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Senate speech: Newman’s G20 crackdown

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Larissa Waters 14 Jul 2014

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (11:05): As a Queensland senator I rise to speak against the G20 Safety and Security Complimentary Bill 2014. I echo the concerns of my colleague, Greens' senator, Penny Wright about the Queensland Newman government attacks on civil liberties and democratic rights.

For two years I have watched as the state LNP government under Campbell Newman has taken my home state of Queensland further and further down a very dark road. Since they were elected in 2012 I have watched the Newman government launch savage budget cuts; sack 14,000 nurses, school teachers and other public servants; roll back a litany of environmental protections; and vilify or isolate anyone who does not share their views. I have watched them impose ever more pernicious and dangerous restrictions on civil liberties, sliding back to the bad old days of Sir Joh.

This G20 (Safety and Security) Complementary Bill 2014 would facilitate the imposition of draconian and unnecessary laws in Queensland in relation to the G20 conference under the guise of safety and security. Of course, the safety of everyone, including protesters, at such events is of critical importance. But the Queensland legislation which this bill facilitates goes far beyond what is required. It tramples on the fundamental right to peaceful protest and freedom of assembly. We are being asked not only to ignore the Newman government's continuous disregard for civil liberties but facilitate the implementation of those restrictions by passing this bill. We are being asked to stand by while these laws are waved through. The Greens will not. We will oppose this bill.

The Queensland G20 legislation goes well beyond previous security measures in Australia—beyond those seen at the 2007 APEC conference in Sydney and the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. By itself, that should ring alarm bells. Police in Queensland already have the power to deal with breaches of the peace, and offences already exist for assault, unlawful assembly and riot. The Queensland Law Society has told us there is no need to create new offences. The laws make it illegal to disrupt any part of the G20. Unfortunately, 'disrupt' is not defined. Presumably it also includes making a noise which can be heard inside the meetings. However much Prime Minister Tony Abbott would like to avoid hearing the many voices calling for stronger action on climate change and compassion for those living in poverty overseas, clamping down on free speech is not the way to go.

The laws create extraordinary powers for police to enter properties and carry out searches without a warrant—and without the requirement for a reasonable suspicion of an offence. These powers include frisk searches and strip searches under certain circumstances. The laws create a range of ill-defined new offences which will make it extremely difficult for people to know whether they are acting lawfully or not and these offences attract penalties ranging up to $11,000. A person who may disrupt any part of the G20 can be declared to be a prohibited person by the police commissioner and on that basis will be subject to eviction from security areas and to increased search powers. There is no obligation to inform those affected in a timely manner and they will have no opportunity to challenge this blacklisting. Evidence forming the basis of these designations will be kept secret.

These laws create a list of prohibited items which is extremely broad. It includes common protest items such as large banners and megaphones but it also strays into the ludicrous. Among the banned items are surfboards, cans of food, eggs and lizards. Under these laws if someone is arrested for a nonviolent offence involving disrupting the G20, a presumption against bail is created. That, of course, reverses the normal bail rules, something which is reserved only for the worst offences such as murder. These laws have been widely condemned by human rights lawyers, the Queensland civil liberties council and the Queensland Law Society.

The Canadian government imposed similar laws when Toronto hosted the G20 conference in 2010. During that conference over 1,100 people were arrested, of whom only 40 were ever convicted of an offence. Seven hundred and seventy-nine were released without charge. Over 30 police, including four senior officers, were recommended for disciplinary hearings. It was the largest mass arrest in Canadian peacetime history. The vague nature of the Queensland laws and the extraordinary powers conferred on police mean the risk of abuse and discrimination by police, especially against homeless people and young people, is acute. The G20 should be an opportunity to reaffirm and protect fundamental rights and freedoms, not to needlessly undermine them.

Of particular concern to the civil liberties council of Queensland are the restrictions imposed on the Cairns central business district during the September session of the conference. The rate of homelessness in Cairns is significantly higher than the average rate of homelessness in Queensland and these laws are particularly concerning for the welfare and wellbeing of homeless persons, who may be targeted as breaching the ill-defined disruption causes of the G20 laws. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up approximately 16 per cent of homeless people in Cairns, which is double the state average. It is deeply concerning that the Newman government would rather impose temporary laws to hide a gross injustice from the rest of the world than to actually find positive solutions for the situation of one of Queensland's most marginalised groups.

On this issue, the Queensland state Labor Party has shown a disheartening lack of backbone. Opposition police spokesman Bill Byrne MP has told the state parliament that the legislation should have gone further. He says:

I am somewhat surprised that some of the offence provisions have quite light sentences attached, and I consider the boundaries of the restricted and declared areas to be minimalist.

The legal changes I have described are deeply troubling but they come in the context and background of the way Premier Newman's government has trashed the independence of what was one of the best anticorruption bodies in Australia, the CCC—formerly the CMC. New legislation gives the Newman government total control over the appointment of the chair of the CCC, scrapping the system of bipartisan appointments. The government appointed chair now has extraordinary powers to veto or terminate any investigation, turning the CCC into a one-man band. The Attorney-General now has the power to veto any research project launched by the CCC. The legislation also criminalises complaint, with penalties for making a reckless complaint. This attack on the CCC comes after allegations that the government's hand-picked acting CMC chair misled the CMC's parliamentary oversight committee. When that committee began an investigation, the Premier and the Attorney-General sacked the whole committee and reconstituted it with a compliant government majority. Tony Fitzgerald, whose anticorruption inquiry brought down another conservative Queensland government all those years ago, has called Premier Newman and Attorney-General Bleijie 'inexperienced, arrogant fools' in response to this outrageous attack on one of Australia's finest corruption-fighting bodies. Mr Fitzgerald has said these changes are the final step needed to remove the commission's independence entirely and bring it under complete government control.

Undermining civil liberties is, in fact, the only thing the Queensland LNP government has shown any talent for whatsoever. Since coming to power, Campbell Newman's government has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to rip up fundamental rights including, but not limited to, free speech, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and equality before the law. The now infamous VLAD law, or the Vicious Lawless Associations Disestablishment Act, is the perfect example. It has been sold as only applying to illegal motorcycle gangs but of course it does not; it does not mention motorcycles once. It applies to any gathering of three or more people who may be part of a formal or informal organisation whose purpose includes committing certain offences. The Queensland Law Society has warned these laws are so broad they could apply to virtually any type of club or association—swimming clubs, RSLs, school P&Cs or, indeed, a group of friends out for a stroll. The VLAD Act imposes truly enormous mandatory sentences—either 15 or 25 years without parole. As barrister and human rights advocate Stephen Keim SC has said:

The VLAD Act will not be wheeled out on every occasion it could be used. It will be used for the disadvantaged and unpopular.

This is precisely why civil liberties are important. Abuse always begins when the government finds a public scapegoat, but that scapegoat will not remain the primary target for long.

Brash law and order policies are a smokescreen for other attacks on the disadvantaged and the voiceless, including cuts to health and education, injured workers and the natural environment. It is our duty to call out this deception wherever we see it and to oppose these senseless attacks on civil liberties. The actions of Campbell Newman and the government are the actions of a bully. This is our chance to stand up to the bullies in the Queensland LNP government. This bill offers an opportunity for all parties to stand up to the creeping attacks on civil liberties by the Queensland LNP government, and I call on all parties to oppose it. Sadly, I note that it is very telling that both big parties are backing this bill.

On the G20, climate change clearly will be the biggest cost to our economy in the long term, but it is not on the agenda at the G20. Even though our allies have reached out and asked that climate change be discussed, Mr Tony Abbott's fingers remain firmly fixed in his ears. Prime Minister Abbott has the blinkers fixed tight over his eyes and seems to care nought for the effect on our environment or Australians jobs or economic security in the long term. We also see that fossil fuel subsidies, which have been previously discussed, are not on the agenda at the G20. I note with some amusement and horror that Australia has previously used its diplomatic weight to change the resolution on fossil fuel subsidies to be a ban on inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, of course then arguing that Australia's fossil fuel subsidies were somehow efficient and therefore exempt from that ban.

I want to also touch on gender equality. We saw this morning a report released by Oxfam calling for gender equality and participation to be on the agenda at the G20—putting gender on the agenda, if you like. The report out today shows that globally it would take about 75 years for women to achieve equal pay. The unpaid work that women do is subsidising the economy. Women do an average of two to five hours more unpaid work than do men, says this report this morning, and we know in Australia that we still have a gender pay gap of more than 17 per cent and that women still do more than 70 per cent of the unpaid caring work. But instead of these important issues being put on the G20 agenda, we see more silencing dissent from this government. They do not want to talk about those key issues at the G20 and they want to unnecessarily restrict the rights of not just protesters but also local residents during the G20. The Greens will stand up for civil liberties and freedom of association and we will oppose this draconian bill.

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