Police and the state of NSW

From a Fin Review column on 22nd July.

The February meeting of the Shellharbour council, on the NSW south coast, was to start at 7.15pm. But the majority of councillors, Labor Party members, refused to assemble until an undesirable left the public gallery. He seemed harmless, frail and aged, with a walking stick, a limp and a bunch of military medals. He caused no problems as he sat in the public gallery, waiting. But at 7.50 pm, police evicted him.

It seems of no concern to the NSW police force – or to the government – that the police officers had no legal power to act against this man. He had done nothing wrong that night in the council gallery. He was ejected because the council had previously ordered that he not attend that meeting. That decision was unlawful: the council had no power to make it. And the police unlawfully diminished his rights by supporting the council.

It is ironic that the NSW government subsequently sacked Shellharbour council because councillors had no proper understanding of their roles and responsibilities. The same could be said of the police, but you can assume the government has not taken any action against these officers. They were doing the governments bidding.

There are other instances where police act improperly if not unlawfully at the governments behest. A recent example – aired on ABC radio – was an order made by police during Fridays World Youth Day event requiring several would-be protesters to move-on. This conflicted with a Full Federal Court decision issued three days earlier. The three Justices unanimously found that a state regulation empowering police to act against a person who causes annoyance or inconvenience to participants in a World Day event was invalid. The Court decision found that The traditional civil and political liberties, like liberty of the person and freedom of speech, have independent and intrinsic weight: their importance justifies an interpretation of both common law and statute which serves to protect them from unwise and ill-considered interference or restriction.

But these police were concerned more about achieving the governments policy goals than protecting protesters civil liberties. The constabulary wanted to ensure that World Day events were not disturbed by the discordant. It was of no concern that police were legally powerless because protesters were not causing a safety risk and were not obstructing a World Day event. And they were not causing fear or harassing others or dealing in drugs. These points of the law did not concern the police: the governments clear wishes mattered.

The same thing happened last week when NSW police moved-on homeless people who would have been seen by World Youth Day participants. A precedent had been made for Septembers APEC meeting in Sydney, except that then the federal government funded accommodation for the citys homeless. The NSW government liked the outcome but refused to pay for alternative shelter, so the state police misused their powers to clear the parks of the dishevelled homeless. Uncharitable and unbiblical? Certainly. But the pilgrims joy had to be preserved.

In return for the police force supporting the goals of the state government, governments support their police service. The minister for Police, David Campbell saw nothing wrong last year when five police cars and nine officers attended an incident involving Rugby League football player, Hazem El Masri and his lawyer manager. El Masri is a well-respected and skilled player who is seen as a model for Muslims. He exercised his right not to show his identity papers to two policemen. Notwithstanding the presence of excessive force, the police relented: they had inadequate grounds to force their demand.

NSW might not yet be a police state, but it could easily drift into such a condition. The Police Act 1990 talks about the police protecting human rights, but more important is the clause allowing the government to issue directions to the Police Commissioner. This means it can enforce its political wishes on a range of police activities. And the public never see these directions. They are secret. When there is a conflict between achieving government policy and defending what the NSW Police Act calls the rights and freedoms of individuals, the police and state are too often as one.

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5 Responses to Police and the state of NSW

  1. Ken Lovell says:

    Most people of course will dismiss even the possibility of our fair democracy becoming a police state. The notion challenges their fundamental mental model of the world they live in.

    As usual, however, the USA is showing us the way. Reporting on events he observed at first hand, US blogger Glenn Greenwald reports:

    Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff’s department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than “fire code violations,” and early this morning, the Sheriff’s department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

    In the house that had just been raided, those inside described how a team of roughly 25 officers had barged into their homes with masks and black swat gear, holding large semi-automatic rifles, and ordered them to lie on the floor, where they were handcuffed and ordered not to move. The officers refused to state why they were there and, until the very end, refused to show whether they had a search warrant. They were forced to remain on the floor for 45 minutes while the officers took away the laptops, computers, individual journals, and political materials kept in the house.

    But if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

  2. Tel says:

    The thing is, people vote for it. Every election they hear “zero tolerance”, “more police powers”, “more police”, “emphasis on law and order”… and they like what they hear. Authoritarianism get the votes.

    http://www.snarl.org/texts/features/freequency.htm

    Nearly 15 years ago, we saw identical modus operandi, same removal of name badges that we saw at APEC, they even had an investigation and yet again concluded that while police had broken the law, no action would be taken.

    Funny how “zero tolerance” applies only in one direction.

  3. Philly says:

    For anyone who grew up in Joh’s Queensland such developments are particularly chilling not least because such police MO was ostensibly reigned in by the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Councils do have a power to expel people from meetings under s10 of the Local Government Act 1993. And Reg 258 of the Local Government (General) Regulation 2005 empowers the police to remove someone who has been expelled. These might be bad laws, but it’s not entirely clear from your post how the actions of Shellharbour Council and the police are illegal.

    Likewise, the Federal Court didn’t strike down the regulation allowing people to be told to leave a WYD area, but only struck out the ‘annoyance’ ground of removal. ‘Inconvenience’ and ‘obstruction’ remain, amongst other grounds. Again, that might be a bad thing, but it’s not at all clear that what the police did was illegal or whether it conflicted with the Federal Court decision.

  5. tony harris says:

    Jeremy,
    Shellharbour Council might have acted lawfully when it expelled this person from an earlier meeting becaue he had allegedly disrupted that meeting. But Council has no power to punish a person by excluding that person from a subsequent meeting. This is what it did and the police abetted that illegal act.

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