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Question: Right to Protest

18 May 2023

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (14:46): I seek leave to make a brief explanation before addressing a question without notice to the Attorney-General on the topic of the right to protest.

Leave granted.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: There are many examples in our history where civil disobedience has led to significant positive social change. For instance, the global suffragette movement ran numerous campaigns that involved women chaining themselves to railings, large-scale marches and public demonstrations. It is widely accepted that without the women's suffragette movement we would not have women in our parliaments today.

In 1955, both Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks famously refused to give up their bus seats to a white man in an act of civil disobedience. These events sparked the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King and resulted in the prohibition of racial segregation on public buses in Montgomery. In the 1950s, Nelson Mandela initiated several protests against apartheid. Attended by tens of thousands of people, these events built the antiapartheid movement in South Africa.

In 1969, the Stonewall riots in New York were a series of spontaneous protests by members of the gay community in response to a police raid. One year later, on the anniversary of this event, the first gay pride marches took place in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and gay pride events now take place across the world.

Closer to home, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra was first established in 1972 to call on the federal government to give that group land rights and cultural protections. While the original tent embassy was formally evicted under laws designed to prohibit it, the ACT Supreme Court later ruled against using those laws to prohibit the embassy. In 1982, the blockade at the Franklin Dam, led by former Greens leader Bob Brown, resulted in the Hawke government moving to save precious wilderness in Tasmania. In Adelaide, on 16 February 2003, 100,000 people marched on our streets against the war on Iraq.

This morning on ABC radio, the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition foreshadowed their intention to move to increase fines and introduce imprisonment for protesters who cause community disruption and obstruction of the public space. My question to the Attorney-General therefore is: does the Attorney-General support the right to protest in our state, and if these historic figures engaged in this conduct today, would they be subject to fines and imprisonment under Labor's antiprotest laws?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:49): I thank the honourable member for his question, and I note the honourable member's interest in this area and the leadership the honourable member has taken in many areas of public debate. We have introduced legislation that has now passed the lower house in relation to increasing the fines available to courts for breaching section 58 of the Summary Offences Act.

The intention of these changes isn't to increase the scope of these laws—that is, to capture more people whose behaviour could be caught by section 58, which has been in place since 1990-ish and the last time the penalty was updated, I understand, was 1998. What the changes to the law do seek to do, however, is significantly increase the penalties that the courts can impose after conduct.

In the last few days I think it is the first time that I have had members of the public stop me and want to talk to me about the problems that they have seen and the disruption that has been caused from protests to them over recent days. One thing I would absolutely hate to see is protests that block thoroughfares that actually end up causing harm to a person, for example if an emergency services vehicle wanted to get to a hospital.

We are increasing the fines that are available to courts for people who breach a law that has been in the Summary Offences Act, as I have said, since 1990. As I say, if someone's behaviour hasn't been caught by this before, it is not the intention of these changes to broaden it to capture them but certainly to give the courts more discretion in the fines that they impose. I note that other states in recent times, I think both New South Wales, if I remember correctly, and also Victoria, have significantly increased their fines for similar things that have included much longer jail terms.

I also note that the fines that are in place now and the fines that will be in place, should these changes go through, will be maximum penalties. They won't be the penalties that apply for any sorts of breaches of these; they will be the maximum penalties. Maximum penalties are often imposed for the most egregious breaches of the kind. Sometimes you find rarely that the actual maximum penalty is imposed but is reserved for that theoretical worst sort of breach of these fines.

I do completely understand the honourable member's question. I do completely appreciate the significant wins that have been made in civil rights and a whole range of other areas in society by those who have protested. I have taken part in protests, in rallies, in demonstrations in the past, and I suspect I will continue to do so in the future.

But when things can lead to such significant public disruption—and I don't think any of us would want to see either emergency services personnel who are attending these protests or those who are impeded by these protests have situations where even lives could be put at risk. I don't think that would be a desirable outcome. Certainly, I don't want to see things stand in the way of seeing progressive democratic change as we have seen in decades and centuries gone by.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (14:52): Supplementary: has the minister participated in protests that have involved the obstruction of the public space, and is he concerned that were he to engage in such protests in the future he would fall foul of Labor's draconian laws?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:53): I thank the honourable member for his question. I am trying to recall everything that I have been a part of over the preceding few decades. I am not sure that I would have been part of any rally, protest or demonstration that would have seen me fall foul of section 58 of the Summary Offences Act. Certainly, I have never been arrested, charged with, prosecuted or convicted of a breach of section 58 of the Summary Offences Act. Given that we are making changes to the penalties, I am not sure I will.

I know that many protests that are organised by various groups today often go through local councils to seek approval for the protests. Many protests or rallies or demonstrations have a police presence because there has been that approval process through local councils and are quite successful in winning over hearts and minds in that sort of way. Rallies like the marches during NAIDOC Week, those sorts of rallies do block off King William Street and approvals are sought from Adelaide City Council.

We have seen rallies on the steps of Parliament House where approval, as I understand it, is sought from parliament. These are very effective tools in terms of advocating for changes in our society. Long may they continue and long may we hear the will of the people through these sorts of protests, particularly those that have those sorts of permissions and are done in a safe way. I certainly wouldn't want to see people's lives or a risk of injury through more extreme forms of protest.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (14:54): Supplementary: is it the minister's view and is it the view of the Malinauskas government that only protests approved by government are acceptable in our state?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:55): I think there are a whole range of ways that people express themselves, which have been done and will continue to be done.

The PRESIDENT: The Hon. Mr Pangallo, you have a supplementary question.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (14:55): Would these laws have covered the Black Lives Matter protests during COVID, when laws were broken—not that I had any objection to it?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:55): I thank the honourable member for his question. If I remember correctly, during those protests there was a police presence. I might stand corrected, but I think that at the time an exemption was given for those protests by the police commissioner, but I will double-check that. Certainly, the intention is not expanding the scope of what has been covered by section 58 of the Summary Offences Act in the past.

The Hon. F. PANGALLO (14:56): Who did the Attorney-General consult before rushing through this legislation, or was it just merely the Premier and the Opposition Leader listening to bleaters on talkback radio or on online platforms?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:56): I thank the honourable member for his question. As I have said before, it is not as characterised by the honourable member. This is the first time I have been stopped by members of the public in the city as I have gone about my business, to talk about their concerns about protests and the dangers that might be involved for others. This certainly for me, and I suspect for other members, has been a very significant area of community concern.

The Hon. C. BONAROS (14:56): Supplementary: not withstanding the response of the Attorney, is he aware of concerns raised about unintended consequences of this proposal by very senior and eminent legal commentators in recent hours?

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:57): No, I am not aware of what the honourable member is referring to, but when this bill finds its way to this chamber I am sure the honourable member will agitate those—I have no doubt.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS (14:57): Supplementary arising from the original answer.

The PRESIDENT: Last supplementary question, because I suspect we will be debating this bill in this place.

Members interjecting:

The PRESIDENT: Order! The Hon. Mr Simms, I will listen to your supplementary question.

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: Is the minister concerned about the potential for workers, particularly in the Public Service, to be captured under these new laws should they engage in protests and industrial action? In particular, I am thinking of those in the transport space.

The Hon. K.J. MAHER (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Attorney-General, Minister for Industrial Relations and Public Sector) (14:57): I thank the honourable member for his question. It is not an unreasonable question but, as I have said, this does not intend to increase the scope. It certainly absolutely and unapologetically does intend to increase the range of fines a court can impose, but that is not what it intends to do to extend that scope in relation to something people have been doing before. I know people are concerned that public sector workers, particularly those in the emergency services, occasionally put themselves at risk with the actions of some protesters.