The right to protest is important in a democracy. In between elections, it allows citizens to express their views directly to government and the community on issues they believe to be important. In Melbourne we tend to take that right for granted. Throughout our history, men and women have taken to the streets to express their views on a wide variety of issues, from political rights to the environment. The first protests took place in Melbourne in the early 1840s and Melburnians have been protesting ever since. This exhibition looks at some of the issues that have been important to Melbourne’s citizens over the years.
Some of the earliest protests were demands for political rights. First Nations people, women, the LGBTQIA+ community and others took to the streets to demand equal rights and an end to discrimination. Workers also marched through the city early in Victoria’s history, to demand shorter hours, better working conditions and sometimes better pay. War and peace have always been divisive issues. During the First World War and then again in the late 1960s, the issue of conscription drew thousands to gather in impassioned protest and many have held strong views on other conflicts involving Australia.
More recently environmental issues have been to the fore. The spectre of global climate change looms large, uniting the generations in a struggle many believe is vital to our future on the planet.
But how secure is our right to protest? In Victoria the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 established the legal right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association. But these ‘rights’ were never absolute. And during the recent COVID-19 pandemic many questioned whether protest that conflicted with public health directives was justified, regardless of the issue concerned. It is a debate that continues in many democracies around the world.