Chasing Public Space


The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit has just concluded in Sydney. This meeting was attended by the leaders of Pacific Rim countries, including Japan, China, Russia, Canada and the United States. With an election due in Australia in the next few months, it was expected that APEC would provide an opportunity for the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, to demonstrate his international image to the electorate. The meeting has dominated the media in the past week, but the results of this coverage may not exactly have the desired result for the Government, who needed a big boost from the summit to counter polls showing a significant lead for the opposition.

There appears to have been some positive outcomes for Howard from the discussions within APEC, including an agreement on climate change, with an ‘aspirational’ goal of reducing greenhouse emissions after 2012 (when the Kyoto Protocol expires). However, the media has been more interested in what has been happening outside of the meeting, on the streets of Sydney.

A five kilometre long, three-metre high security fence was been constructed around the Sydney CBD, as part of massive security precautions put in place for APEC. As part of his announcement marking the beginning of the summit on YouTube, Howard declared that “the extra security precautions that are needed to be taken are necessary part of hosting such meetings in today’s world. They are the fault of people who threaten violence as part of their protest.” (1)

These security precautions, embodied by the fence, have been at the centre of much of the media coverage. The much anticipated protest on Saturday 8 September was covered live by at least one television station, and was generally shown to be an extremely peaceful and nonviolent demonstration. Eighteen people were arrested, with fourteen being charged. Two of those arrested, Paddy Gibson and Dan Jones, were arrested for being in the ‘declared zone’ where they were forbidden from being due to their presence on a police blacklist. Both were later released, as it was realised that they were not in fact in the ‘declared zone.’

On Sunday it was revealed that it was not just protestors who suffered because of their proximity to the APEC conference. A 41-year-old accountant, Greg McLeay was forcefully arrested by police in front of his 11-year-old son while crossing the street. (2)  He was bailed to appear in court on September 22, after spending 22 hours in gaol, without contact from his family or lawyer due to special laws enacted for APEC.

But the biggest story related to the security precautions is a joke, literally. Members of the Chaser’s War on Everything, a satirical comedy show on the national broadcaster, the ABC, drove a fake motorcade into the restricted zone. This motorcade consisted of three cars with Canadian flags transporting a number of ‘officials’ with APEC ‘insecurity’ passes, including one member of the Chaser dressed up as Osama bin Laden. After passing two checkpoints, they were stopped only when ‘Osama’ exited the car outside the hotel in which George W. Bush was staying, not realising that they had in fact entered the declared zone. This stunt was not only reported in Australia, but also Britain and United States. (3)

Coverage of this stunt has focussed on two aspects: (1) was it funny?; and (2) how did they manage to get through security? But one question hasn’t been asked: why is it illegal to drive down a public road?

Of course, the obvious answer is because that is the law, in particular the APEC Meeting (Police Powers) Act, passed by the New South Wales Parliament in July 2007. But why should any government have the right to forbid people, and potentially imprison them for up to six months as they can through the Act, from moving freely about a city, just because a government has decided?

Sydney is a public space. It is not a space for world’s powerful to use as they wish, when they wish. The arrest of the Chaser group personified the removal of rights that all Australians should have: to walk or drive down the main street of Sydney, or any other city or town.

Whether it is the arrest of a group of comedians, an accountant, or protestors: to be arrested for purely being in a public space is a violation of a person’s natural rights. None of those arrested have shown any intent to be violent, or even been charged with this – but yet, they face imprisonment. In fact, all the warnings about the violent intentions of protestors have been shown to be fantasy. The security precautions were more about violating peoples rights than protecting people.

These violations have all taken place while the leaders of APEC countries dine on fine foods, watch performances at the Sydney Opera House and watch private fireworks shows above Sydney Harbour. Not to mention the viewing of native Australian animals transported from Taronga Zoo to an island in the middle of the Harbour and the shutting down of Bondi Beach, for the enjoyment of the leader’s spouses.

So much for the egalitarian spirit of Australia.

The Australian Government has shown how it is prepared to make entry into public areas of Australia the right of a particular group. While such fundamental rights as the right to move around public places is taken away from Australians, the media has been more concerned with how violent the protestors will be and whether comedians penetrating APEC security is funny.

That laws have been enacted by our Governments does not mean that they are just. As Zinn has noted in his classic work on civil disobedience: “the government is not synonymous with the people of the nation; it is an artificial device, set up by the citizens for certain purposes.  It is endowed with no sacred aura; rather, it needs to be watched, scrutinised, criticised, opposed, changed, and even overthrown and replaced when necessary.” (4)

In the name of the Australian people, the Government has violated our rights. In return, Australians must decide if they support the stratification of public space, or whether they believe in the right of all people to move where they wish. After all, it is we who create the government, and it is we who can topple it.

(1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0rrHIOp6lM&mode=related&search=
(2) http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=294390
(3) For example, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/australia/story/0,,2164487,00.html and http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/09/06/apec.fake.motorcade.ap/index.html
(4) Howard Zinn, Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order, Vintage Books, New York, 1968, p. 118.

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