IN a famous 1982 High Court case Justice Lionel Murphy delivered an eight-word sentence that Australians – blessed to live in this stable democracy – should never forget.
“Mr Neal is entitled to be an agitator,” said Justice Murphy in response to a Queensland magistrate’s comments during the sentencing of an Indigenous man after an incident on an Aboriginal reserve. The magistrate referred to the Indigenous man, Mr Neal, as someone who “upset the harmonious running” of the reserve, after the court heard evidence Indigenous people struggled with its operations by white officials.
Justice Murphy had a colourful history as politician and judge but was responsible for landmark reforms, including in the areas of censorship, freedom of access to government information, corporations and trade practices law, environmental protections, marriage, abolition of Australian appeals to the British Privy Council, abolition of the death penalty and racial discrimination law.
He was strongly criticised throughout his career for being a reformer.
But in the Neal case he spoke of the right, and the need, for agitators or stirrers in the community.
“Many of the great religious and political figures of history have been agitators, and human progress owes much to the efforts of these and the many who are unknown,” Justice Murphy said in the Neal case.
It is a long distance in time and place from a Queensland Aboriginal reserve in the 1980s to The Drip gorge carpark in the Upper Hunter in 2018, but Justice Murphy’s comment, “Mr Neal is entitled to be an agitator”, is the link between the two.
Up to four police cars “monitored” a busload of people who visited small Upper Hunter mining-affected communities on February 3 and 4 after deciding those on the bus were protesters. It appears they were described that way because the bus was organised by Lock the Gate, and despite promotional material making it clear the weekend was designed to help Sydney people, in particular, understand what it is like for people in areas surrounded by open cut coal mines.
It is of concern that police responded in the way they did – following the bus for hours over the weekend – after a misreading of a tour as a “protest group”. And it is right to question the NSW Government about the true impact of its controversial anti-protest laws.