Michael Koziol: NSW bureaucrats have apologised after rangers ordered Yes campaigners to stop distributing flyers and move on while canvassing support for the Indigenous Voice to parliament in Sydney’s CBD.
Civil liberties advocates raised concerns with Planning Minister Paul Scully after receiving reports that Placemaking NSW – which manages some of Sydney’s major public spaces – told Yes advocates they could not hand out material about the Voice.
Scully said he was aware of two incidents – one at Circular Quay and one at Darling Harbour – in which government rangers asked people to stop distributing flyers and campaigning.
“Placemaking NSW advises me that this was a mistake and sincerely apologise,” Scully said. “The NSW government supports the Voice to parliament and I urge people to vote yes on October 14.”
Regulations enforced by Placemaking NSW forbid the distribution or display of printed materials and advertising in those precincts. But the rule is meant to stop people from undertaking commercial activities or raising money, rather than political communication.
Josh Pallas, president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, called for an assurance all rangers, police and other authorised officers will refrain from moving along any referendum campaigners, and urgent changes to the Placemaking NSW regulations to carve out an exemption for activities that constitute political communication.
“It is a fundamental part of our democratic system of government that people can freely associate, distribute material, and communicate with others about changes to the Australian Constitution,” Pallas said.
“We are alarmed by these actions on behalf of the state which are fundamentally undemocratic and a Draconian breach of civil liberties.”
The regulations prohibit a wide range of activities on public land managed by Placemaking NSW, including climbing trees, bathing or swimming, attaching signs or decorations to buildings, flying drones, playing golf, using obscene language, conducting exercise classes and many others. Public assemblies or rallies are also banned.
Placemaking NSW chief operating officer Susan Lee told Pallas the rangers had “misunderstood previous instruction”, but she had provided them with new advice stating there was no problem distributing referendum material.
“Should volunteers return to [our] precincts, they will be able to hand out materials,” she wrote.
Pallas noted the apology but said it was not good enough that people had to complain to clarify the rules.
Greens MP for Balmain Kobi Shetty also called for the regulations to change. “The fact that we have ended up with regulations that allow this kind of overreach speaks to the urgent need to better protect our democratic freedoms,” she said.
Michael Koziol is Sydney Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, based in our Sydney newsroom. He was previously deputy editor of The Sun-Herald and a federal political reporter in Canberra.