This is not the way to win public support

 

LIKE most Queenslanders I grew up with a very clear set of boundaries, everything from manners to sportsmanship and what is fundamentally right and wrong.

To me, the protests this week in Brisbane have stepped over the community's acceptable line for demonstrations.

As the head of a union, I thoroughly support the democratic right to protest and yes, we as police have, in the past, marched and participated in campaigns to influence debate in this state. However there is a fundamental principle that should always be the foundation for any action, and that is: the objective of the demonstration is to get the broader community to listen to your argument and believe it has merit.

A woman being detained by police during a climate change protest on Brisbane’s William Jolly Bridge. Picture: Annette Dew
A woman being detained by police during a climate change protest on Brisbane’s William Jolly Bridge. Picture: Annette Dew

There is a public perception now that this week's protests have become nothing more than irritating static and a massive inconvenience. Daily disruptions have caused people to be late for work, school, university, and medical appointments that have sometimes been months in the planning.

I congratulate the law abiding citizens who have attempted to clear a path for emergency vehicles to navigate along blocked roads. When police and others are responding urgently, for example to a domestic violence incident, every second is precious and potentially a life is in the balance.

The protesters are now making people angry. The disruption is not attracting respect for the cause, but that's part of the problem. There is no single cause. Splinter groups have clouded the message and it's all become white noise. Their antics initially were considered by most people passing by as slightly amusing, dancing in the park, costumes, witty banners and slogans. But the voices became fractured by anyone with an environmental gripe, or any gripe really.

Fear became a thread and that made people uncomfortable.

Police who are constantly called to Extinction Rebellion protests are barred from important work in the community. Picture: Annette Dew
Police who are constantly called to Extinction Rebellion protests are barred from important work in the community. Picture: Annette Dew

Any hope of a hearts and minds victory was lost when the actions spread from the roads to the rail network. Commuters were trapped on trains as controllers flashed red lights on rail lines across the city, as a precaution, so they could assess the threat. These high-profile acts by protesters intended to maintain publicity now have zero chance of motivating a political change.

These so-called protesters using these locking devices, some of which are fitted with "extras" to harm police trying to remove them are abhorrent and disgust the entire community. Police assigned to these protests are also parents, partners and workers who want to go home safely at the end of their shift. Permits to protest don't include permission for citywide gridlock, intersection lock downs, and outrageous lock-on devices or daily irritation.

We as police pride ourselves on our modern approach of relying on communication and negotiation rather than arrest. So successful have we been that in recent years, we have had more than 500 protests in Queensland and next to no arrests, until now with this current group who have no desire to negotiate, compromise or enter into dialogue. It's "their way and nothing else".

Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers. Picture: Claudia Baxter/AAP
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The new law changes proposed this week are great tools police can use to protect the community and ease the anger Queenslanders are now feeling as they are exasperated by these protests. Officers will be able to seize lock-on devices and apparatus that can be used in disruption protests before they can be deployed meaning that illegal protests will not drag on for hours on end and no-one will, hopefully, have to be arrested.

All this week I have been stopped by people in the street praising the patience demonstrated by police in dealing with the protests. Queenslanders are a patient and tolerant lot and in my view we're the most laid back of all Australians.

However there's now a palpable simmering tension being displayed by innocent people affected by these protests and I fear there's now a very real possibility police may soon have to shield protesters themselves from a cranky, disgruntled and fed-up community whose patience has finally run out.

Whenever there's a law and order debate people consistently demand police action in their suburbs. We know the reality is there's never going to be a cop on every corner, but at least these new laws will help in targeting those intent on breaking the law. They will also release police from the time-consuming protest response, so they can get on with real policing and serving those who legitimately need our help.

 

Ian Leavers is president of the Queensland Police Union