Free speech victory in Brunswick

[An edited version of this article appeared in Green Left Weekly, #841, June 23, 2010]

Green Left Weekly and Socialist Alliance have won a victory in our free speech struggle at Brunswick's Barkly Square shopping centre. Our Saturday morning card table stalls can now continue as before.

Management stopped our stalls in late November and offered us a completely unacceptable deal. We began our campaign in late February and in the next three months it developed considerable momentum.

Each week we held protest stalls at the centre and had to deal with the cops when management called them. But the police were on their best behaviour: they realised we were hardly major crime and, moreover, had significant local support. The response from shoppers was warm and extremely heartening. Almost 1000 signed our petition and people were clearly outraged at the ban and concerned at the ongoing privatisation of public space.

A number of people (19 that we know of) sent protest emails to management; we letterboxed thousands of residents in a broad area around the shopping centre; and on May 8 we held a widely supported free speech protest which marched down Sydney Road, right through the shopping centre and rallied in the forecourt. We developed support in the CFMEU and AMWU and various officials made phone calls to the ISPT (Industry Super Property Trust — the actual owners) on our behalf.

ISPT and management clearly felt the pressure and wanted the big stink we were causing to go away. Some of their actions seemed rather ill-considered. In the beginning they obviously expected big things from the police but were quickly disappointed. At the end they issued an order banning Dave Holmes from the shopping centre — but then right away arranged to meet with us to discuss the issue!

The deal which we have accepted means we can go back to our regular Saturday morning stalls at the carpark entrance. However, we have had to agree to increase our public liability insurance cover from $10 million to $20 million.

In addition, we have had to apply to Moreland Council for a permit for our stall on MacDougall Street (a laneway that goes through the centre on the less busy side of the complex). This has been granted but will have to be renewed each month.

(In over a decade council has never taken the slightest interest in our activities on MacDougall Street and clearly only acted in response to management's pressure. But while permit regimes are not good and Green Left Weekly has tried to avoid them around the country, we wanted to get this issue off the table so we could concentrate all our efforts on the dispute with the centre.)

A related issue which we raised in our campaign is access by progressive community groups to the centre. While we were not able to advance on this and there remains no independent right of access (management's insurance demand is a big problem here and it also appears that they want to avoid an open slather), we will do what we can to accomodate progressive local action groups through our stalls.

All in all, we have won an important victory. We didn't want to be banned and this situation was unexpectedly forced on us. Nevertheless, our campaign has achieved some real gains: the forces of darkness have been beaten back, at least for now; a number of supporters became involved on various levels; it has raised our profile in the area (and not only there); important links have been developed with other groups; and we have increased public awareness on a vital issue which will be with us as long as we live under corporate capitalism.

Now that we have won a victory, the challenge for us is to make sure that we take full advantage of it. That is, we need to have a stall at the carpark entrance every single week and, weather permitting, on MacDougall Street as well. If you are interested in helping out, please get in touch.