Editorial: Plenty of room for protesters to make point

Occupy Auckland protesters in Aotea Square. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Occupy Auckland protesters in Aotea Square. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Eight Auckland Council members have become unnecessarily overheated about the "Occupy" protesters who have been camped in Aotea Square since mid-October.

They have written to the council chief executive, Doug McKay, telling him there is good justification to remove the protesters.

"If you are reluctant to remove the tents arbitrarily then we suggest the council should urgently obtain a court order," they state.

It is a letter that says something about the councillors' political persuasion and impatience but even more about a regrettable lack of appreciation of democratic niceties.

The group base their case for evicting the protesters on a council bylaw that prohibits unauthorised camping in a public place.

They say the protesters are trifling with the council by breaching this.

That may be so, but the paramount piece of legislation in situations such as this must always be the 1990 New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

It guarantees everyone's right to peaceful assembly to express their views, subject only "to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society".

It is extremely difficult to see how a camping bylaw would ever carry more weight than a protection enshrined in the Bill of Rights Act.

If such were the case, any council could quickly apply, or pass, a bylaw prohibiting any form of protest it did not like. The Dunedin police were attuned to this distinction when they elected not to enforce trespass notices against Occupy protesters in their city.

Those notices did not meet "the test of balancing the rights and freedoms of all parties", said the Dunedin-Clutha area commander, Inspector Greg Sparrow.

That is not to say councils do not have the right to act against protesters in certain circumstances.

If, say, the encampment raised sanitation concerns, eviction would be "demonstrably justified" in the interests of the health of other users of Aotea Square. Similarly, the use of violence would warrant grounds for removing the tents. At the moment, however, the protest is peaceful. The only trigger for disorder would, it seems, be forcible eviction.

Cameron Brewer, one of the eight agitated councillors, says the council should make a stand on behalf of ratepayers who are paying thousands of dollars a day to host an illegal protest that denies citizens use of precious green space in the city centre. That sentiment glosses over a couple of matters.

First, the protesters are also likely to be ratepayers. Secondly, the $80 million upgrade of Aotea Square that was completed a year ago provides more than enough room for a variety of uses.

It can hardly be said that the protesters are denying others the right to peaceful assembly.

There is plenty of space for them, a planned Christmas market, performances for children and other activities.

Beyond issues of democracy, the law and Aotea Square's capacity, there is one other reason why Mr Brewer and the other councillors should exercise restraint. Public demonstrations of every kind have a natural life.

At some stage, the protesters will, of their own accord, pack up and go home. This one may drag on a little longer because it is concerned not with a specific issue but a general antagonism towards authority and wealth. Even it, however, will run its course.

The Deputy Mayor, Penny Hulse, says the council is talking daily to the police and Occupy Auckland leadership, and legal options for removal are being worked on. She also needs to step back and put things into perspective.

As long as the protesters remain peaceful and their encampment is tidy, they should be given time and space to make their point.

- NZ Herald

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