Crikey: The Israel-Hamas war confirms the erosion of the right to protest in Australia

Maeve McGregor: Saying the quiet part aloud is increasingly what escalation looks like in this country.

Take for instance Tom Koutsantonis, the South Australian energy minister whose recent words to the fossil-fuel industry — “[We’re] at your disposal” — coupled with the draconian anti-protest laws which ensued will forever condemn him and the government to which he belongs in the minds of so many Australians. 

Or NSW Police Minister Yasmin Catley, who on Tuesday afternoon appeared to expressly deny the rights of anyone in the state to assemble and protest. “I don’t want to see protests on our streets at all, from anybody,” she told 2GB, seemingly forgetting her state’s ostensive democratic trappings. Or federal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who on Wednesday openly expressed his incredulity at the prime minister for not having declared a blanket nationwide ban on all pro-Palestinian protests, as if that’s even a legal possibility. 

Or NSW Opposition Leader Mark Speakman who, like Dutton, made the internet nervously giggle when he demanded Labor MP Mark Buttigieg be sacked should he fail to publicly condemn his son for attending Sydney’s pro-Palestinian rally on Monday. The demonstration in question had inspired ugly scenes after being briefly hijacked by some individuals who lit flares and chanted anti-Semitic slogans as police watched on, refusing to intervene. Tellingly, the former attorney-general declined to withdraw his loopy demand, even in the absence of any suggestion Buttigieg’s 19-year-old son was a party to the vile anti-Semitism displayed, and notwithstanding the fact the rally’s organisers had denounced the conduct as “not only vulgar but completely selfish”. 

And then there’s the great imponderable NSW Premier Chris Minns, who on Wednesday morning continued to project not so much authority and quiet resolve as caricature outrage politics. The “protest organisers” of the Sydney rally, he falsely claimed, had “proven they’re not peaceful”. He then set aside the separation of powers and declared an end to any further pro-Palestinian rallies in the state: “[It] is not going to happen — I’m sure the NSW Police will make that clear this morning.”

The NSW Police, for its part, answered Minns’ command yesterday, refusing the Palestine Action Group’s application for a second rally this Sunday on grounds, to the minds of legal experts, considered spurious. 

Taken together, these incidents don’t amount to some bleak sideshow of moral vacuity, and one some might dismiss as understandable in the context of the scale and depth of Hamas’ horrific assault on Israeli civilians, among them countless children. On the contrary, the frequency and depth of this anti-democratic rhetoric — its spread and the quotidian grandeur it evokes — portends a turn towards the normalisation of outrage politics writ large: yet another ghoulish amalgam of the nation’s slow erosion of basic democratic norms and pulsing authoritarian streak. 

From the conservative criticism levelled on the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, to the stunning crackdown on environmental protesters nationwide of late, and the utterly wild suggestion in 2021 that campaigners for women’s justice should be grateful they weren’t “met with bullets”, the unyielding assault on the right to protest in Australia has entered a new and dangerous phase.  

Viewed from the promontory of the present moment, each incursion or skirmish is beginning to look less like an aberration by this politician or that party or this institution and something more akin to the emergence of a new political grammar. In the sketches of this brave new world, marked by unconcealed disdain for protesters — or at least those with whom the leaders of major parties or their strongest supporters and donors disagree — the space for permissible dissent narrows and that between our lofty liberal democratic ideals and reality gapes.  

“It’s very dangerous for governments to be intervening forcefully in what are fundamental rights that we all have, which is firstly the right to freedom of speech, but also the right to freedom of assembly and political participation,” Greg Barns SC, of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, told me. “You know, this stuff,” he said, pointing to Speakman’s demand for Buttigieg’s sacking, “is deeply authoritarian — it’s deeply troubling that a leader of a political party in Australia could make such a comment.”

In Barns’ view, the developments of recent days were redolent of the country’s uncharted bend towards the “undermining [of] fundamental freedoms”, a situation exacerbated and permitted by the country’s lack of any overriding human rights charter.

It was also wholly unnecessary, he said, in light of the suite of existing laws police have at their disposal to deal with protesters who exceed the bounds of what the law defines as legitimate freedom of speech: “It’s troubling that a government has resorted to the heavy-handed tactic of seeking to ban or severely curtail protests, especially about matters that are demonstrably in the public interest to have a discussion about.” 

This point warrants particular emphasis, if only for the reasons so eloquently put by Israeli journalist and resident Haggai Matar a few days ago: “The dread Israelis are feeling right now, myself included, is a sliver of what Palestinians have been feeling on a daily basis under the decades-long military regime in the West Bank, and under the siege and repeated assaults on Gaza,” he said.

“The responses we are hearing from many Israelis today — of people calling to ‘flatten Gaza’, that ‘these are savages …’, ‘there’s no room to talk with these people’ — are exactly what I have heard occupied Palestinians say about Israelis countless times.”

Matar’s points aren’t intended to deny or diminish the understandable anguish, stress and anger Israeli and Jewish communities would naturally be feeling, much less to downplay the sheer brutality of Hamas’ human rights atrocities. Rather they are to show that any analysis of the situation which fails to acknowledge the broader realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict, including the prevalence of Israeli settler violence — which Israeli security services themselves recently deemed “nationalist terrorism” —  is not only intellectually dishonest but immoral and dehumanising. 

The dangers of pretending otherwise finds reflection here, in Australia, in the efflorescence of hatred across social media where, for example, there are calls by prominent and respected members of the Australian Jewish community to denounce and treat “student groups and activists” who express support for the Palestinian cause as though they’re terrorist sympathisers. Where public figures, who denounce Hamas’ atrocities but also reiterate the need for peaceful transition towards the two-state solution envisioned under international law, are called “disgraceful” or labelled “disgusting morally repugnant” individuals motivated solely by the votes of extremists.

And, not least, where our basal rights of protest and assembly are mocked, derided and ultimately emptied of significance in an effort to silence and constrain opposing views.  

Against this backdrop, at least one question suggests itself: is this truly who we are as a nation? Is this the free and democratic society we profess to be? 

It’s undoubtedly true that some of those who’ve attended pro-Palestinian protests in recent days expressed support for Hamas. But it’s equally true the vast majority marched to condemn, not glorify, Hamas’ terrorism, to grieve the loss of life on both sides and to call for a swift and humane resolution. To claim otherwise, to suggest that the actions of a few taints the conduct of the rest, is as deliberately misleading and dangerous as the claim that all those in Gaza necessarily condone and support Hamas. 

Anyone unpersuaded by this view need only look to NSW Police’s announcement of Operation Shelter yesterday, an intelligence-gathering assignment designed to guide police responses to potential pro-Palestinian rallies in the future. Labelled fascist and racist by some, civil rights campaigners have framed the development as a “worrying addition to the patchwork quilt of oppression” that’s already applied to the right of protest in NSW. 

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with engaging in non-violent protests,” Josh Pallas, president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, told me. “And there’s no reason for there to be pre-emptive policing of protest.” 

Much like Barns, Pallas believes the escalation in politicians’ rhetoric against the right to protest, given its immutable centrality to freedom of speech, assembly and association, is not simply a nod to the impoverished state of our public sphere, but a sign of the unravelling of our democratic fabric. 

“Across the board, Australia is moving in a more authoritarian direction, particularly in relation to the right to protest,” he said. “You know, our democracy relies on a legitimate space for contest of ideas, where people can engage in dissent and speak truth to power — and everything, just everything we’re seeing here, goes against that.”

In the result, the right to protest is gradually being recast as not a basic democratic norm but an activity whose legitimacy depends on the identity of the protesters and views being expressed. It’s hardly difficult, in this scenario, to see which side of the ledger pro-Palestinian protesters and, indeed, climate protesters fall. 

As Amal Nasser, one of the co-organisers of Sydney’s pro-Palestinian rallies, put it to me: “This is a strategic political campaign to silence anyone that doesn’t fit the status quo and the state’s interest. And it’s no different to the silencing of climate justice and First Nations protesters, as we’ve been experiencing in New South Wales for the past two years.”

Eventually, of course, reality will have its effect, and a greater awareness of these disturbing realities will infuse our civic space. But will it be too late by then? And will our governments’ failure to condemn Israel’s siege of Gaza and impending invasion condemn us to the wrong side of history in the meantime?

Full essay here.