The freedom protesters who decided to inhabit the lawns of the Parliamentary Zone have learned that the national capital’s hospitality extends only so far.
They certainly have a right to come to the centre of the nation’s democracy to vent their frustration at the social restrictions, mask and vaccine mandates that have marked government attempts to prevent the spread and limit the impacts of the COVID-19 virus.
While most people accept that the public health orders have been in our best interest, there have been genuine concerns about a creeping loss of rights.
But as the protests themselves have shown, their messages are confused and often conflated with internet conspiracy theories and a fair dose of another virus that wants to infect the Australian body politic – the Trumpian notion of an alienated and ignored people who need to take back their country.
It’s a notion that culminated in the mob that stormed the US Capitol a little more than a year ago and sent a shudder through representative democracies everywhere.
Aside from that frightening spectre, many of our visitors have been just plain rude and abusive, setting up camp without regard to the rules, law or basic hygiene needs.
It is to the credit of the authorities and police that the inevitable process of moving them on has been done with a patience and a firmness that has resulted in few arrests and minimal violence.
Canberra should be a place where people’s views can be expressed freely and be seen and heard by those in power. The Parliament itself is embedded in the earth as symbolic of being a part of the country, not above it.
Federation Mall is designed to host gatherings, celebrations and protests and plays an important role in the interface between the elected and the people they serve.
Our city has seen various protests from climate and environmental activists, Indigenous rights campaigners, trade unionists, farmers, and even truck drivers.
This is democracy’s safety valve that prevents pressure building to dangerous levels.
Protesters are given a great degree of tolerance in our city. The Extinction Rebellion group has reverted to disruptive tactics to gain attention, gluing themselves to roads and stopping traffic, to the annoyance of motorists who might agree with them but really don’t want to be late home or part of the evening news.
But police have dealt with them efficiently, professionally, and again, with patience.
It took several days for the National Capital Authority to decide enough was enough with the parliamentary zone squatters. Even then, the police gave them fair warning before moving in the next day.
But in late December, that right to protest went too far when the historic front doors to Old Parliament House went up in smoke, causing millions of dollars in damage, but more to the point, scarring an institution dedicated to Australian democracy.
It was a hurt felt deeply by Canberrans who value the privilege of living in the national capital.
The event echoed the 1996 violent storming of Parliament House by radical unionists that followed what had been a peaceful protest on the Mall.
Symbols matter, and when they are damaged or defaced, what they represent can also suffer.
Those cleared from the Patrick White Lawns will undoubtedly point to the 50-year-old Aboriginal Tent Embassy and say they are being treated unfairly, but that has a long history of accommodation steeped in the long and ongoing struggle for Indigenous recognition.
It is even listed on the National Estate by the Australian Heritage Commission as a place of special significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
It continues to evolve, and its role may change again with the development of the Ngarra Indigenous cultural precinct nearby.
For those who join cavalcades to the capital or take protests to its streets, it would be good to remember to respect the democratic institutions that enable such actions and the city that is your host.