Free speech victory at council meeting but a way to go yet

[By Sue Bolton] Thanks to a public campaign, we won some victories for free speech at the July 12 council meeting. We managed to get three anti-democratic clauses deleted from the draft General Local Law.. These were the clauses banning hand bills, soliciting for money and obstruction without a permit.

The clause banning obstruction was clearly a clause banning protests without a permit. It read that

A person must not without a permit: (a) unreasonably obstruct or interfere with the passage of pedestrian or vehicular traffic in or on a public place; or (b) invite encourage or allow the congregation of persons so as to unreasonably obstruct or interfere with the passage of pedestrian or vehicular traffic in or on a public place.

Gettting these clauses deleted was a big victory but there are some other anti-democratic and anti-homeless clauses which remain in the draft General Local Law. Furniture in a public place, that is, community stalls, remains banned without a permit unless you are homeless or in need of secure accommodation.

Given that any serious campaign group needs a small portable table and an A-Frame to seriously campaign around an issue, this is a major attack on democratic rights. To seriously collect signatures on a petition, display information, and collect names of people interested in campaigning around an issue requires a small table. A permit would cost $300, and the penalty for having a stall without a permit is 5 penalty points ($500).

While some anti-homeless clauses were deleted, the modified clause on camping is still problematic. It reads:

Camping in a vehicle, tent, caravan or any other type of temporary provisional accomodation is permissible in public areas of the municipality that are prescribed by Council. Camping for recreational purposes is not permissible in other public areas unless:
(A) a person is homeless or is in need of secure accomodation.
(B) a person is experiencing challenging circumstances and is in need of additional support.

Given the lack of information about what areas camping might be allowed, and the lack of definitions of who council officers might consider to be homeless, in need of secure accommodation and experiencing challenging circumstances, it is feared that this clause could be implemented in an arbitrary way. It would have been better to delete the clause altogether.

The clause on busking was amended to read “Busking is permitted without a permit in prescribed areas by Council”. There’s no indication of how restrictive the prescribed areas would be so it would have been better to simply delete the clause. It was stated by councillor Sam Ratnam that some restrictions need to be kept on busking such as requiring a permit in case someone wanted to play the French horn outside someone’s house.

Many homeless people busk and musicians who don’t have much money busk. $300 for a permit is onerous. And permit systems in Federation Square and the CBD are used to exclude buskers who the bureaucracy don’t like.

The clause banning street art in a public place without a permit remains in the draft general local law. That would mean that the yarn bombers and the people who decorated the recently installed bollards in the CBD would be breaching this local law in Moreland.

The clause on Consumption of Liquor was amended to read:

A person must not:
A. In or at a prescribed public place or
B. In or on a vehicle in or at a prescribed public place,
Consume any liquor or have in his or her possession any liquor other than in a sealed container.

Some councillors said that prescribed areas might be that consumption of alcohol was allowed in parks, but not near playgrounds from sunrise until sunset. But there hasn’t been any vote on the prescribed areas, so there can’t be confidence that this law won’t be implemented in a discriminatory way.

Now, the Draft General Local Law will go out to community consultation until August 13. Submissions can be emailed or submitted through the council website or else at two public consultation meetings that will be scheduled. Then there will be a final vote in November or December this year.

Around 50 people protested outside the Coburg Town Hall, with groups represented including Moreland Community Action on Transport, Pentridge Community Action Group, Toxic Free Fawkner, Climate Action Moreland, Brunswick Residents Network, Save Coburg, the No Homeless Ban campaign, Socialist Alliance, Australian Unemployed Workers Union and Solidarity.

CFMEU organiser and former Moreland councillor Steve Roach told the councillors that it was shameful that the council was trying to regulate citizens in a public place while big corporations have very little regulation.

Several residents pointed out that a number of the proposed clauses breached the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

Many of the community groups represented at the protest are keen to take further action to get the council to abolish the remaining undemocratic laws. Ideas include a “Busk for Free Speech”. Get in touch if you want to be part of the campaign.