NTEU maintains right to COVID-safe protest against uni funding cuts and fee hikes

NTEU welcomes the Supreme Court decision today that upholds the right to protest in a COVID-safe way, when the Court disagreed with the NSW police application to ban NTEU from holding a physically distanced rally, for NTEU members only, at 12pm TOMORROW at Victoria Park, Camperdown, to protest the federal government’s destructive agenda for higher education.

To be COVID safe, the rally will be limited to five groups of no more than nineteen members per group. Each group will have its own marshal and will be physically distanced from the other groups of members. Attendees at the rally are required to wear a mask and maintain social distancing. All attendees MUST register beforehand and adhere to a COVID safe checklist.

The NTEU supports the enforcement of physical distancing as an appropriate public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the right to protest is foundational to a democratic society, and people should be able to protest in a physically distanced manner, adhering to COVID-safe precautions, during the pandemic.

The federal Liberal government has now passed its Job Ready Graduates Bill with the disappointing support of Centre Alliance senators Sterling Griff and Rebekha Sharkie. The Bill will cut funding per student to universities and dramatically hike fees for many courses. It will create perverse incentives for the allocation of funds within universities, with the possibility that STEM courses will actually lose funding and lead to further restructuring and job losses.

At the same time the government continues to deny universities access to Job Keeper, shifting the costs of the COVID crisis onto staff, many thousands of whom have already lost their jobs this year.

“At time when research, rebuilding and jobs growth is critical, this Liberal government is determined to use our universities to wage it’s culture wars re-election strategy,” said NTEU NSW Division Secretary Michael Thomson.

“They’re trying to kill two birds with one stone by cutting funding and attacking the humanities,” continued Thomson. “We hoped the Griff and Sharkie would see sense, but they’ve chosen to back this conservative agenda that will deny thousands of working-class kids the opportunity to go to uni. We cannot let that go without public opposition.”

The NTEU had applied for police approval for this rally. Despite extensive negotiations with the NSW police, approval was denied and the police sought an order of the Supreme Court to prohibit the rally from taking place.

“It’s extremely worrying that NSW police, with the apparent backing of the NSW Liberal government, have seen covid as an opportunity to unnecessarily ban all protest,” added Thomson. “We don’t need police intervention to beat this virus, we need a sensible approach that balances risk with democratic principles.”

George Newhouse, Director and Principal Solicitor of the National Justice Project, representing the NTEU in the NSW Supreme Court, also stated:

“The right to protest can be protected in a COVID-safe manner. When the NSW government is allowing as many as 10,000 people to attend football matches in a COVID-safe way, there is no excuse to prevent citizens from expressing their freedom of speech in socially-distanced rallies.”

“During a time of increased policing powers, it is all the more important that civil society organisations and trade unions may take action to hold governments to account and to raise awareness without the risk of copping massive fines.”

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