Victorian unions and activist groups have launched a campaign against proposed new laws that would make it easier for police to outlaw pickets and protests, and to arrest and jail peaceful protesters.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council Executive meeting on 24 January called a rally to “defend the right to protest in Victoria” for Tuesday 18 February, meeting 10am at Trades Hall for a march to Parliament House.

The new laws are a serious threat to political freedom. The current “move on” powers of police and protective service officers, introduced by the Labor government in 2009, are draconian enough. But, under pressure from the Federation of Community Legal Centres and other groups, the then government agreed to include a clear provision that “move on” powers do not apply to demonstrations, protests and picket lines.

Under the new laws, police will have the discretion to apply the “move on” powers to trade union or community picket lines, or to other sites where people had previously been arrested. Refusal to comply will result in arrest, and police will not even have to give the direction to individuals – ordering a group to “move on” will be sufficient. That means you can be arrested for not complying with an order you are not aware of.

The new laws would also allow the police to apply for “exclusion orders” against specific individuals who have been subject to several move-on orders (three in six months, or five in 12 months), banning them from entering or remaining in a particular public space for up to a year. Breaching such an order would carry a penalty of two years’ jail. This measure is clearly targeted at victimising union leaders and protest organisers.

It is crucial that unions and others mobilise to resist this clear attack on the right to protest. It is also important to understand how this explicit attack on political freedoms is linked to the broader expansion of police powers and curtailment of civil rights that is taking place around the country.

Moral panics about bikies in Queensland, or “alcohol-fuelled street violence” in Melbourne and Sydney, have led to a vast expansion of state control over public life. Whether it is CCTV cameras being installed in city streets, the increasing militarisation of the police force with its vast array of supposedly non-lethal weaponry like tasers and pepper-spray or new laws that give police more power to direct and detain people committing no crime, “law and order” hysteria has created an atmosphere in which the unlimited rights of the state over its citizens are increasingly assumed.

Draconian laws are then expanded to attack trade unionists and community activist groups. The Victorian Labor government may have agreed in 2009 to exempt political protests from its general expansion of police powers. But it nonetheless established the context in which the Liberals can expand on Labor’s laws to attack unionists and political activists.

So while we need to oppose explicit attacks on the right to protest, it is also incumbent on the union movement and the left to raise our voices against the more general expansion of police powers and against the moral panics that give such changes their justification.