As Melbourne was in lockdown last April, the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) organised a car cavalcade to demonstrate against the ongoing detention of the Medevac refugees who were being detained inside Preston’s Mantra Hotel.
After having been locked up on Manus and Nauru for six years, the 60-odd men had been cooped up inside the hotel for months on end. And when COVID-19 broke out, the authorities did nothing to ensure they could protect themselves against the virus.
Victoria police warned that protesters could be hit with fines if they mobilised during the lockdown.
At that time, Victorians could only leave home under certain authorised circumstances, and police didn’t judge the car convoy to fall within the parameters stipulated in the legislation.
But RAC put out a notice stating the rally would proceed. And two hours before it commenced, officers turned up at RAC member Chris Breen’s house to arrest him, as his contact details were on the notice.
Officers subsequently went on to execute a search warrant at his home, seizing his computers and phones.
Provoking the unlawful
Down at the police station, Breen was charged with incitement, under section 321G of the Crimes Act 1958 (VIC). And on 27 January, Breen appeared in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court in relation to the charge, which he has pleaded not guilty too.
Back on the day of the car convoy, as the long-term refugee activist spent nine hours held up at the station, Victoria police put a stop to the motorised protest.
Twenty six participants were fined $1,652 each, which amounted to close to $43,000. The fines were so steep as this was the rate the Andrews government set for breaching lockdown.
Breen is now facing that same $1,652 fine, as it’s stipulated in section 321I of the Crimes Act that if a person is convicted of inciting others to perpetrate an offence that involves a fixed penalty, that individual is then liable to that same sanction.
The implications of the Refugee Action Collective representative being convicted of incitement are much greater than him simply having to pay a steep fine.
Social justice activists and legal professionals are concerned that a conviction could lead to the silencing of other protests.
As Breen has noted, the last time a protester was charged with incitement was in 1992 in relation to a rally against Austudy cuts. While one of the climate protesters involved in organising the October 2019 IMARC demonstrations was threatened with a charge of incitement.
And there are other circumstances around the arrest that reveal the motives behind the charge could be politically motivated.
Just two days after Breen was charged, the Victorian Country Fire Authority organised a car convoy that consisted of 15 vehicles. This was in order to celebrate a 100th birthday party. And news outlets reported on the parade without any resulting reproach for its organisers.
A week prior to the refugee action, Victoria police had organised its own three car cavalcade, which was marking a child’s birthday. Footage of the event, which included flashing lights and sirens, was posted on Facebook with a resulting 200,000 shares.
So, the fear is that authorities could use Breen’s conviction as a precedent to shut down other protests that authorities find problematic.
Unions have warned that if they take action outside of the considerably restrictive limits that they can legally protest under, incitement may be used against bosses. And if Victoria had to go back into lockdown again, it’s almost certain organisers of any actions would face this same fate.
Drop the charge
In a show of solidarity, numerous supporters gathered out the front of the court last week to protest the action being taken against Breen.
Four unions were represented on the day, including his own Australian Education Union, as well as the National Tertiary Education Union.
And in a strange twist, some of the Medevac refugees that the COVID safe car cavalcade rally was in aid of were there to support Breen this time.
Sixty three of the Medevac refugees were recently released into the community. However, a dozen continue to be held in Carlton’s Park Hotel.
Breen is due back in court on 10 February and it’s expected there will be a strong show of support from a broad cross-section of the community once more. And it’s hoped that the presiding magistrate will agree that the activist has committed no crime.
The Solidarity Speak Out-Drop Breen’s Charge rally is set to take place at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court at 1 pm on 10 February, just before his next court appearance.
Main article image: Chris Breen (centre) with Medevac refugees, Thanush Selvarasa (left) and Ramsiyar Sabanayagam (right)
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.