While progress has been made towards empowering women in Queensland politics, there is still much work to be done, writes Noely Neate.
ON 31 MARCH 1965, Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner chained themselves to the Regatta Hotel bar rail to protest for women's rights. If you don’t know Brisbane, it is an iconic, heritage-listed pub in Toowong on what is commonly called “Coro” Drive. At the time of this protest, public bars were “men only” and publicans faced fines if they served beer to women.
This was a really brave move by these women and a brave stance in the fight for women’s liberation in Queensland, particularly at a conservative period of politics. To be fair, some say Queensland has never left that conservative period and they may be right.
Queensland has a history of treating protest harshly. Only a year earlier, before Merle and Rosalie’s protest in the pub, then Premier Frank Nicklin (who, by all accounts, was actually a decent man) used heavy-handed and harsh powers to send in police to break up a strike at Mount Isa Mines. Of course, after Nicklin came Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who rose to power in 1968 and his actions towards dissent of any kind, protest, strikes or marching is legendary.
The SEQEB strikes took place in 1985, which resulted in the sacking of 1,000 SEQEB workers by Joh and a month-long state of emergency he declared during the dispute. This affected many and, of course, he involved the police in dealing with the picket lines.
Joh took on the anti-apartheid Springbok protesters in 1971, yet another time when he declared a month-long state of emergency which covered the whole state – even though protests were in Brisbane – and using his personal “force”, which the police had come to be known during the Joh years, even going so far as transporting 600 police to Brisbane from elsewhere in the state.
The above are just two examples, there are many more from that era in Queensland but what Joh really really hated were protesters marching. It didn’t matter what the issue was, from Aboriginal rights to uranium mining or anti-apartheid, even the marches for the “right to protest” would be refused a permit to march in the first place. They were met by the police force — and “force” it was, with batons at the ready. In 1978, Joh became so sick of even playing games about permits that he just banned street marches altogether.
Annastacia Palaszczuk, Premier of Queensland, grew up during the Joh years in Brisbane and Queensland in the unique position of coming from a Labor family with her father, Henry Palaszczuk, being a Labor MP and Minister from 1984–1992.
Imagine my shock in August when I saw this tweet from the Premier:
Everyone has the right to conduct a peaceful protest but the activities of some are not. Blocking roads is dangerous, reckless, irresponsible, selfish and stupid. The sinister tactics some protesters are using are dangerous and designed to harm. pic.twitter.com/y7Izir3SuD— Annastacia Palaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) August 19, 2019
Back in April this year, I wrote a piece titled ‘The women changing Australia are mainly in Queensland’ with pride, thinking Queensland Labor was changing. We had a female Premier, Deputy Premier, Attorney-General, Opposition Leader, Chief Justice and the very first female Police Commissioner in Queensland. Great strides ahead, I was thinking. Of course, Queensland ALP folding to Adani was crook, but as complicated as the decision is, I get it. I don’t like it, but I do understand it.
These very same women, particularly the Premier, are now, to my shock, describing climate protestors as “extremists”.
Whoever thought that anyone who grew up in the Joh years, particularly anyone from the Labor side of politics, would be now proposing tougher protest laws?
These new laws are more than just about trying to hold onto seats of disgruntled Brisbane commuters dirty about being held up in traffic due to climate protestors, in my opinion. The focus on “locking devices” gives the game away, due to it being a particular bugbear of Adani and other coal operators as it is a favourite tactic for protestors to use to disrupt their operations. The Queensland Government even went so far as to garner input from the mining lobby on the new protesting laws.
Worse, the “sinister tactics” being used by “extreme protesters” that were used to introduce these new laws to crack down on anti-coal and climate change protesters have not been proven by the Premier, who refused to even back those claims
So, the state of play in Queensland is we have a Premier who grew up in the Joh era, increasing police powers to deal with protesters. Police will have the power to jail activists and not only jail them for longer if they have what are considered to be “dangerous devices” – that is items such as locking devices – but search protesters who they suspect may have those devices on them.
Back to the legendary protest by Merle Thornton and Rosalie Bogner – which was celebrated in 2014 with the Regatta Hotel naming one of their bars “Merle’s Bar” in her honour and the protest itself awarded “Q150 Icon” under the category of a “defining moment” for Queensland – would it be considered “extreme” in what is supposedly a now more modern era? An era where we have a female Premier who has benefited from the protest actions of these two women, to give more rights to women in this state?
Fun fact: That Q150 Icon award was under the tenure of Premier Anna Bligh, the first female Premier of Queensland.
Merle and Rosalie might never have even gotten to chain themselves to that bar if the police suspected they might have been up to disrupting the blokes having a beer in peace away from those nagging females. They could have been pulled up in the car park, leading to the now-celebrated event never happening, never kicking off the women’s movement in Queensland that helped bring us to a state where the top five leadership positions in Queensland are held by women.
There is no way this law passes the Joh test. It will be used by a future Joh, it will be used by a future LNP Government to crack down on unions and it will be used for political purposes to crack down on dissent and civil liberties.
For me personally, as a feminist, it saddens me greatly. It spits in the face of the women who chained themselves in protest for us decades ago and to think it is a female Labor Premier not only implementing them but fast-tracking them is just depressing.
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