“Move on” laws target civil liberties, protesters, and the homeless

by on 8 April, 2015
Victoria's unions should be proud of their efforts to strengthen freedom of association in Australia.

Victoria’s unions should be proud of their efforts to strengthen freedom of association in Australia.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

Do you think police should have the power to fine anyone they like on the spot for any reason? New South Wales’ new “move on” laws come dangerously close to doing exactly that. They empower police to fine anyone for just looking suspicious, even if they are innocent of any crime. Backed by the Baird government and the NSW Labor opposition, they are an affront to our civil liberties, including the right to freedom of movement, a fair trial and the presumption of innocence. And they are also a danger to the homeless, who will be their most likely victims. Still, we should be thankful that it is not as extreme as its recently repealed Victorian equivalent, which imposed extraordinary restrictions on the right to freedom of movement and protest.

“Move on laws” have created an entirely new category of victimless “crime”, which consists entirely of arousing police suspicions. Bear in mind that suspicions are, by definition, unfounded beliefs. So the laws empower police to fine any person who refuses to move on from their current location if that person is suspected  being a hindrance to passersby, or of committing a crime or even of being likely to commit a crime. It is not clear how the police can judge you likely to commit a crime; however if we assume police possess the supernatural power to predict the future then we can begin to make sense of these laws. The scope for  abuse of these powers is enormous.

Importantly, innocence is not a defence to the “crime” of arousing police suspicion. Police are entitled to fine you even if you are innocent of any crime. If you choose to fight the fine, all the police had to do was show that their suspicions were “reasonable” when they fined you. Far from being a tool to fight militant unions or extremist protesters, the evidence indicates that move on laws have primarily targeted homeless people.

The power to fine individuals on the basis of police suspicions, without any proof of guilt, is an extraordinary attack on our right to freedom of association, the presumption of innocence and a fair trial. Most people simply will not fight a fine in Court. Some of the fines issued by police may be unjust. They might be caused by simple mistake or selective prosecution and vindictiveness. We are not likely to know this simply because such fines will go unreported.

While the Victorian Liberals claimed that these laws were necessary to clamp down on militant unionism and extremist protesters, they have not pointed to a single instance in which these powers have actually been used against militant trade unions or extremist protesters. Nor have they produced any evidence that these laws have played any role in reducing crime. This is because there is no such evidence.

The Victorian Liberals’ claim that the police have failed to enforce the laws on the books to deal with militant unionism or extremist protesters is simply false. Threats, intimidation and violence are already illegal. They are criminal acts, punishable by jail time if necessary. If the prosecution proves that a person has committed an act of violence beyond reasonable doubt than they will go to jail. If people are not being prosecuted it is because there is not enough proof to prove their guilt. It is that simple. There is no evidence nor any suggestion that the police are too incompetent or unwilling to prosecute violent offenders simply because of their links to trade unions or extremist political organisations and frankly, if that were the case there is no reason to believe that police would be any more capable or honest if they were given more powers. This is not to suggest that none of the protesters have broken the law; it is simply to say that we deserve to know whether they have or not before we punish them. If we punish them without knowing if they are guilty or innocent, we could well face the same treatment next. The Victorian Liberals’ claims are a substance-less scare campaign, pure and simple.

Thankfully, NSW police have no power to move on those who appear to be protesters. Nor, thanks to the Andrews’ ALP government, do Victorian police enjoy that power. But the existence of these powers is objectionable regardless.

And there is always a risk that police will use these powers against protesters anyway in the hope that they might get away with it if the protests do not take place directly in the public eye.

One thing we do know about move on laws is that in practice they are used to drive homeless people into the criminal justice system. As Lucy Adams of legal support organisation Justice Connect notes,

“Laws that regulate public space are rarely intended to punish people for their homelessness – but this is often the effect…. Circumstances that cause people to be sleeping rough, begging or drinking in public are almost always health and social issues, not criminal ones… prison should not be a substitute for supported housing, mental health care or substance dependence treatment.”

It is worth noting that police are also empowered moving on persons affected by drugs or alcohol in New South Wales, and the likelihood is that the homeless will still be targeted by these laws as well as other move on laws.

In practice, move on laws target the homeless on the nonsensical premise that it is better for them to be in the criminal justice system than receiving support and care from charitable organisations.

Not only are these laws totally ineffective in reducing crime and a means for police to harass innocent citizens; they probably increase crime rates by needlessly throwing already marginalised groups such as the homeless, youth and Aboriginals into the criminal justice system. Indeed, in Queensland, 76.8% of homeless persons surveyed reported having received a “move on direction” by police. For example, because the homeless cannot drink in their own homes, they are more likely to be moved on as some of them may get drunk in public instead. These groups face an increased risk of police confrontation or detention that could needlessly open the gateway towards a life of crime. It is a destructive process, it unnecessarily burdens the criminal justice system and, ultimately, endangers the public far more than being a nuisance in public ever would. In that respect, police involvement in the lives of the homeless will prove not only pointless but dangerous.

Of course, it doesn’t help that begging for money is actually a crime in Victoria, which means police can actually take money from the homeless as the supposed proceeds of crime, fine them $100 for begging and further involve them in the criminal justice system. I daresay that if it were anyone but the police taking money from the homeless they would be pilloried as the worst kind of despicable thief. But these are the laws our elected officials have instituted and continue to maintain, and these are the laws our law enforcement agencies enforce every day. It is simply shameful.

The strengthening of NSW’s “move on laws” is an appalling development which should be condemned.  By contrast, the winding back of these laws in Victoria should be cause for celebration.


1. NSW’s move on laws are defined in sections 197-204B of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW). The laws were introduced in mid-2011 by the O’Farrell Liberal government.

2. Victoria’s move on laws are now largely equivalent to New South Wales. See s6, Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic).

2 thoughts on ““Move on” laws target civil liberties, protesters, and the homeless

  1. Things went bad in NSW after the repeal of the Summary Offences Act. Pretty sure it had “move on” provisions.

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