Things are looking grim in NSW. Sniffer dogs have become a regular at public events, occasionally even showing up at train stations and pubs. And there's a broader frustration around Sydney's lockout laws, impossible property prices, and a general turn towards a more elitist, stratified society.
This is a well-publicised concern, but it's likely to only get worse. In recent months four new bills have been introduced to state parliament, all increasing police powers and subtly whittling away civil liberties.
In a broad summary, these laws enable police to issue tailor-made directives: restricting and prohibiting an individual's movements on hearsay evidence. The power to search individual protesters without a warrant has also been handed to police. And a yet to be passed bill will allow police to detain and question terror suspects as young as 14 for up to two weeks without charge.
Let's go into some detail on what these four new laws will mean for you.
Two of these bills were passed on May 4, 2016. The Serious Crime Prevention Orders Bill allows courts to issue directives restricting several aspects of someone's life. These include place of employment, movement, and association—all without proof they've committed or even facilitated a crime. And breaching such an order can result in up to five years in prison.
The Organised Crime and Public Safety Bill operates in a similar way, allowing senior police to issue public safety orders without court oversight. These can ban a person who is "expected to present a serious threat to public safety or security" from a place or an event for up to 72 hours in a week.
For the president of the NSW Council of Civil Liberties, Stephen Blanks, the main concern is that these directives can reoccur every week for the rest of an individual's life. "I have little doubt these powers will be used to ban people from attending certain Muslim places of worship," he said, adding that it's even possible that this was one such motive behind the law.
Blanks also has grave concerns for the Investigative Detention Bill introduced on the same day. It will allow for the detention of a suspect "to prevent an imminent threat of terrorism" for up to two weeks without charge. He pointed out that a major difference with anti-terror powers passed in 2004 is that police can now question a suspect for up to 16 hours a day, and suspects can be as young as 14 years old.
"What's going to happen is that teenagers are going to be detained and questioned about other family members and friends," Blanks said, stressing that legislation such as this will do nothing for relations with the Islamic community.
A series of anti-protest laws were also passed mid-March, increasing police powers to prevent public protest, particularly against coal seam gas. The laws include a maximum penalty of seven years for hindering the operation of a mine, and for actions like locking onto equipment. "This is simply a law which is prioritising private commercial interests over the public interest in being able to have a fair opportunity to engage in protest," Blanks told VICE.
According to NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge, there are two forces behind this heavy-handed legislation. The first is the NSW Minerals Council. They've been "particularly stung by the fact that ordinary communities are gathering on mass to oppose coal seam gas," he said. The second is NSW police commissioner Andrew Scipione. "He's literally, within just six months, gained immense power for the NSW police force."
And there's a reason why NSW is increasingly using ham-fisted justice policies to deal with delicate problems. Former police officer and NSW deputy premier Troy Grant is not only police minister, but also minister for justice. Shoebridge told VICE that this is a unique situation. "The police and justice ministry sits on top of and is senior to the attorney general," he said, pointing out that usually justice was the charge of the attorney general, an independent arm of the government, who would consult legal bodies and civil liberties groups. This was a restructure quietly brought in by NSW premier Mike Baird in 2014.
These were not the first laws of this nature introduced under the Coalition Government. In 2011, a new set of drunk and disorderly laws were passed, which according to Shoebridge "were aimed at moving young people, the homeless, and Aboriginal people out of public places."
And then there were the anti-consorting laws of 2012. These effectively allowed police to prevent individuals, with or without a criminal record, from communicating with a convicted criminal. Persons ignoring this law can also face up to five years' imprisonment.
These were dubbed the "bikie laws" however the first person charged was a 21-year-old man with an intellectual disability who was out shopping with friends. He was also subsequently detained in the same cell as the friends he was originally busted for consorting with.
Shoebridge has recently obtained freedom of information documents explaining how police have issued 8,500 consorting directives in the first three years of operation. "And in parts of far western NSW they've been used hundreds of times and predominately against Aboriginal people," he said.
Essentially, as a few contacts stressed, these laws are designed to curb crime before it happens, but they undermine the principle of innocent until proven guilty in order to do that. As professor of criminology at Sydney Law School Murray Lee believes, authorities are setting up a pre-crime regime in parallel with the traditional justice system. To him, recently introduced legislation provides police with "a whole range of powers to suggest who may commit criminal acts in the future, and to act accordingly."
VICE contacted the NSW government for a response to these concerns and criticisms, but we were directed to media releases published with the original bills. We were told "no further comment at this time."
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