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Right to peaceful protest must be protected

Australia’s most well-known protests, the Eureka Rebellion, dragged on for years before culminating in the Battle of the Eureka Stockade in 1854, where at least 27 people died. While how effective the protests were is still debated today, some believe they were responsible for male colonialists getting the right to vote in the Victorian Parliament.

Protests play an important part in the workings of most societies. Before democracy, they were often the only way for citizens to collectively express discontent with the controlling authority. And while elections are an effective means by which the populace can determine how they are governed, they are not foolproof. Many a government with a mandate in hand have found themselves in political trouble for not acting on or introducing particular policies.

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So, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental to allowing people at times to blow off steam. It must have its limits as all public discourse does in relation to the discrimination of certain groups and the use of violence, but otherwise the ability to take to the streets, in whatever form, must be supported.

There should be genuine concern about laws being introduced in Queensland that would stop the use of so-called “dangerous devices” by protesters who lock themselves into positions in busy locations. And in NSW the Right to Farm bill will increase penalties for the “aggravated unlawful entry on inclosed lands”, with concern it could result in heavy penalties for a wide range of protests.

But support in principle and judgment of effectiveness are two different things. In contrast to Extinction Rebellion’s small group of followers, a few weeks ago tens of thousands of school students took to Melbourne’s streets to vent their frustration with the lack of progress on climate change.

With most students too young to vote, this was their only means of making themselves heard. While dismissed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who warned against fuelling “needless anxiety” among  children during his recent UN speech, the climate issue has clearly energised a lot of future voters who would also be influential in a great many dinnertime debates with parents on the issue. This is grassroots action for change in practice at its most effective.

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