Breaking unjust laws is a duty in a democracy

By March 24, 2017Australian Politics

You have to laugh at the manufactured outrage from the LNC and the meek metooism from the ALP, when the new secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, the first woman to hold the position, stated that: “Yeah, I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair, when the law is right. But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it”1.

There are lots of instances of people breaking the law when they thought they were unjust. Back in 1919, there was a federal ban on displaying the red flag, the symbol of the Russian Revolution of 1917. On 24th of March, 1919, about 8,000 demonstrators and ex-servicemen marched from the centre of Brisbane to the Russian Hall in Merivale Street. The protestors clashed with police and about 100 people were injured. Again in Brisbane, on the 8th of September 1967, a large illegal march protesting involvement in the Vietnam War occurred after Queensland University students were refused a permit to march. As many as 4,000 students and staff marched from the university into the city. The police blocked the march, so the marchers staged a mass sit down in Roma Street, and 144 people were arrested2,3.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was elected Premier of Queensland in 1967 and remained there for 19 years, heading one of the most corrupt state governments in Australia’s history. The Queensland Police, at that time equally corrupt, acted essentially as the enforcement arm of the ruling National Party. After several large demonstrations that were squashed by police, the Queensland Government introduced a ban on all street protests. This resulted in a statewide campaign of defiance. Bjelke-Petersen was quoted as saying “the day of the political street march is over…Don’t bother to apply for a permit. You won’t get one. That’s government policy now.”3 Part of the reason for this ban was to give Bjelke-Petersen a law and order issue to take to the next state election, always a big winner for conservative (and corrupt) governments. The response to this was pure genius; the Phantom Civil Liberties March, where protestors would gather and march until the police and media arrived, then they would disperse, only to reassemble again until the police and media arrived, before dispersing again. The process was repeated numerous times3.

Senator Derryn Hinch, has been imprisoned on two occasions for breaching court orders (in high-profile sex cases) with which he disagreed. As he said, “you are entitled to break an unjust law but then face the consequences”4.

After Sally McManus was pilloried by Malcolm Turnbull and Michaelia Cash on radio and in the press, several unions were quick to point out instances of illegality (strikes and boycotts) which led to such things as the 8 hour day, long service leave and superannuation4.

It is a shame the manufactured outrage shown by Turnbull and Cash was not evident when, in 2009, the New South Wales state government enacted laws that banned property developers from donating money to political parties. For instance, one developer, Tony Merhi used to make generous donations to councils and state election campaigns. However after such donations were made illegal in New South Wales, he began donating money to the federal Liberal Party. The money was then laundered through the Free Enterprise Foundation, and sent back to the New South Wales Liberal Party5. So, this outrage of Turnbull and Cash is hypocritical in the extreme, and says so much about their principles

As Martin Luther King said “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”3. Turnbull and Cash may be unfamiliar with Martin Luther King, concerned as he was with civil rights, but I bet they know much more about the Free Enterprise Foundation, but somehow would rather pretend they don’t. It seems that breaking unjust laws is only a problem if you are from the left of the political spectrum.




  • Jon says:

    “Civil disobedience” is a cornerstone of democracy – literally so if you’re a woman (think suffragettes). There are numerous instances of people taking stances against unjust laws – and often succeeding in effecting change as a result – across the democratic world. Only the wilfully ignorant wouldn’t recognise the courage and rectitude of many of them – eg Rosa Parks. Whistleblowers and journalists have also regularly flouted laws in order to expose corruption and collusion. Doubt even the chameleon Turnbull would argue that point. That said, Sally McManus needs to be more careful with her facts:

    • admin says:

      Yeah, I saw the SMH piece, but if I said all I wanted to say it would have been much longer, and I need to sleep occasionally!

  • Jim Jago says:

    One point that Sally McManus should have added was that if you break the law then you have to accept the consequences, even if you think right is on your side. This was a point made quite strongly by the reformist South Australian premier, Don Dunstan, back in the late sixties and early seventies, particularly in relation to the Vietnam War conscription legislation. One has to be very careful with this concept (i.e., you can break bad laws) because what is regarded as a bad law by some people may be regarded as a good law by others who simply think differently. The whole basis of western civilisation and democracy is the rule of law. It is a far from perfect system, but it is a lot better than most of the others around the world.

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