Premier abseils into uncomfortable wedge

The Malinauskas Government’s sprint to own a legal crackdown on disruptive protests might play well in the ‘burbs but has deeply disturbed some core Labor backers, writes Matthew Abraham.

May 26, 2023, updated May 29, 2023
Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

Image: Tom Aldahn/InDaily

A wedge in politics is not to be confused with a wedgie, although they’re both painful.

A wedgie is an “act of pulling up the material of someone’s underwear tightly between their buttocks as a practical joke” according to the strait-laced Oxford dictionary definition.

It’s hard to write those words without laughing.

But a political wedge is no laughing matter.

It works something like this. Your political opponents dream up a policy play that forces you to respond to a hot-button issue you’d much rather ignore and hope it goes away.

If your response isn’t at least as strong as the stand taken by your opponents, you look weak. So, the tendency is always to overcompensate, trying to go one better.

This might shut them up, but it runs the risk of infuriating your grassroots members and, worse still, a substantial slice of your own party room MPs.

This is the Wedge, where you are manoeuvred into taking a stance that drives a “wedge” between your party and its traditional values.

And that’s precisely what Liberal leader David Speirs has done to his highly-fancied opponent, Premier Peter Malinauskas, on the government’s proposed draconian penalties to crack down on protesters.

The new penalties came hot on the heels of last week’s Extinction Rebellion climate protests, that saw city traffic banked-up for kilometres by a protester dangling from the Morphett Street bridge.

An Extinction Rebellion protester abseils from Morphett Street bridge. Photo: Twitter

For good measure, the protesters then splashed paint over the glass frontage of the Santos building, an attached cafe and on police officers who were simply trying to ensure nobody got hurt.

Until now, the government has tut-tutted about the provocative antics of Extinction Rebellion, and the courts doubly so.

But last Thursday morning, Opposition Leader Speirs declared his party would introduce that same afternoon legislation “beefing up” existing public obstruction laws to deal with “mindless protesters who selfishly cause community chaos and risk public safety”.

He wasn’t mucking about, revealing the Liberals had the previous afternoon drafted legislation to massively increase penalties under the Summary Offences Act 1953, section 58 — Obstruction of public places.

Speirs wanted parliament to increase the current maximum penalty from $750 to $50,000 – a 66-fold increase – or three months imprisonment, while also allowing police and state emergency service responders to recover their costs.

It’s an eye-watering hike in penalties. Put aside the $50,000 ceiling and the threat of jail time, the cost of police and emergency teams alone can run into tens of thousands of dollars. Cops don’t come cheap.

“These types of protests are getting out of control and we are sick and tired of seeing groups and individuals receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Speirs said.

Surprise, surprise; a few short hours later, the Premier and Attorney-General Kyam Maher unfurled their legislation that was effectively a word-for-word copy, with a $50,000 maximum penalty or three months in the slammer, and provisions to allow prosecutors to apply for a court order that “the defendant pay the reasonable costs and expenses of the emergency services” called to manage protests.

The government’s Bill also updates the offence by changing the term “wilfully” obstruct to “intentionally or recklessly”, and to make clear that “the obstruction can be caused directly or indirectly”.

With Liberal support, the Bill set a new land speed record for passing the House of Assembly, and now awaits passage in the Legislative Council, where the combined weight of Labor and Liberal votes easily delivers the numbers.

The knee-jerk action by both major parties has set off a chain-reaction among outraged civil libertarians and, of course, people who enjoy protesting.

InDaily reports that an Amnesty International Australia “protest against the protest laws” rally today will bring together a who’s who of the civil liberty and climate change fraternity. That’s tricky for the Labor Premier, because these groups are traditionally part of Labor’s happy hunting ground, but it’s not his biggest worry.

The state’s peak union body, SA Unions, was one of the first to fire up, arguing the increased fines were designed to intimidate people out of challenging those in power.

SA Unions secretary Dale Beasley said the right to assembly and protest “exist so that people can disrupt injustice”.

“Disruption is the point”, he said.

But stopping blatant disruption to the lives of ordinary South Australians getting to work, hospital appointments or day care pick-ups is the very point of the new laws.

Both Labor and the Liberals know the protest crackdown goes down a treat in the outer suburban seats that deliver election wins, in suburbs where paying power bills and keeping a roof over your head trumps glueing yourself to the street or redecorating the headquarters of a major employer like Santos.

Speirs is having no problems at all selling the new anti-protest penalties to voters in his southern suburbs seat of Black. It’s going down a treat with his base and his party room.

Not so for the Premier.

For several months now, political journalists in this town have been getting anonymous emails from a person or persons known only as “Upset Unionist”.

Labor dismisses these as “black ops” work from inside the Liberal camp but, if so, they seem extraordinarily well-informed about the inner workings of the Labor Caucus, including distributing printed copies of agendas and Labor love-in itineraries.

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They look legit to me.

Last week’s “Upset Unionist” epistle carried the subject heading “The Rebellion within”, a play on Extinction Rebellion’s title.

“The rushed decision to target protestors with new laws upset many in our party,” it said.

“The Left, led by Susan Close, were furious and the last-minute caucus meeting yesterday got heated.

“Ultimately, the power men of the Right made the call. The rest of us were told to live with it for the greater good, whatever that means.”

The email said the internal heartburn will make for “some interesting conversation” at this week’s rescheduled Caucus seminar at Rydges Pit Lane, the hotel at The Bend Motorsport Park in Tailem Bend.

Helpfully, Upset Unionist attached the agenda for the two-day shindig, including that the Premier’s office had made the central booking, all meals to be provided, so the only cost to MPs was overnight accommodation at “$149 for a King’s Room”.

To the casual viewer of ABC TV news on Wednesday night, Premier Malinauskas seemed all over the place.

Asked by journalist Rory McLaren if the government would consider amending its crackdown legislation before the Upper House he said “we won’t rule that out, that’s for sure” as he was open-minded to “thoughtful suggestions”.

But in the next breath he insisted the laws governing public protests in SA would be untouched by “not one word, not one comma, not one full stop”.

Liberal leader Speirs kept the pressure on.

“I hope Peter Malinauskas sticks to his guns on this one because when I’m out and about in suburbs like Hallett Cove and Sheidow Park that I represent down in the southern suburbs, people are saying to me ‘That was good legislation’,” he said.

He seemed to be enjoying the moment. It looks like the Opposition Leader is starting to get the hang of the job.

In the government’s initial media release on the new laws, the Premier acknowledged “the efforts of the Opposition in working with the Government on this matter in a bipartisan fashion”.

He could have said he acknowledged “the efforts of the Opposition in thinking of it first and wedging me”.

Getting your undies in a knot at The Bend? Sounds most uncomfortable.

Matthew Abraham’s political column is published on Fridays. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

Topics: Protest laws
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