Public servants respect right to protest, even as some left scratching their heads

By Jackson Graham

February 9, 2022

Protesters with flags are seen during an anti-vaccination rally outside Parliament House in Canberra, Saturday, February 5, 2022. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

A steady stream of protesters rallying against vaccine mandates are storming past some of the workplaces of public servants in Canberra this week. 

For a nation’s capital familiar with protests, these demonstrations have seen traffic disruptions and occasional arguments between agitators and the wider community flare-up. 

Former public servant William Stoltz, now a senior advisor at ANU’s National Security College, said the protests left many onlookers scratching their heads.  

“The fact you have many of these protesters protesting policies that are actually state government decisions would suggest a breakdown in understanding some of the work of government,” Stoltz said. 

Even so, most public servants respect the right for people to peacefully protest and know to exercise impartiality on issues of political division when going about their jobs, he says. 

Stoltz raised questions about how wisely security agencies were using resources – with one protester allegedly found with a firearm in their vehicle last week. 

“You would hope the federal police in cooperation with ASIO would be updating their assessments of the safety of all parliamentarians and making sure the close protective services are appropriately resourced,” he said. 

“I wonder about the assessment of the health and safety of parliamentarians moving about Canberra; some parliamentarians have personal security details but only a handful … it’s very resource-intensive to provide details to people.”  

John Wanna, an emeritus professor at ANU, said the protests appeared to be a “copycat” of anti-vaccination demonstrations in Canada and Europe. 

“But it’s on a much smaller scale. So for public servants, I’d say try and work around it, try and keep out of the way, try not to antagonise. The authorities should take action to curtail it but not prevent it,” Wanna said. 

He supports the notion that democracies need a “pressure valve” to allow people to exercise free speech and protest peacefully. 

“You have to be reasonably firm, but still allow people to feel like they have the right to have a democratic expression. If you start to muzzle people, they will find another way to make their point,” Wanna said. 

“What is driving it, I think, is people don’t want to be told what to do. There is an anti-government, anti-being told what to do mentality.” 

He said social media was also assisting protest organisers to gather crowds with greater ease. 

It’s not the result of social media, but it’s driven by social media,” Wanna added. “People have a right to their opinions even if they are wrong.”


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