IPA Today

What Zoe Did

Written by
2 September 2022

On Tuesday 30 August, Victoria Police dropped its charges against Zoe Buhler who was arrested by Victoria Police in 2020 for calling for a protest against lockdowns on Facebook. Here’s Zoe’s story and how the IPA’s former Executive Director John Roskam came to support her, as shared by IPA Communications Manager Chetna Mahadik with IPA members in our weekly member email.

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Dear IPA member,

On Tuesday, the Victoria Police withdrew its charges against Zoe Buhler at the Magistrates’ Court in Ballarat. Zoe was the 28-year-old pregnant woman, who was handcuffed and arrested in her home and in front of her two young children in September 2020 for creating a Facebook post urging people to protest against the draconian lockdowns in Melbourne.

As IPA Senior Fellow John Roskam, who was present with Zoe at the Ballarat Magistrates’ Court, said on Channel 9 News:

That [the withdrawal of the case] reveals that the government knows that it overstepped the mark and the Victoria Police were doing things they never should have done.

This week, I am doing something different. I am dedicating this entire IPA This Week [our weekly email to IPA members] to Zoe, a working-class woman with whom I share little by way of background except that we are both mothers of young children and we both firmly believe that our freedoms – our freedom to speak our minds and to protest tyranny – mean something. They are not gifts bestowed and snatched back by the government at whim but the foundational basis of a dignified human life.  

I am dedicating this email to her because it seems none of the people who should be writing about the horror of what happened to her – our media, human rights organisations, activists – are interested in exploring what her story says about the state of Australia today.

There are so many things that need to be said about Zoe’s plight. First, what exactly did Zoe do to ignite such ire of the government? Zoe created a Facebook event calling people in Ballarat to protest against the lockdown of Melbourne by the Victorian government – which by this time had been in hard lockdown for 99 days.

Screengrab of the original Facebook event created by Zoe Buhler

Zoe’s intentions are evident. She was not trying to incite people to violence or flagrantly break the law. She just wanted people to speak out against the lockdown because she cared for freedom and wanted to ‘hopefully make a difference’.

Ballarat at this point was in Stage 3 lockdown, the same level of lockdown that Melbourne had been in when the Black Lives Matter protest was organised by three career activists. Victoria Police was aware of that protest ahead of time too but allowed it to go ahead. It was attended by over 10,000 people. Victoria Police only charged the organisers A YEAR LATER, and even then, they were only fined $1,652 each. [Read here]

But Zoe found herself facing a far less benign Victoria Police on 2 September 2020, as several police officers turned up at her home and proceeded to arrest this shocked young woman still in her pyjamas in front of two little children for the serious offence of incitement. What has stayed with me from that video of her being arrested is her increasing distress, as her initial bewilderment gave way to tearful apology and an offer to take down the post. But the police arrested her anyway. [Watch here]

As former Police Sergeant Krystle Mitchell – who resigned in protest of what she had seen Victoria Police become in October 2021 – shared, this is not standard police procedure. Arrests can be made in many different ways, and it is not unusual for the police to call up the member of the community in advance and discuss a time for them to come into the police station for an interview and discuss their offence. [Watch here]

Like millions of people, I saw Zoe’s arrest on Facebook and recoiled in horror. How could this be happening in Australia? And how come this woman, who was trying to protest for something I completely agreed with, have this done to her? If they could do this to her, couldn’t they do this to me – in front of my children?

I was not working at the IPA at the time. I was just another Melburnian stuck inside her house feeling panicked and powerless in a way I had never felt in my entire life. I felt alone, isolated and after Zoe’s arrest even afraid to express my true feelings on social media – the one medium through which we were allowed to engage with the world at large.

The government understood exactly how bad this looked. In a press conference soon after, Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius stated he regretted the ‘optics’ of arresting a pregnant woman but he was ‘absolutely satisfied’ the officers acted appropriately, and Zoe had ‘engaged in serious criminal behaviour’. [Read here]

Zoe urged people to speak up for freedom peacefully, in their masks and while maintaining social distance – that was ‘incitement’ and ‘serious criminal behaviour’ in Victoria in 2020 and 2021.

It was at this point that John Roskam got in touch with Zoe on phone and connected her to lawyers, and our friends at LibertyWorks to run a donation page that raised $70,000 to pay for two years of legal expenses. As he wrote to you in his weekly email the following Friday:

What dozens and dozens of IPA members have texted me and emailed me to say over the last two days is something I’m starting to think too. I’m not sure I recognise this country anymore.

In Australia you should not have to risk imprisonment to express an opinion. (And for that matter it shouldn’t be unlawful to offend someone either.)

But why was it John and IPA members who were connecting Zoe to supportive organisations?

It was John and you and friends of the IPA because the organisations we Australians fund to the tune of millions of dollars every year to protect our human rights failed to speak up for Zoe, let alone provide any tangible support.

Here’s the sum total of the support she received from the Australian Human Rights Commission – the AHRC President Rosalind Croucher put out a tweet expressing ‘dismay’ at the arrest of ‘a woman in Ballarat’. [See here]

A tweet! An organisation whose annual budgeted expense for 2022-23 is $29.9 million couldn’t even put out a media release against the total disassembling of so many basic human rights of Zoe – her right to free speech, right to protest, right to free movement, right to protection from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. I didn’t make these rights up, it’s all there in the Charter for Human Rights. [Read here]

Contrast this with what the AHRC did when The Australian published Bill Leak’s cartoon on the failure of parenting in the Indigenous community. The then Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane called a press conference and invited any person who might have been offended by the cartoon to send in a complaint so that they could proceed to charge Bill Leak. (Incidentally, as Fred Pawle shared in his biography of Bill Leak, Die Laughing, the AHRC received all of three complaints in response, and the one they proceeded with was from a university student on an exchange program in Germany at the time.)

I tried to see who among our leading career activists, bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians put out a strong statement against the violations of Zoe’s rights, or that of the millions of other Victorians who had lost their right to free movement for months on end. I didn’t find any.

I guess Zoe’s fault was that she was not speaking up for the rights of specific group of people – people of colour, or refugees, or disabled people, or women, or a sexual minority. When she spoke up for the freedom of ‘all people’, our human rights bodies who have organised themselves along the lines of identity politics, simply didn’t have the language or the wherewithal to address it.  

But the IPA did. The IPA was strong, firm and forthright in calling out this gross abuse of power by the state against an individual. [See here, here and here]

But what Zoe’s arrest – and subsequent silence of the establishment on it – did was to finally make Victorians realise that they were on their own. Over the next year, the largely quiescent and apolitical Victorians learnt to reach out to each other, organise themselves and build a language of rights and freedoms which resulted in the mass protests in the second half of 2021 and the eventual reopening of Victoria.

I am one of those Victorians. Because it was after Zoe’s arrest that I became a member of the IPA, reached out to Scott Hargreaves (who was then the Executive General Manager of the IPA) with my desire to be more involved, and was interviewed and hired for the role of Communications Manager.

It took two full years for Zoe’s case to come to court. And just like that, on the first day of her hearing, the Victoria Police withdrew the case without offering any explanation whatsoever other than it was not in the ‘public interest’ to pursue this case.

As happy as I am that Zoe’s ordeal has come to an end, it is the absence of explanation that worries me the most.

Because it shows that Victoria Police (and the Victorian Government by extension) can just charge individuals with ‘serious criminal offence’ and then drop the charges later claiming it is not in public interest. How can prosecuting a serious criminal offence not be in public interest unless it was not a serious criminal offence in the first place?

While the media has reported on Zoe’s charges being dropped, not a single news media has called for an inquiry into how has it come to this – is this the new norm for Victoria and Australia?

Again, I find that the IPA is the only organisation asking these questions about our basic right to a dignified life, that generations before us fought hard and won for us.  

Standing before the Ballarat Magistrates’ Court, Zoe said:

I have no regrets. I am glad I stood up for people’s human rights and freedom.

In that simple statement, this working-class young mother has shown more courage than Australia’s entire human rights machinery put together.

And I am proud that the IPA stood beside her through this entire dreadful journey.

John, Scott and the entire team at the IPA couldn’t have done it without you – our community of IPA members – who understood that Zoe’s case was more than about one young Victorian being arrested, it was about the rights of all Australians against an all-powerful state.

Before I finish, I want to take you back to one little thing in Zoe’s post. Zoe was not urging people to protest against the lockdown where she lived. She was urging them to turn up to protest on behalf of Melburnians like me – who were facing far harsher lockdowns than she was and were not being allowed to protest. Somehow that fact, more than anything else, moved me. Thank you, Zoe for standing up for me, when I couldn’t.

I’ll end with few words from John Donne, which I think that you, Zoe and I reflexively understand and live by:

Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

I usually finish with a request to send this email to at least one person who is still not an IPA member. But I am not doing it this time. I’m leaving it to you to do with this email, what you wish.

Until next week…

Regards

Chetna


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Chetna Mahadik

Chetna Mahadik is the Member Communications and Production Manager at the Institute of Public Affairs

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