Parliament protests: democratic threat or democratic right?

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Refugee advocates created headlines this week when they staged two consecutive days of protests at Parliament House in Canberra.

On Wednesday, members of the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance (WACA) glued themselves to the public gallery in the House of Representatives, forcing a suspension of Question Time.

This was followed by a planned action outside Parliament on Thursday, where protestors unfurled a banner which read ‘Close the bloody camps now’. They also poured red dye into the pool in front of the building.

Speaking to Crosslight, the group said they will continue to plan campaigns until Nauru and Manus Island are closed.

During the protest, Labor MP Tim Watts accused WACA of threatening democracy values in a series of tweets.

This was followed by an article in Medium, where Mr Watts elaborated on why he believes shutting down parliamentary debate is dangerous.

“The objective of the protest inside the chamber wasn’t simply to express a view, it was to stop the proceedings of the Parliament. To stop elected members from speaking,” he wrote.

“Our Parliament, our democracy, couldn’t function if all of them were allowed to shout down debate in the chamber.

“The next group to decide that they are entitled to shut down the Parliament could easily be fascist thugs doing it in the name of banning Muslim immigration.”

His article generated a mixed response, with many commenting that politicians seemed more outraged at the suspension of Question Time for 30 minutes than at the systematic abuse of people seeking asylum.

Some also questioned whether Parliament is functioning as a forum for purposeful debate given the substantial amount of time MPs spend hurling abuse across the chamber.

The current bipartisan commitment towards offshore detention also makes it difficult for refugee supporters to feel like their views are represented in Parliament.

Many Uniting Church members are involved in acts of civil disobedience, especially through the Love Makes a Way movement. A number of Uniting Church ministers have been arrested for staging sit-in actions at the offices of their local MPs. Earlier this year, a magistrate praised a group of church leaders for their ‘exemplary characters’ after he dismissed charges of trespasses against them.

These campaigns are also a form of protest that aims to cause disruption and create media attention.

On this week’s Friday Forum:

Do protests that disrupt the work of elected representatives threaten the democratic process?  Or do they allow us to exercise our democratic rights?


Image: Richard Martin/Flickr

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