A ‘conservative’ policing bill for managing the recent anti-vaccine-mandate protests already tallies a whopping $1.9 million, but this is expected to rise in the coming weeks with more protest activity expected in the lead-up to Federal Parliament budget sittings in late March.
Around 500 protesters remain in the Canberra region, with some social media posts from the protest groups suggesting others plan to return towards the end of this month.
ACT Policing has confirmed an additional 22,000 hours of policing work – much of it paid overtime – was required to manage the protest activity ‘peacefully’.
A spokesperson said in a statement this total includes the “costs of our own officers, the costs of bringing in and accommodating AFP officers from interstate and all other expenses associated with managing protests of this nature”.
However, this is still a ‘conservative’ estimate.
Police will not release exact numbers of how many officers were brought in from the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) national operations or other jurisdictions around the country.
The cost will likely be footed by ACT taxpayers, although the ACT Government is expected to approach the Commonwealth Government to request financial assistance to meet the bill once the final cost is known.
In a statement, a government spokesperson said, “there is an expectation that the Federal Government should meet the additional costs incurred by ACT Policing during this operation and any future costs associated with protest activity in the nation’s capital”.
It’s understood Minister for Police and Emergency Services Mick Gentleman is still yet to receive a response to a recent letter he sent to his Federal counterparts in which he asked them to condemn the ‘extremist’ elements of the protest activity.
“I’m very concerned about the results and responses I’ve received. They haven’t been that affirmative. It appears [the Federal Government] don’t seem too worried about what is happening here in Canberra; it’s most disappointing. But I will still persist and see what we can do,” Mr Gentleman said.
Some Federal senators have supported the protesters, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison said vaccine mandates are a state and territory responsibility.
To manage the recent protests, a lot of ‘ordinary policing’ had to be shelved and investigations were paused as resources were deployed away from traditional police matters.
The Australian Federal Police Association said this a concern given ACT Policing members were “tired”, “stretched” and “under-resourced” even before the protests began.
Association president Alex Caruana said it’s important to consider the welfare costs and the financial ones.
“While overtime is nice in the members’ pocket, it does come with a physical and mental health cost. My members need time away from the grind of being a police officer. It is a tough job, and a lot of members have sacrificed their work-life balance over the last month, which is impacting them and their families,” he said.
Mr Caruana warned usual policing resource levels would be impacted over the next few months as members take leave and are allowed time to recuperate.
In a recent annual report hearing, ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan said community feedback regarding how police had managed the protest activity had been positive.
A total of 23 arrests have been made since the protesters began arriving in the National Capital in December to protest against vaccine mandates, but CPO Gaughan said policing resources had been required to manage traffic as well as complications arising from the sheer number of people gathering in one place.
So-called ‘freedom protesters’ and others belonging to the ‘sovereign citizen movement’ had to be moved on repeatedly in recent weeks from illegal campsites and then from EPIC to allow for the Royal Canberra Show to set up – operations which required large numbers of police.
Others remain at the Cotter, although anyone camping there illegally has already been moved on and several arrests were made. Still more are camping in locations such as Braidwood.
A smaller protest than was witnessed in January – when protester numbers swelled to around 10,000 – took place last Saturday. Around 600 to 700 people are believed to have participated.
Small daily protests are also taking place in various locations around Canberra, with some media organisations, especially the ABC, having their offices targeted.
Since late December, a dedicated intelligence group has been monitoring social media for information about the protest activity. This group has been assisted by colleagues across the country.
CPO Gaughan said it had proven a challenge to ensure all officers received sufficient rest as well as food and water to sustain the necessary momentum and manage the protests peacefully.