2013 that it was resurrecting the East-West
Link (aka ‘Tunnel’) construction plan had sparked opposition all across
Victoria. The peaceful protest activities the announcement spawned were varied
and creative. Opponents appealed directly to parliamentarians via visits and
petitions. They composed, recorded and sang songs, such as the delightful ‘Lies
We Don’t Buy’, enthusiastically presented by a group of young choristers. Some
performed street (and mall) theatre. They door-knocked, leafleted and organized
meetings and rallies. And when drilling for core samples began in the historic
streets of Collingwood, Clifton Hill and Carlton, we ‘Tunnel Picketers’ began
picketing the sites.
Residents and their supporters did all this because we
believe there are numerous irrefutable reasons to bury the East-West Link
project once and for all.
For one thing
there was minimal and rushed consultation with the community about the
project’s potential impact. This has had profound implications in many
quarters, especially for those facing compulsory acquisition of their beloved
homes and razing of their communities. The planned route desecrates the ‘lungs
of Melbourne’ – Royal Park – and its residual native vegetation and protected
habitats. The animals at the nearby Melbourne Zoo would be traumatized during
the construction of the freeway and its offramps and by the increased traffic
thing, if $8 billion plus (including ongoing financial guarantees underwritten
by the Government and promised to prospective tenderers) is sunk into the
construction of the Link, there will be no money left for decades for numerous
other more important projects, especially improved public transport that would
benefit the whole State. The Link is an all-round environmental disaster and an
inefficient one at that; mounting global evidence attests unequivocally that
building new roads fails to reduce traffic congestion.
believe that Premier Napthine has no mandate to build the East-West Link. It
was not mentioned in his electoral promises, which featured instead several new rail links, including the long awaited Doncaster
rail, which would remove the equivalent of 800 cars per train from the Eastern
Freeway, thus instantly reducing congestion. Our view is that the Premier needs
to delay signing any contracts until after the election in November 2014 so
that Victorians can vote on where they want their tax dollars spent. And when I
say ‘our view’ I am referring not simply to the Tunnel Picketers, but also to
the increasing number of affiliated community groups who agree that the
Government needs to be left in no doubt about the breadth and depth of
opposition to the project.
But back to the Tunnel Picketers. As I mentioned, when the
drilling trucks started rolling into inner city Melbourne, concerned local
residents took to the streets determined to impede their incursions. Until the
research phase was finalised, it seemed unlikely that tenderers would be
prepared to sign the contracts, so slowing the works down, hence prolonging the
research phase, became the aim. And the longer we could forestall the signing
the better, in the hope that a new Government elected in November would abandon
the abominable plan.
Enthusiasts for these delaying tactics, which were centred
around picketing, have included a cross-section of the community: students,
retirees, part-time and self-employed workers and many others who have taken
time off from work or used their annual leave to attend. They linked arms every
morning through what turned out to be one of the hottest summers on record,
often meeting at 5am or even earlier - depending on when our ‘scouts’
identified that the drilling rigs were in the area.
A fluctuating number of
picketers (usually between thirty and eighty) withstood tremendous and mounting
pressure from police, though some of these officers confided that they would
have preferred assignment anywhere else, such was their reluctance to manhandle
people whom one bemused Senior Officer described as ‘just like mums and dads’.
We (though I should probably say ‘they’ - having opted to
compile a pictorial blog of the protests I was seldom in the direct line of
fire) employed a range of stalling strategies. Some picketers, usually but not
always the youngest, scaled the rigs or locked on to them, often necessitating
a wait for the Search and Rescue team to extricate them. We sometimes sat down
on the road in front of the trucks, impeding their entry or exit to sites, and
we regularly surrounded the cages within which the drillers worked. The police reaction to us varied, but
every time there was any suggestion of a fracas – when they were directed to
use force or to move us bodily from the picket line - the press arrived and Tunnel
Picketers were ensured a spot on the daily NEWS.
The coverage was not all
favourable. The Herald Sun was
frequently scathing, dubbing us ‘Serial Pests’. But as the saying goes ‘any
publicity is good publicity’; and as our exposure increased so too did the Government’s
Around this time, I wrote this somewhat florid piece in my
blog about the impact we were having: This morning, a fellow protestor at the drilling site at the corner of
Queens and Alexandra parades, came up with a great analogy about our picket. He
compared Premier Napthine and his cronies to a huge powerful beast, but a beast
with a problem. Inside the large head of this leviathan there are teeth and
inside one of those teeth is a cavity. The cavity, though small, is a constant
irritant and when the creature puts his tongue on it, it feels as large as a
canyon. It impedes the animal's sense of well-being and occasionally reminds
him that he is not as strong and impregnable as he imagines. One day he too
It was also at this time that we learned of the Government’s
intention to introduce ‘The Silencing Laws’. Although they were probably
designed with us in mind, we were certainly not the only ones alarmed at their
implications. This is what the Australian Services Union (ASU) had to say about
the potential impact of the legislation on unions:
laws are aimed at silencing dissent. They are politically motivated to silence
They are particularly bad for unions because they give police the
power to move protests on and to shut them down.
Imagine ASU members protesting
job cuts in one of our industries being told to move on by police on the steps
of Victorian parliament. If our members didn’t comply, they could face two
Act will remove our right to free speech. It will restrict our right to
protest. And it will silence the voice of our members.’
In an attempt
to pressure the Government to think again, the Trades Hall Council organised a
rally. It was scheduled for just before the return of the Parliamentarians at
the end of their summer break, when the legislation was due to be presented.
This is what I had to say about the rally:
Our tunnel picket group met
with thousands of other workers on the morning of 18 February outside the
Trades Hall building. We then marched through the CBD to the steps of
Parliament House to demonstrate our opposition to the draconian laws proposed
by the Napthine government.
It is great that the unions
have come out in opposition to legal amendments targeted at tunnel picketers,
which apart from having a devastating impact on the unionists themselves, will
also affect the homeless, the mentally ill and the young. It felt wonderful to
stand in solidarity with other workers at last.
the thousands of workers and others expressing their opposition at that rally,
the Anti-Protesting bill still passed into law. Although the Labor Party has
promised to rescind it should they be elected to govern, at the moment of
writing, the Silencing Act still stands.
Picketers have not yet felt the impact of the new laws because, claiming the
drilling had finished, the State Government has withdrawn the drillers and
police from our local streets.
It seems obvious that they are doing their best
to avoid any further negative publicity in the run up to this year’s election.
The increasing mainstream opposition to the Tunnel is growing. This was obvious
at the rally held in Melbourne on an icy day in June, where over 3000 people
from numerous diverse community groups from Melbourne and regional Victoria marched
in protest. It is no wonder the Government is now keeping a low profile on the
my knowledge, the Silencing Act has not yet been invoked against other
Victorian protestors or picketers either, but its
existence on our Statute books poses an ongoing threat to all Victorians' rights
to peacefully picket and protest and exercise their freedom of speech.