Australians’ Right to Peaceful Protest

I have a confession to make.

As far as I can recall, I have never attended a protest rally. You are most likely familiar with the ones I mean. The type where you march down a city street, chanting pithy slogans to draw attention to the latest outrage.

While I don’t mean to be flippant, during my youth I witnessed the feral demonstrations of many organisations that left me decidedly unimpressed with the personal standards of the quasi-professional protest movement.

As one would expect, I have no time for the violent or illegal acts perpetrated by some of the more extreme leftist protests, most notably those against capitalism, military bases and the uranium industry.

Who can forget the 1996 ACTU-inspired protest in Canberra, that resulted in the most forceful physical attack on Parliament House in history? Demonstrators were alleged to have used weapons including a large hammer and wheel brace to break open the doors and ransack a Parliament House shop.

Fortunately, the often racist and equally abhorrent extreme right-wing protests have gained little traction in Australia and long may that remain the case.

But the peaceful protest movement is alive and well in Australia today.

Perhaps it is a personal failing, but I remain intrigued by those who commit to peaceful public protest as a means of advocating their cause.

These peaceful demonstrations can sometimes spark amusement at their often misspelled placards or when the tokenistic crowds are described by organisers as being ten (or fifty) times their actual size.

Sometimes the rallies are actually matters of genuine civic concern and other times they are at the very fringe of public awareness. Some are driven by moral issues and others by political matters. Whatever the cause, they are obviously important to those who participate.

While I may not agree with the substantive issue of concern to the protesters, I support the right of people to participate in a peaceful public demonstration. I also support the rights of people to disagree with the protest. They are two freedoms that are part of what make our nation such a great one.

Imagine how I felt then, when I read in the weekend papers, a report that the Chinese Ambassador to Australia had warned an Australian Federal MP not to attend or speak at a pro-Tibet rally (held in Australia) in March.

More recently, a further complaint was apparently lodged by Chinese officials, about a non-official group of six MPs and Senators travelling to Dharamsala (in India) to meet with the Dalai Lama.

All this, in the week marking 20 years since the mass killing of pro-democracy demonstrators during the protests in Tiananmen Square.

My concern is that elected Australian officials are being cautioned about who they should meet with, and where they can visit, by a foreign government. This goes beyond the bounds of reasonableness and should only strengthen the resolve of those involved to continue their participation.

This is not an issue of national security or criminal sanction. This is about the rights of all Australians – and in particular our elected officials – to have the freedom to participate in, and inform themselves of, matters they consider important.

Whilst I may not have their particular passion for the case in point, I do support their right to advocate for it without being “warned off” by the Chinese government.

The question then remains, why would a foreign power think they have the right to tell Australian backbench MPs, or any other Australian citizen, what they can do and whom they should see in their own (or any other) country

To me, it is an inappropriate and unwelcome interference in our domestic affairs.

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