Protecting the right to protest


By Jess McAllen 

A proposed Nelson City Council bylaw would require permits for protests, sparking concerns about the democratic right to dissent.

Five years ago, in a Grey Lynn flat, my flatmates and I were outraged by the 2012 budget. Bill English had announced policy changes that would remove student allowances for postgraduate students, increase the student loan repayment threshold for full time work ($19,084 a year) from 10 per cent to 12 per cent, and take out the voluntary repayment bonus incentive. Students also wouldn’t be able to receive a student loan if they had $500 or more in default at the time of their application.

I put on my best beanie and helped paint placards. I blockaded a street and watched police take my friends to the station for disrupting the peace (there were 43 arrests for obstruction).

We were met with the level of sympathy of an Aucklander stuck in traffic: idealistic students should find a less annoying way to protest.
I was 19, naive and thought protesting would immediately change everything, so when the policies came into effect I was deflated.

A protest for the right to protest was recently held in Nelson about a new Council bylaw that would have restrictions on public dissent. The bylaw purports to deal with two of the city’s problems: a man called Lewis Stanton and his ongoing protest occupation of the CBD, and freedom camping.

But read the fine print of the proposal and the basic right to protest becomes murky. It would require organisers of “events” to apply for a permit to be considered by an authorising officer who will take into account, among other things, the “consent of adjacent retailers”.

There are many reasons a shop owner would not want protesters outside their business, potentially deterring customers. It’s hard to imagine the corporate bosses at Burger King giving employees the green light to protest zero hour contracts outside the store – especially given claims earlier this year that Carl’s Jr staff were locked inside a Christchurch store in an attempt to stop them striking.

This proposed bylaw flies in the face of the Bill of Rights Act 1990, which gives the public the right to protest and freely express themselves in peaceful assembly.

While the council is trying to solve the problem of Stanton’s occupation, this is not the answer. One part of the bylaw says its purpose is to “regulate the conduct of events, including protests, within the city centre”.

However, police already have the power to do this through public disorder and criminal behaviour legislation (such as when the 43 people were arrested in 2012).

Sometimes politicians talk about protest like it's a futile and pointless exercise, a chant to be dismissed as the mere buzzing of a mosquito – a slight nuisance but something that ultimately has no long-lasting bite. I have to disagree.

Last year, I didn’t earn much money and the student loan repayment increase hit hard. So too did the friendly email from Studylink at a time when I was considering a different career path to rectify my income woes: “you cannot study because you owe $500”.

As a student, the only change in the budget that had impacted me was the voluntary repayment bonus, but after feeling the effects of the policy five years later I am glad I protested, I just wish more people had.