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Issue #1911      April 20, 2020


On 31st March, the Victorian government introduced “Stage Three Restrictions” in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. The only difference that stage three restrictions make is that social distancing is now enforceable by law. In Victoria, there are only four reasons you are permitted to leave your house without incurring a $1652 fine:

  • shopping for what you need - food and essential supplies
  • medical, care, or compassionate needs
  • exercise in compliance with the public gathering requirements
  • work and study if you can’t work or learn remotely

In order to comply with social distancing and remain politically active, unions and activists have had to be creative in how to plan protests. An example of this are the 1st May Movement’s car convoys in Sydney that involve placarding your car and driving with other protestors. This does not break social distancing. United Workers Union (UWU) also organised a “CARe” convoy for the #NoWorkerLeftBehind campaign on 9th April for Brisbane and Melbourne. Again, this protest did not break social distancing.

Many expressed confusion about whether they would be fined $1652 if the cops caught them participating in the convoy. On the day, the UWU “CARe” convoy was hassled by the cops. However, it did not receive the level of policing as a convoy protest the next day.

On 10th April, the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) organised a car convoy to demand the release of refugees held in Mantra City Hotel, Preston. Six days before the convoy, after receiving threats from Victorian Police, RAC released a media statement that said they would defy laws if necessary and that the “cavalcade protest is safe, detention centres are not”. One of the organisers, Chris Breen, noted that the “protest will be safer than going shopping, safer than travelling on public transport, safer than non-essential work that continues, and safer by an order of magnitude than being stuck in a sealed corridor in the Mantra”. Refugees at Mantra have been brought to Australia under the Medevac legislation, but they remain in detention in crowded spaces under the watch of Serco security guards that have broken social distancing.

On the day of action, Chris Breen was arrested in his house for inciting illegal political activity. He was held at Preston police station for nine hours in which the police constantly broke social distancing rules, had his phone and computers (even his son’s computer) seized, and his court date set for 6th August. This charge was not from current state emergency laws, but from the anti-protest law in the Crimes Act 1958 (Section 321G). At the protest, twenty-six individuals were fined $1652 for breaking stay at home rules, totalling almost $43,000.

In a Facebook post, Chris Breen detailed what he had gone through. He mentioned the “CARe” Convoy and how although unions did not experience the same repercussions as RAC, it sets a dangerous precedent for the police to shut down union activity when it is most vital.

Increased police powers do not mean a safer environment. We have seen anecdotes of policing solely targeting low-income areas, workers, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The project has been started by a group of legal and human rights advocacy organisations to gather reports on how new police powers are being used. The first weekly roundup on Monday 13th April consisted of twenty-eight reports, one from Queensland, one from Tasmania, one from South Australia, five from New South Wales, and twenty from Victoria. Most reports spoke about feelings of fear and harassment of being stalked and intimidated by police. The number of reports are too small to make any significant generalisations, but the project expects to gather more reports as word spreads about more of their activities.

An increase in surveillance technology use and investments has been observed across Australia. As pointed out in The Workers’ Weekly Guardian (“Editorial,” #1910), we must be wary of the current crisis to become a precedent for fascistic tendencies as experienced after 9/11.

Refugee Action Collective are calling for:

  1. The charge against Chris Breen to be dropped.
  2. No infringement notices to be issued.
  3. Refugees and asylum-seekers to be released into community care.
  4. Government approval of car convoys and other safe forms of political protest.


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