Occupy Melbourne and the use of public space


Having been quite interested and ambivalent about Occupy Melbourne in the last couple of weeks, a couple of things struck me about the whole “occupying” of public space scenario. It boils down to this:

1. City Square is public space and meant to be used by the public. However, it also needs a guardian so no group can claim it exclusively for their own private use. Also, it needs a coordinator to schedule and timetable when different groups are be able to use the space in a temporary exclusive way. This is common sense and the way we run our public spaces.  The coordinator/guardian of public spaces is a representative of the public, duly elected, and in the case of Melbourne city happens to be the council and the Mayor, Robert Doyle. In his function as the representative of the Melbourne city public, he calls the shots. This is how the system works. If he makes a bad job of it, he gets voted out.

2. Occupy Melbourne, in spite of their claims, do not represent the public in the same way that Robert Doyle does. They are a bunch of people who claim that their grab-bag of issues represents public concerns and are of public interest. Given this and our mostly excellent system of governance, they were able to exercise their right to protest and use City Square for a period of time

3. What right does Robert Doyle have in deciding 6 days and no more? As the Occupy Melbourne people did not apply for a permit to occupy City Square for a set amount of time, someone has to decide when the limit it. He could have consulted more of course but it is, IMO, within his power to set the limit. I generally elect people to lead and make the hard decisions. 6 days IMO is pretty good and is commensurate with other festival or events that take place in the city. (Why do the Occupy Melbourne people need a permit? See point 1)

So, from my perspective, the only thing that is of issue is whether the police exercised undue force in enforcing the law (ie protecting my rights to use City Square without the presence of the Occupy Melbourne people). The discussion around this is healthy and part and parcel of our mostly excellent system of governance. I believe that they could have done things smarter of course. They certainly could have been more sensitive. The ideal police force is un-corrupt, efficient, smart and sensitive. However, given that we live in a less than ideal world, I am happy with a police force that satisfies the first two. Ample warnings were given after all.

4. EDIT: The other thing to also note that the eviction of the people from City Square is often conflated with the stopping of the protest and hence infringing on the rights of the protesters. I think it is important here to distinguish between stopping an illegal method of protest as opposed to stopping an individual’s right to protest. The question here for me is: Is it reasonable for a group of people to permanently or at least indefinitely inhabit a public space as part of a protest? Given that the protest movement has free access to the internet, to private spaces and has the ability and the right to organise other protests in public spaces, I think that it is not reasonable for them to claim a right to monopolise any public spaces indefinitely under the shield of their right to protest.

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