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Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service backs state government’s rejection of protest permit system

Dechlan Brennan -

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service has backed Premier Jacinta Allan's rejection of calls by police to introduce a permit system for protests, arguing freedom of speech is enshrined in the state's human rights charter.

Last Sunday, it was revealed Victoria Police spoke to the Police Minister, Anthony Carbines, about the introduction of a permit system for protests - similar to what is already legislated in New South Wales - whereby organisers of protests must obtain a permit from police before holding any action.

In response to the calls for greater powers by police over managing protests, VALS chief executive Nerita Waight said: "Our people have a democratic right to have our voices heard about issues that affect us. That is why we protest."

VALS said the calls by the Victorian Police Association were "yet another knee-jerk reaction" based on media reports "not representative of the wider Victorian community."

Premier Allan rejected the idea of a permit system, arguing Victorian police "already have the tools and resources they need" to manage protests if they are a threat to community safety.

"People have a right to come together and to peacefully protest and that right should absolutely be respected," she told journalists this week.

Victorian Police are the most substantially funded police force in the country, with The Age previously reporting a $4 billion budget and 22,000 personnel, greater on both counts than the geographically larger and more populous state of NSW.

The Premier, in arguing the permit system wasn't required, said there had been "countless examples" in recent months of Victorian Police moving in and arresting people and disrupting protests, "particularly where they were causing safety risks to either the protesters themselves or others in the community".

Ms Waight welcomed the Allan Government's decision to protect the right of protesting "instead of appeasing the police".

"The police have shown that they have no problem using violence and force against our communities, and a permit system would only allow them to use even more of that," Ms Waight said.

"Victoria Police must be banned from using inhumane means such as explosives and disorientation devices to 'crowd control' which go against our right to protest peacefully."

VALS board member Tarneen Onus-Browne said a permit for protesting "defeats the point of a protest and impacts our democratic rights".

"Protests should be safe spaces for First Nations people and all marginalised people in Victoria to have their voices heard," the community organiser for Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance said.

"When police use excessive force or violence, it is no longer a safe space."

Associate Professor Crystal McKinnon said the proposed permit system would be "a return to the mission days," where police and authorities could control "where Aboriginal people can go and who we can see".

"The right to protest is crucial to any progressive democratic society," Ms McKinnon, who is also a VALS board member, said.

She noted the Legal Service was "alarmed" at potential impacts a protest permit system could have on the Aboriginal community in Victoria.

"The Allan Government needs to join us in condemning the use of inhumane and violent tactics by Victoria Police against people who are exercising their rights to protest and making their voices heard for equity and justice," Ms McKinnon said.

The Human Rights Law Centre also backed the decision, with senior lawyer David Mejia-Canales arguing protesting was not a "gift from the police or parliament" but a fundamental right in a democracy.

"Protest has been crucial to achieving many important social changes from voting rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to the eight-hour workday," he said.

"Under this proposal, the people who stood up for these rights we now take for granted, may have been shut down by Victorian police."

Opposition Leader John Pesutto rejected the decision by the Premier Allan, telling the Herald Sun the Attorney-General under a Liberal government "would play a much more active role in working through the courts to resolve protests that jeopardise community safety or the rights of others".

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