The NSW Government has amended the COVID-19 Public Health direction to allow for an outdoor public gathering for the purpose of protest or demonstration about a political matter. This is for up to 500 people in a COVID safe way.
Barrister and protest rights advocate Felicity Graham is pleased that this change has finally been made. However she emphasises the injustice the previous legislation created.
“It was an intolerable state of affairs for a system that calls itself a democracy for tens of thousands of people to head to football stadiums whilst small groups of socially distanced and peaceful protestors faced the tyranny of arrest and prosecution for using their voices,” she stated.
A step in the right direction
The new amendments created a safer space for protesters to march. Up until today, any gathering of 20 people of more was considered illegal under the Act and warranted a $1,000 fine.
Now, an entirely new subsection has been added citing that this section does not apply if the purpose is for a protest, there are not more than 500 people and there is a COVID-19 safety plan in place.
“The government has taken a much-needed step to protect the right to protest by amending the public health direction,” Graham stated.
Ms Graham emphasised the need to appropriately balance both the public health interests and the right to assembly.
“More keen attention should be paid to an appropriate balancing between the public interest in public health and the public interest in assembly and public communication of ideas as the challenges of the pandemic continue. We have a collective interest in individuals performing their right to gather, to share ideas, and to seek to persuade governments to action across a whole range of issues. I am deeply troubled at how quickly the popular consciousness can be manipulated to abandon basic rights, and how untroubled so many people are by the notion of indefinite suspension of protest and public dissent whilst commerce and social activities roll on. Fiercely guarding the right to public protest is critical to the health of our democracy.”
Each protestor needs to be spaced out, at one person per 4 square metres.