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Here Are Some Times People Broke 'Unjust Laws'

You've definitely benefited from this.
Here are some people taking unlawful industrial action (breaking 'unjust laws') during Victoria's day of protest in 1992.
Fairfax Media
Here are some people taking unlawful industrial action (breaking 'unjust laws') during Victoria's day of protest in 1992.

New secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, has caused a stir by saying "I don't think there's a problem" with people breaking "unjust laws". She is facing fierce criticism from government members and others, despite those critics definitely benefiting from people in past generations doing exactly what McManus has supported.

McManus was asked by 7.30 host Leigh Sales on Wednesday if the ACTU would "consider distancing itself from the CFMEU" following a string of legal cases where the construction, forestry, mining and energy union had taken unprotected industrial action (that is, striking or altering work arrangements without the approval of the Fair Work Commission). Sales asked McManus whether she believed in "the rule of law".

"I believe in the rule of law where the law is fair, when the law is right. But when it's unjust, I don't think there's a problem with breaking it," the union boss replied.

Condemnation came swift, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling for an apology and retraction from McManus and saying "big, militant unions" need to obey the rule of law.

"She should apologise and retract it. We are a nation governed by the rule of law, all of our freedoms depend on the rule of law," he told Ben Fordham on 2GB Radio on Thursday.

"What she is doing is basically saying, and this of course is the culture of the CFMEU... that you only have to obey the law if it suits you and if you're big and wealthy enough and you've got a baseball bat in one hand like the CFMEU does then you don't have to worry about the law.

"The CFMEU and the ACTU, they're unhappy because they're being brought to account and they're being forced to obey the law. Well, the rest of us have to obey the law and big, militant unions are no exception -- we're making them obey the law.

Employment minister Michaelia Cash was also quick to condemn the comments, saying they were "outrageous".

"This is an extraordinary admission by a newly minted union leader that she believes she is above the law and that unions can pick and choose when they obey the law and when they do not," Cash said.

But McManus is hardly the first to advocate rebellion against "unjust laws". She joins quite a long list.

Senator Derryn Hinch

Broadcaster and now federal senator Derryn Hinch knows a thing or two about breaking laws that he doesn't agree with. The former radio and TV journalist has been jailed twice for breaching court orders suppressing information around high-profile sex cases, including the killer of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher. Rather than pay fines for breaching suppression orders, Hinch instead went to jail in protest.

"I used to joke I wish I didn't have so many principles in my case," Hinch laughed, as he told The Huffington Post Australia about his thoughts on the "unjust laws" comment.

"The suppression laws have seemed to protect the criminals more than the victims. You can break the law but be prepared to take the consequences, and consider if you believe in the cause enough to go to jail."

Hinch said that while he didn't agree with everything McManus said, or the actions of the CFMEU in general, he said he agreed with the philosophical point she made.

"It's your moral code. You might see a law as unjust, someone else might think they're quite just. It's never to be done lightly, prison is never a joke. But if you feel that strongly, you're entitled to."


Taking unlawful industrial action isn't new. It's been a facet of union tactics since unions began, the strategy of withdrawing labour if employers present unsatisfactory or unsafe working conditions. As Australian unions have been quick to point out in the wake of criticisms of McManus, basically every standard working condition we take for granted -- eight-hour work days, paid annual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, superannuation -- was won in part by unions and workers taking unlawful industrial action including strikes, go-slows and other tactics.

"Every single Australian benefits from superannuation, Medicare, the weekend and minimum wages -- these were all won by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents taking non-violent so-called illegal industrial action," McManus said in an ACTU statement on Thursday.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union published a series of tweets detailing more of these rights won through industrial action. Here are a few:

Medical cannabis suppliers

In a very timely addition, considering the moves around medical cannabis in Australia, we've also got to remember that until very recently, the product was not legally available in Australia. It was down to rogue suppliers, who either made cannabis oil themselves or illegally shipped it into the country, to provide it unlawfully to people who needed it for epilepsy, seizures or a whole host of other ailments.

People like South Australian woman Jenny Hallam, who had her home raided by police because she was allegedly unlawfully supplying cannabis oil to people nationwide, are acting out of civil disobedience because the products weren't available legally. Their work has been recognised as morally correct, even by people as senior as Labor leader Bill Shorten, who called for an amnesty on people who had supplied cannabis products in the absence of legal alternatives.

Martin Luther King Jr

Dr King is perhaps the most famous advocate of civil disobedience, working through the American race and segregation disputes in the 1960s.

There are countless instances and quotes we could use to illustrate Dr King's thoughts on "unjust laws" -- the entirety of his famous 'letter from Birmingham jail', where he was imprisoned for disobeying a ruling that he not hold a public demonstration, for a start -- but we'll leave you with just a few:

  • "​​​One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty";

  • "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law";

  • "I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws";


In reporting on highly sensitive or classified material, journalists are sometimes asked or ordered to give up their sources (examples here, here, here and plenty more besides). Most journalists won't comply with this sort of court order.


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