Designated Areas as Protest Control
History of Designated Area powers
Victoria Police were given the power to declare a “designated area” in a 2009 amendment to the Control of Weapons Act 1990 (Vic) in what was a law and order reaction to a crime panic around a rise in knife-related youth crime (which was disputed at the time). It was the first law in Victoria that the State Government had to acknowledge was partially incompatible with the Human Rights Charter.
Since that time, designated areas under the Control of Weapons Act have been mostly used in the suburbs and public transport hubs around Victoria as a response to incidents of crime involving knives and other weapons or during large public events such as Moomba or New Year’s Eve.
The controversial stop and search powers allow police to stop anyone without needing a lawful basis. Even though the powers are limited to an area and for up to 12 hours at a time, this risks racial profiling when police stop and search people based on assumptions, stereotypes, or bias.
When it was first used in 2010, Victoria Police were so concerned about the risk of racial profiling they deployed a range of anti-profiling measures to randomise searches such as picking every 10th person who came out of a train station. Police no longer take these measures.
Creeping use as protest control
In 2017, designated areas began to be declared in response to protest events in Melbourne involving far-right protests and counter-protests. Whilst there had been some incidents of physical violence between groups at these events there had been no reports of knives or other weapons being present, (aside from the weapons such as OC spray, being used by police). MALS first reported on the use of designated areas at a protest in June 2017. Ironically, the only weapon used at many of these events was the OC spray wielded by police.
The Act was expanded again in 2017 by the Andrews Government to include anti-masking provisions.
The added provisions allowed police to force the removal of face coverings, even if they were used as protection against the potentially unlawful use of pepper spray by police.
This represented a serious expansion of the protest control functions of the Control of Weapons Act.
There are no protections or exemptions in the Act for wearing masks for political expression or for the myriad reasons why people may wish to remain anonymous at a protest event.
Over 2017 and 2018 designated areas were declared in response to a range of protest events. In 2018 the majority of designated areas in the City of Melbourne were for protests.
Designated areas were also declared during the anti-lock down protests over 2021.
Recent declarations of designated areas in 2023 have seemingly been used as a means to limit or control the activities of neo-Nazi groups such as the National Socialist Network (NSN) with the application of powers being observed to focus on directing them to remove face coverings or to leave an area.
Victoria Police may declare an area if the Chief Commissioner (or delegate) is satisfied that:
- there has been more than one act of violence or disorder with a weapon in the past 12 months and there is a likelihood that there will be violence or disorder with a weapon again, or
- there has been violence or disorder with a weapon at a previous event or celebration, this event is happening again and there is a likelihood that there will be violence or disorder with a weapon at this event again (italics added).
However, police have declared designated areas despite there being no reports of violence or disorder with a weapon. Police are not obligated to publish their reasoning nor provide any evidence related to declarations.
MALS believes that the use of designated areas as a method of protest control undermines the rights to assembly, association, and political expression that are protected under sections 15 and 16 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities (the Charter).
The use of intrusive public searches and directions to remove face coverings can be intimidating for those experiencing them. Even if no search powers are used, the possibility of such things can deter ordinary people from participating in a protest event.
Any laws targeting protest can dangerously impinge upon basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. Equally dangerous is police using laws intended for another purpose to control, limit, or manage political protests.
The Control of Weapons Act 1990 is a framework for the control of non-firearm weapons. It is not written, or designed, nor was it passed by the Victorian parliament as a measure to control or restrict public assemblies or participation in protests.
The use of these powers to control or limit participation in protests is deeply problematic. MALS legal observers will continue to closely monitor their use at protest events.
We urge anyone searched, or directed to remove face-coverings or to leave a protest by police to document and report it.
We urge the Victorian Parliament to review the Control of Weapons Act in light of its use by Victoria Police since 2009, both in terms of its enabling of racial profiling and limiting of our rights to freedom of political expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
For legal info and guides for activists see:
The Control of Weapons Act can be read online at AustLII.
A detailed critique of the anti-masking provisions in our post here.
 Putting Principle into Practice: VEOHRC Submission to the Four‐Year Review P135 https://www.humanrights.vic.gov.au/static/16c54603134736c7df204bc45da060f7/Submission-Scrutiny_of_Acts_and_Regulations_Committee-Four_year_review-Charter_review_submission-Jul_2011.pdf
 When Victoria Police first used powers to declare a “designated area”, and expanded search powers after a 2009 amendment to the Control of Weapons Act 1900, independent observers from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) and the Youth Referral Independent Person Program (YRIPP) were invited to observe and document searches at multiple suburban train stations. These anti-racial profiling techniques were observed by a MALS Organiser (then a trainer with YRIPP).
 Melbourne Activist Legal Support https://mals.au/2017/08/29/statement-of-concern-unlawful-use-of-oc-foam/
 Research by CBD News revealed that by 2018, nine out of 14 declared areas had occurred in the CBD. Of those, at least five were called in response to protest events, while at least three others were used for popular public events. https://www.cbdnews.com.au/police-mark-the-city-a-designated-area/
Over 2021-2022 there were 34 planned designated areas declared by Victoria Police under section 10D of the of the Control of Weapons Act. According to the Victoria Police Annual Report, 38 people were given a direction to leave the area under Section 10KA. It is not known how many of these were in relation to protest activity.