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COVID-19: The NSW Government's New Tool in Suppressing Dissent

Felix Faber

Last Wednesday, myself and twenty other student activists were fined $1,000 each.

Our supposed offense was breaching the Public Health Orders put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic – specifically, the prohibitions on groups of twenty gathering for a ‘common purpose’. The ‘common purpose’ myself and the others fined were gathered for was to protest the disastrous fee hikes proposed by the Commonwealth Government, and staff cuts being imposed by University of Sydney management.

It was difficult to take the pretence seriously – that my penalty was due to the risk posed to public health – when classes of well over twenty people were taking place meters away from me, when hundreds of shoppers were gathering in the Broadway Shopping Centre nearby, and when the next day the New South Wales Government gave the green-light for 5,000 people to visit Jamberoo at once.

That these activities should be allowed, but the democratic right of protest should not be points to a serious case of skewed priorities for the Berejiklian Liberal Government at best, and an active attempt at quashing dissent at worst. The campaign against fee hikes has been subject to intense police repression for its duration, regardless of how much effort organisers have put into COVID safety. At one action I attended, the group of roughly twelve protestors I was part of was forced to disperse by police. We were told our protesting the same thing at the same time as other groups of less than twenty, hundreds of meters away, constituted a ‘common purpose’ that was sufficient for police action. The most egregious example, however, was last Friday, when police arrived at an organising meeting, held outdoors, of less than twenty people to intimidate them out of trying to hold a rally altogether.

None of these are normal or reasonable responses to protest in a democracy. Of course, there must be robust action taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus – but there are serious questions as to whether or not this intervention by NSW Police is effective at limiting the spread (or even aimed at that at all). The coronavirus does not discriminate as to whether it spreads through a protest, or a classroom, or Jamberoo – so why are NSW Police applying such different standards to each of these? There is little to no evidence of any cases of COVID transmissions from a protest, so why are they being policed so much more heavily than other aspects of our communal life? These questions bear discussion, and being blind to the hypocrisies of the police is a quick road to decayed civil liberties.

The truth is I would rather not have to discuss this issue. I do not like to make a fetish out of experiencing police repression. I would prefer to be able to demonstrate against changes to our university sector that will ruin my and my friends’ educations without receiving a $1,000 fine for it. But I also know that fighting these changes is important, important enough for me to risk a fine or other penalty in order to oppose it. All the other activists I speak to feel the same – whether they have been fined, threatened, or arrested, they are determined to come out again to fight the fee hikes. I have not just seen this determination in individual conversations, but in rallies themselves. Regardless of how harsh the police response the last time, each rally is bigger and livelier than the last. No matter how they try and shut it down, we will be back - because it is a fight worth having and a fight we will win.

Felix Faber is the Vice President of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council. You can donate to help pay the fines that he and other activists received here.


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