In September 1977 Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, the premier of Queensland, proclaimed, "The day of the political street march is over." This proclamation became government policy, was echoed by the acting police commissioner, and was police policy until April 1978. Brisbane police prohibited most political street marches until August 1979.
Government supporters claimed that the political street march was a recent phenomenon staged for the benefit of modern news media. They said there was no common law right to demonstrate, and police had no choice but to implement the law in its full rigour. They claimed the Queensland system for regulating public meetings and processions was no different in principle and in substance from that adopted in any other state of Australia.
Civil liberties advocates said the new government policy highlighted the defect in public order machinery which required the obtaining of police permission for a political demonstration on a street or footpath. They claimed the inalienable right to demonstrate against government policies was the hallmark of constitutional democracies, and they urged police to avoid a needless polarization of the community.
The police refused to confer with demonstration organizers and adopted the tactic of all-out confrontation at demonstrations, which resulted in 1,972 arrests. Church and community leaders urged an end to the violence.
The impact of the premier's proclamation has to be studied in the context of the English and Australian constitutional development of the legitimate role granted to public political protest. Up till the eighteenth century, much protest activity in England was found to be treason and was punished as such. The criminal law was based on the constitutional premise that the people had no role to play in advocating reform of the law. And yet public protest inevitably accompanied cries for constitutional reform and was prevalent at times of social and economic upheaval.
There was no co-ordinated and comprehensive public order machinery in England during these times. Violent protest could be put down only by the military. The Riot Act and other measures were introduced to equip the disparate public order machinery with an array of powers to deal with protest.
During the latter half of the eighteenth century, the cry "Liberty" uttered by the philosophers of the time and invoked by French and American revolutionaries was also heard on English soil. While the parliamentary franchise was restricted, public political activity in the streets and fields was common. The "Wilkes and liberty" movement was born. Thereafter the law of treason was inapplicable to violent, popular political protesters. The cries for constitutional reform were more prevalent; the Peterloo Massacre resulted.
When reform did come, there was no doubt about the role played by public protest in achieving it. Having a proved political function, public protest had to be tolerated unless it constituted a threat to the peace.
The newly created independent police forces had the task of preserving the peace and therefore of determining the limits of tolerance. The new colony of New South Wales inherited the common law and was administered by Englishmen who instituted several ad hoc measures for a public order machinery similar to those extant in England. Public protest was not a significant problem in the colony's early years, but the "deluded Irish" occasionally plotted to overthrow the administration. Some repressive English public order statutes were proclaimed to have application in the colony. The military was vested with power not only to contain Irish protests but also to try the participants and punish them, by hanging if necessary.
The military's stronghold on the public order machinery and criminal justice system was removed only after the Rum Rebellion, when the governor himself was subjected to the military's arbitrary rule. An independent police force was created and ultimately was modelled on the new London force. Public meetings calling for constituional reform and processions were tolerated provided they were not a threat to the peace….