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Move-on bill likely to become law

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Clay Lucas and Henrietta Cook

Tecoma protester Gary Muratore fears the new law.

Tecoma protester Gary Muratore fears the new law. Photo: James Boddington

New laws designed to move on protesters, which the Napthine government admits will limit free speech and the right to peaceful protest, are set to pass State Parliament this week.

The government's Summary Offences Bill will probably pass the upper house by Thursday, extending police powers to move protesters who block access to buildings or cause others to ''have a reasonable fear of violence''. Anyone who ignores a ''move-on'' order could be arrested and face a $720 fine.

Legal, community and civil rights groups have raised serious concerns about the laws, which will also let police ask a court for exclusion orders banning a person from a public space for up to 12 months - with those breaching a ban facing up to two years in jail.

Several critics said the laws were reminiscent of those brought in by former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to quash opposition.

Under the changes move-on orders can also be issued to people who police believe have committed an offence in a public place within the previous 12 hours.

Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson said the laws were ''excessive'' because they gave police the power to fine people whom they suspected of a possible offence.

''It unnecessarily gives police too much power to move on protesters unjustifiably,'' he said. ''I have an issue with the low bar that is being set to give police the powers to move people on.''

Attorney-General Robert Clark said police had lacked the power needed to move protesters away from trouble spots - and make them stay away. The laws, Mr Clark said, would give Victoria Police the power to issue move-on orders to protesters who ''deliberately seek to stop people going about their lawful business''.

Police should not have ''to deal repeatedly with the same individuals at the same unlawful blockades'' day after day, he said.

The laws would not affect ''Victorians' rights to engage in lawful and peaceful protest to express their views'', Mr Clark said.

However, a statement of compatibility with the state's charter on human rights says the laws will ''in certain circumstances, limit the rights to freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly and freedom of association''.

The statement goes on to say the new laws are reasonable and safeguard rights including on the grounds the laws aim to protect public safety and the freedoms of others.

The move-on powers were first put in place by Labor in 2009 to tackle drunken violence - but with provisions that explicitly protected the right to protest.

Labor is opposing the laws, with Deputy Leader James Merlino branding them ''grossly anti-democratic'' and saying they could effectively criminalise all forms of peaceful community protest.

The government has repeatedly pointed to protesters trying to hamper the East West Link project as a reason the laws are needed.

Protesters in another high-profile campaign are furious over the move-on orders, saying they will stifle legitimate protest.

''It's just a stab in the heart to free speech,'' said Garry Muratore, who since 2011 has been part of the campaign to stop McDonald's building a fast-food outlet in Tecoma in the Dandenong Ranges.

Mr Muratore said present laws were more than adequate. ''There were some people in [our] campaign that got onto the roof of the building and they were trespassing, and the existing laws dealt with them,'' he said.

He said the ''clever'' things protesters had done - ''We've taken garden gnomes and besieged McDonald's headquarters, or we did a flash mob at Knox City where our people reprised Can You Hear The People Sing from Les Mis and got a standing ovation'' - would now potentially open participants up for $720 fines: ''This is Joh Bjelke-Petersen stuff.''

Police Association secretary Greg Davies said the new laws would be ''wholly appropriate'' for police to have in certain situations. Mr Davies said that, despite statements from Mr Clark that the laws would give police power to end union pickets, the powers were ''not primarily about moving people on from a union picket line''.

Mr Davies said there was the possibility police would become ''the meat in the sandwich'', pressed between protesters and state governments over political battles. ''But they always are.''

Federation of Community Legal Centres executive officer Liana Buchanan said the laws were an unnecessary addition to existing laws already covering protests or criminal conduct.

She said the new laws could be used to stop positive activism, including ''peaceful protests about family violence, working conditions or even the sort of public protest we saw following the death of Jill Meagher''.

Friends of the Earth spokesman Cam Walker also slammed the new laws, saying it would be ''irony in the fullest sense'' if they were used against farming communities opposed to gas exploration.

He said Seaspray residents were gearing up for ''direct action'' that would involve creating a picket line against Lakes Oil's plans for horizontal drilling for tight gas in the region. ''We don't know how much discretion will be used by police. It puts fear into average community members who are not activists who feel compelled to protect their communities against gas drilling,'' he said.

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