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Here is an Opinion Piece from Scott McDougall – the Director of Caxton Legal Service
Opinion: Let us use our moment to shine a light on democracy
July 28, 2014 12:00AM
THE G20 summit presents an unrivalled opportunity for Australia and especially Queensland, to display our assets while the eyes of the world are upon us. By November our stunning beaches will be bathed in radiant sunshine. Leaders in commerce, trade and tourism will be spruiking Australia to the world. But there’s more to Australia than coal, beef and the Great Barrier Reef.
Indeed one of our greatest assets – one that enables our business leaders to confidently sell Australia as an investment destination without sovereign risk, one that underpins our ability to rebound from devastating natural disasters – is our mature brand of liberal democracy which has delivered relative domestic peace for more than a century.
Although far from perfect, our democracy and tolerance of dissent is a glorious asset that Australia should be proudly modelling to the rest of the world during the G20. There is no better way of promoting the benefits of our free society than by showing the world that it is possible to safeguard the security of world leaders and yet allow citizens to peacefully participate in public assemblies.
At the heart of our democracy lies the rule of law and with it our civil and political freedoms such as the right to free speech, to associate and to protest. However, many Australian citizens may be surprised to know that their rights to express political opinions are, like other human rights, actually very fragile.
With no Bill of Rights in Australia, it is very easy for governments to enact legislation to take away or suspend our fundamental human rights and freedoms. This occurred last year in Queensland with the passage of the G20 Safety and Security Act.
There is no question that in today’s world the threat of international terrorism is real and the Australian and Queensland Governments have a clear responsibility and mandate to protect world leaders and their own citizens from acts of terrorism. It is accepted that providing security means inconveniences for members of the public and that the police require adequate powers to ensure public safety.
However, the G20 laws are too broad and ill defined. They provide the anticipated contingent of 5000 police officers with expansive discretionary powers to detain, search and demand personal details of anybody in a G20 security zone without need for even a suspicion that the person may commit an offence.
The laws create a range of new offences that erode our freedom of political expression, for example the prohibition of banners larger than 100x200cm. Entire assemblies can be declared unlawful if an officer merely considers that it “disrupts” any part of a G20 meeting, or if one person in a crowd of one thousand is foolish enough to commit a property crime.
Innocent bystanders caught up in an unlawful assembly risk being arrested and held in custody for the duration of the G20 summit. If eventually released without charge, there will be no effective avenue available to them if they wish to challenge the lawfulness of their detention.
Those who are charged with disrupting the event will find that their centuries’ old presumption of innocence has been tossed out the window and that they will be called upon by the court to prove why their freedom should be restored.
With such strong powers at their disposal, it is critical that police act with restraint and with respect for the rights of our citizens. To this end, it is encouraging that the Queensland Police Service has gone about its huge G20 security task with a commendable degree of professionalism and there’s no doubt that the QPS leadership would regard a successful event as one in which there are no arrests.
G20 an ideal opportunity for Brisbane
Queensland’s legal profession will be playing its part in the democratic process by acting as independent legal observers on the ground. This will be done without fee or reward, out of a sense of civic duty and a commitment to the rule of law.
Legal observers are independent from any protest group. They watch and record interactions between police and protesters. They do not engage in conversation with police or provide advice to people being arrested. Their presence is designed to deter the misuse of police powers and likewise to temper the behaviour of protesters.
Let us all hope that the 2014 G20 summit delivers the best of what our sophisticated free society has to offer the world.
by Scott McDougall who is the director of Caxton Legal Centre Inc.
Ordinary citizens organising for social justice in response to the G20. Brisbane, Australia.
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