CANBERRA – In the last sitting week of the House of Representatives, refugee advocates stormed into a session of Question Time chanting slogans condemning both major parties’ immigration policies.

The protesters interrupted the session with chants such as “Where is your moral compass?” and “Close the bloody camps now”, and went so far as to super glue their hands to seats in the public gallery above the Chamber.

Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne said it “was the most serious disruption to parliament in more than 20 years”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was also quick to condemn the protest saying, “no matter what the protest, no matter who tries it or what the issue they think it is, this is the exact opposite of democracy.”

But the protesters were well within their rights to stage a protest. According to the Attorney-General’s department, under the right to freedom of assembly and association; “The right to peaceful assembly protects the right of individuals and groups to meet for a common purpose or in order to exchange ideas and information, to express their views publicly and to hold a peaceful protest. The right extends to all gatherings for peaceful purposes, regardless of the degree of public support for the purpose of the gathering. However, the right applies only to peaceful assemblies, not to those involving violence.”

Technically, the protesters vandalised a public building with the super glue. They didn’t however, cause any other damage or use violence, thus not violating their right to protest.

Ministers from both sides of the house laughed off the protesters and mocked them. This presents a much larger problem within the contract between Australian society and the state that governs it.

Senator James McGrath attacked the protesters in a Facebook post saying, “they’re a bunch of bong-sniffing, dole-bludging, moss-munching, glue-guzzling, K-Mart Castros that are again vandalising Parliament.”

It’s hypocritical to see parliamentarians condemning so-called disrupters of democracy for a peaceful protest, when countless times the Australian public has seen quite embarrassing moments when democracy was disrupted. Like the endless filibustering of Paul Keating or the ridiculous dash to the Chamber doors, when a conscience vote on same-sex marriage was held during the Abbott administration.

The Australian Government has disenfranchised voters because of their indifference to important, contemporary social issues like this. The protest staged last week was not something to brush aside and laugh at. It was something to pay close attention to and act on.

Yet both major parties condemned the assembly and demonstration by the protesters about Australia’s current asylum seeker policy, particularly on mandatory immigration detention.

The traditional display of dissent in ‘peaceful protest’ by placarding and chanting slogans isn’t getting the desired response of action on issues that affect the Australian public. The government must start listening to what the electorate voted them in to do. Otherwise, Australia will see a massive turnover in unfamiliar territory at the next election if the nation is to continue following the status quo.

It isn’t good enough to coast along and keep your head down in politics. There needs to be active change with public consultation on contemporary issues of national interest and importance. The modus operandi cannot continue any longer if democracy is to be upheld.

– Maggie Triantafillou, Editor (Oceania)

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