What on earth has happened in this state? Not much that’s good since Bob Carr flicked Morris Iemma that hospital pass (literally, since our hospitals imploded shortly afterwards) and shuffled off to retirement. But though their incompetence is increasingly clear, I didn’t think our State Government was hideously authoritarian. Things got a little hairy during APEC, sure, but after the wheels of justice finally did their thing, even my colleagues at The Chaser eventually got away with it. But suddenly, simply because the head of a religion that most of us don’t recognise happens to be in town, the Government has quietly, without so much as a decent debate in Parliament, pushed though laws so draconian that Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen might have blushed, if his cheeks hadn’t already been coloured that permanent shade of pink.
Let me recap. During World Youth Day, it will be an offence to annoy people or inconvenience them. And protest materials will need to be pre-approved by those well-known arbiters of good taste, the police.
There are so many things wrong with this legislation. What could be more patently un-Australian than passing a law against taking the piss? And especially when we’re talking about an institution that deserves it as thoroughly as the Catholic Church. Its history of sexual abuse, and then covering that abuse up, and its backward attitude to contraception which will cost countless lives in the African AIDS pandemic thoroughly justify protest, and the mere fact that it’s one of the world’s most rich and powerful institutions renders it an excellent target for dissent. As does the fact that, like Australia under Kevin Rudd, it has a leader who believes he’s infallible. But instead of upholding our tradition of peacefully poking fun at the mighty, the police are being sent out to make sure our precious pontiff and pilgrims can move about the city in an irritation-free bubble.
And how do they propose to define “annoying”, anyway? I can’t think of a more subjective, vague principle. For instance, I find Kyle Sandilands annoying, but I’m not about to ask the police to prevent him from broadcasting, as tempting a prospect as that is. And are the police the right person to make these kinds of calls? They weren’t exactly big fans of The Chaser‘s during APEC, or that little incident with the Bulldogs. So if they get to determine what constitutes “annoying”, you can guarantee that the line will be drawn very rigidly indeed. But their calls on the day were ultimately at odds, in those cases, with what the DPP and a court eventually decided. Our police force is known for many things, but not generally its excellent sense of humour.
But the most fundamentally unreasonable thing about the laws is that if they were applied evenly, the people who would most deserve prosecution for causing annoyance and inconvenience, and broadcasting messages that others may not agree with, are the organisers of World Youth Day. The rest of us could put together a hundred protests, a thousand offensive t-shirts, and an endless motorcade of Chaser stunts, and the irritation we caused to WYD would be a drop in the ocean compared with the inconvenience that it’s causing us. They’re the ones who are implementing “unprecedented closures” of our roads, gumming up our public transport and filling our public spaces with Catholic paraphernalia. They’re the ones who are shutting down our beloved Hyde Park for months on end, and they’re the ones who have been given an astonishing $95m of taxpayers’ money in a city that could desperately use those funds for more important things. Heck, I could egg the Popemobile and let off a massive firework right when His Holiness is mid-homily at Randwick Racecourse (as a matter of fact, there’s an idea) and I guarantee you that I’d cause His Holiness a lot less annoyance than his event is going to cause Sydney.
But that’s not what the laws are about. They’re about mollycoddling an institution that has no grounds for special treatment, and is perfectly capable for sticking up for itself. They’re about stopping protesters from wearing provocative t-shirts and handing out condoms – items which, if estimates are to be believed, will be sorely needed. It’s very much in contrast to Jesus’ admirable advice to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s” – an early source for the excellent principle that is the separation of church and state. And when he entered Jerusalem, I don’t remember the Messiah asking the local authorities to arrest the crowds if they inconvenienced him. What’s more, He warned there might be a spot of persecution here and there for believers, and he never said anything about going and whingeing to the fuzz.
And all so a bunch of kids can camp out in classrooms, see the Pope as a speck in the distance across an overcrowded racecourse, and, somewhat morbidly, hang out with the remains of a young saint who was apparently a really cool dude. For this, we get our fundamental human rights curtailed?
I’m prepared to accept that World Youth Day is a valid event for Sydney to host. We held the Gay Games a little while ago, so we might as well cover the opposite end of the spectrum as well. But given the inconvenience we’re already putting up with, and the money we’re already spending, the decision to tear up civil liberties in the interest of a religious minority is utterly unacceptable. And it will cast a pall over the whole event. Sydneysiders are generally an easygoing, welcoming mob, as we showed during the Olympics. But we don’t like APEC-style heavy-handedness. You can guarantee that this ridiculous legislation will make every moderate in Sydney who might previously have been inclined to welcome the Catholic hordes, wondering whether it mightn’t be worth putting together a little protest or annoying a few pilgrims. Not because they have a big problem with World Youth Day, but because there are few things more annoying than a law that says you can’t annoy people.