Monica Doumit: A policy? None that anyone can see

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Mounted police officers on standby at a peaceful demonstration at Hazelwood Power Station, Victoria. Photo: Simpsons fan 66/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Mounted police officers on standby at a peaceful demonstration at Hazelwood Power Station, Victoria. Photo: Simpsons fan 66/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The scenes coming out of Victoria at the moment are like those from a movie: whether it be a non-masked protester being wrestled to the ground by seven uniformed officers, with several more Victoria Police in riot gear positioned to assist if needed, five police officers surrounding an elderly woman, sitting on a park bench, telling her she is under arrest for failing to provide her name and address, or the now-infamous footage of a young mum wearing pyjamas being handcuffed in her home while her children looked on, it is a truly extraordinary sight.

Opinion is divided: many support the harsh restrictions in place as a difficult but necessary measure to bring the horrible death toll and infection rates under control, while others see them as the heavy-handed actions of an over zealous police force empowered by an increasingly desperate Government.

Remember when Premier Daniel Andrews blamed families getting together for the second wave of infections? “It is unacceptable that families anywhere in our state can, just because they want this to be over, pretend that it is,” he said.

“It is pretty clear that behind closed doors … they are not practicing social distancing.”

The family-blaming had to stop following recent evidence that almost all cases have been traced back to the government’s disastrous mismanagement of quarantine.

Last week, the arrest of Zoe Lee Buhler, has brought the divergent views into sharp focus once again.

I assume most people know the story but, for those who don’t, Ms Buhler created a Facebook event that invited people to engage in a peaceful, socially-distanced and mask-wearing protest against the stage 4 lockdown restrictions in Ballarat.

Several officers from Victoria Police knocked on her door, informed her that she was under arrest for incitement, and handcuffed her while she was wearing her pyjamas.

Ms Buhler told the officers she would take the post down, but this was not an option: they seized her phone and her computer instead.

Speaking to the media the following day, Ms Buhler said she did not realise that putting up a Facebook post was illegal. She also confirmed she was treated well by police, who ended up letting her change her clothes.

The arrest and charge for incitement stands. What are people making of it? Well, some I’ve spoken too suggest Ms Buhler is a ‘twit’ who should have known better.

Others said the police were correct to make an example of Ms Buhler, because such events were putting lives at risk.

And others still think she is a victim of police and government overreach; a freedom fighter, if you will.

I’m not going to tell you what I think about Ms Buhler, but I will tell you that her arrest is yet another manifestation of the hypocrisy of how the Victorian Government and Victoria Police are dealing with this crisis.

If we wind our calendars back three months, the Black Lives Matter protests were held in Melbourne.

While people were officially discouraged from attending, it was also made clear that those who did attend would not be fined or arrested.

Both the former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton and the new Chief Commissioner, Shane Patton, had said that enforcing social distancing fines was “not feasible”.

The Assistant Police Commissioner, Luke Cornelius, said that they respected the right to protest. The protest went ahead, even at a time when many businesses remained shut, as did churches.

But in Ms Buhler’s case, the respect for the right to protest disappeared. What changed?

Many have said that the numbers have changed: Victoria’s second wave is much worse than the first, hundreds of new infections each day and sometimes scores of deaths as well.

Premier Daniel Andrews. Photo: Nickm57/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
Premier Daniel Andrews. Photo: Nickm57/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

That’s true, but it’s not the case in Ballarat, where the protest was due to be held. Indeed, on the day of Ms Buhler’s arrest, there were a total of five active cases in the entire Ballarat local government area which spans 739 square kilometres.

Not five new cases, five active cases. In a region of 739 square kilometres. By comparison, on the day of the Melbourne Black Lives Matter protests, there were 1394 active cases in Metropolitan Melbourne.

Both protests were risky, to be sure, but which presented the greater threat? Could the different treatment instead be attributed to what they were protesting?

Call me cynical, but after what we have seen in recent years, I’m not entirely surprised that Victoria Police has been seen to mete out unequal treatment, depending on the views of their target.

People are willing to make a lot of sacrifices in order to get through a crisis; Australians prove that time and time again. But it would be better if we weren’t asked to swallow hypocrisy from our leaders or our law enforcement in the process.

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