Resisting repression

Some ideas for defending Australian freedoms

Australian freedoms are under threat from anti-terrorism powers. I'm greatly concerned and so are lots of other people. This is an outline of ideas about organised support of dissent and civil liberties.

The issue

Australian anti-terrorism laws are a serious assault on civil liberties. They can readily be used against whistleblowers, journalists and activists.

My assumption is that it is unwise to rely on governments to protect civil liberties - after all, they are the ones passing and implementing the laws. The key to protecting freedoms is citizen action.

Key arguments

The main argument for the repressive powers is national security against terrorists.

There are various counter-arguments. The main ones are:

Activists and allies

Opponents of the repressive powers can be roughly classified into organisers and activists; occasional participants (such as those who might attend a meeting or rally); and passive supporters. The same classification can be made of proponents. To be effective in opposing the powers, it is useful to think of encouraging participants to become organisers and activists, encouraging passive supporters to become occasional participants, turning passive opponents into passive supporters, and weakening the commitment of key opponent groups.

Here are some promising groups for finding organisers, activists and participants:

* Nonviolence movement: it's in an excellent position because of its commitment to nonviolence

* Muslim community: the most likely target of repressive measures

* Social movements, e.g. labour, peace, environmental: possible targets of repression

* Civil liberties groups

* Media workers: there are some outstanding investigators and eloquent commentators

* Lawyers and judges: many are concerned about the assault on the rule of law

* Political parties: Greens, Democrats, some individual Labor and Liberal politicians, and many party members

* Artists: drama and humour can be powerful tools against repression

* Researchers: for finding arguments, precedents, lessons

* General public: there are many concerned citizens willing to participate in suitably designed initiatives

Organising resistance

It may be unwise for resistance to be coordinated by a single body, because it would be an obvious target for destabilisation. There is greater resilience in networks that provide information and support for independent initiatives.

If some groups take action, then it will be useful to keep in touch with others, and in some cases to coordinate activities.

Communication is crucial. Efforts are needed to establish multiple channels for communicating, including in an emergency.

It makes sense to do nearly everything openly. Activists and figureheads are likely to be under surveillance. Infiltration and disruption are possible.

Some areas for efforts


The government will almost certainly try to hide as much as possible of its repressive activities, especially its mistakes and failures. Therefore it is crucial to be able to expose as much information as possible. Important roles can be played by leakers, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, courageous editors, and alternative media.


The government will undoubtedly slander, indeed demonise, anyone who is targeted by the new powers. Therefore it is important to counter tactics of devaluation by humanising victims and those who support them.

It is better if those who take leading roles are principled and respectable and thus harder to discredit. For example, an explicit commitment to nonviolence makes it harder to credibly label someone a terrorist.


The government and its allies will say that the new powers are about protecting the community against dangerous enemies and that they are not a danger to law-abiding citizens. The struggle over rationales is ongoing. Engaging in the public debate is vitally important.

As well as logical arguments, symbols and slogans are important.

It is easier to obtain support for defence of the status quo than for social change. In this case, it is governments that have made radical changes - for the worse. It may be advantageous for some activists to frame themselves as defenders of community values, as "conservatives" rather than "radicals."


There will a great temptation to engage with the issue using formal channels, such as amendments to laws, electoral politics, constitutional appeals, etc. This is to play the game on the government's own turf and does not encourage popular participation in resistance. A higher priority should be put on empowering people to resist the powers directly.


The new powers are intimidating. To oppose them requires preparation, training - and courage.

Some possible initiatives

Training in direct action, networking and group dynamics in the face of repression.

Members of the nonviolence movement have skills for this, as do some other activists such as in the environmental and feminist movements.

A statement of defiance to the new laws: by signing, a person would be breaking the law.

In 1979, repressive laws were used to give the go-ahead for uranium mining, with penalties for merely expressing opposition up to years in prison. Many people signed a statement of defiance - a petition - against these laws. A similar statement could be used to arouse concern about anti-terrorism powers.

A quick response network in case of arrests.

When someone is arrested under the new powers, a response network could spring into action, with links to lawyers, journalists, activists and relevant communities. This would help tie participants together and provide reassurance to activists and other potential targets.

Back-up of key resources

It's possible that police could raid individuals and groups. Therefore, it makes sense to duplicate and disperse key resources such as membership lists, files and websites, in case they are confiscated or shut down. This would also help to prevent too much dependence on a few individuals or groups.

Collections of key resources

There is lots of good material that can be used by activists and supporters, such as manuals, articles and graphics. It would be useful to post as much as possible on websites. All the key arguments should be addressed.

What you can do

* Propose initiatives within your own group or network.

* Help set up a network of sympathisers.

* Liaise with people in other networks.

* Back up your key resources and make other preparations in case you're targeted for attack.

* Be prepared to join wider actions.

Further reading


Brian Martin


phone: 02-4221 3763 work; 02-4228 7860 home

Brian Martin is emeritus professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong, vice president of Whistleblowers Australia and has been studying nonviolence and dissent for 35 years.

Originally published 6 October 2005; revised 5 November 2014