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WHAT’S happening to our democracy? Are we going to allow ourselves to completely dance to the tune of the terrorists? Or are we going to have a measured response that recognises a genuine threat when it exists and respond accordingly.
Protesting is an important part of our democracy.
There was no change of government in the recent elections locally and federally. However, both were conducted with the highest level of integrity. All candidates accepted the outcome even though there was no clear mandate until Labor formed a minority government with the support of the Greens in the ACT and, federally, the coalition minority in the Senate allows challenges to all government legislation. There was no fighting, no guns and no terror. There were peaceful protests in various electorates on pertinent issues as part of a vibrant democracy.
Peaceful protests in Australia have been common. I can recall protesting in the mid-1990s outside the (then unfenced) French embassy in opposition to nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll.
The most innovative of the protests are the ones that get media attention. Abseiling down the front of Parliament House to unfurl a banner and using superglue to be able to remain and disrupt the Parliament’s Question Time are certainly innovative and grabbed attention.
The downside for these protesters is that the issue was somewhat lost in the interest in the inventiveness of the protests. The protests were about the cruel and inhumane policies of both Labor and Liberal regarding offshore detention of people for an indefinite period. This is an issue that is worthy of protest.
Our democracy is very tolerant. But only to a point. We do not, for example, accept violence. How does the democratic right to protest fit when it directly clashes with the democratic rights of our elected representatives? Not well!
The process of election, the protection of parliamentary privilege and the functioning of parliament are also key elements of our democracy designed to allow differences of opinion to be resolved without violence or bloodshed.
Interfering with the operation of parliament is different from turning the Reflection Pool blood red – or the unfurling of a banner at the front of Parliament House. In both cases there may be property damage or trespass to be resolved through the legal system. The protests were not violent. The response should be proportionate.
Disproportionate, however, is the fencing of the Australian Parliament House. Its design is an outstanding example of a building, according to the supervising architect, Romaldo Giurgola, that “could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed on the people… it was important that [it] be seen as extending an invitation to all citizens”. Fencing the building undermines this philosophy.
The Parliament House website emphasises the point: “Parliament House was designed to encourage public access and involvement while responding to the Australian climate, landscape, vegetation and even the quality of the light. It was designed to be both a functional building and a major national symbol.”
The last thing we need is a Parliament House as a symbol of a siege mentality. The ministerial side of the building has already beefed up security. The presiding officers of the Parliament claim to have taken advice on security. Not surprisingly, the security advisers have suggested a fence. What else would they suggest? That is their focus. The focus of the presiding officers of the Parliament should be much broader. It should prioritise the real purpose of our parliament.
There is already a heavy security presence with seriously armed police patrols. Building a security fence would not stop disruption to Question Time. However, it would mean caving into the very things that terrorists are doing to undermine our democratic values.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.