The police, along with the military, represent the coercive arm of the state. In Australia the police are operationally independent of the government. This means that although the government is responsible for the police budget, the legislation that creates the laws under which police operate and for appointing the Chief Commissioner, the police decide how they will go about their various duties (Finnane 1994: 31-38).
The separation of powers between the police and government is considered an important tenet of liberal democracy. The separation of powers assists in ensuring that the police are not used in a partisan political way to harass and punish political opponents and dissidents. There is also a separation of roles and powers between the courts and the police. It is the police role to bring suspected offenders before the courts and the courts' role to decide on guilt or innocence and, in the case of conviction, decide on punishment.
The police have various roles. Officially, the core functions of the police include enforcing the law, keeping the peace and protecting life and property. In carrying out these functions the police have a broad discretion. How police discretion is used and how the various police roles are prioritised will have an impact on the policing of political protests. Strict adherence to enforcing the law at a protest, for example, might involve mass arrests for minor offences. Such mass arrests will inevitably impact on police resources and might undermine capacity to undertake other police functions. Mass arrests might be perceived as provocative by an otherwise peaceful crowd, escalate conflict and lead to breaches of the peace that might threaten life and property.
A hard or uncompromising attitude to protests prioritises enforcing the law regardless of the consequences for keeping the peace, whereas a more conciliatory style of policing political protest generally prioritises keeping the peace. When keeping the peace is prioritised police will generally only make arrests in a protest situation where the offences are serious and on balance the risk to life and property in not making the arrest outweighs the risk to life and property associated with making the arrest.
In democratic states, policing should comply with the law, be accountable and respect human rights.
Australia does not have a bill of rights but the right to protest is set out in the International Covenant of Political and Civil Rights. The right to protest is also recognised as an important part of Australia's social traditions and is now a part of Victorian and ACT legislation through the enactment of Charters of rights.
For more information about police powers and your rights see:
For more information about police accountability see: