Upper house member Fiona Patten says police are fed up with being continually called to disputes and cites exclusion zones set up around clinics in Tasmania.
Following meetings with senior Victorian politicians and police, Australian Sex Party leader, Fiona Patten, will consider introducing a private member’s bill to the state parliament to stop anti-abortion protesters from gathering outside women’s health clinics.
On Tuesday, Patten met with staff at the Melbourne East police command, who for more than two decades have been called to the East Melbourne fertility clinic in response to calls from protesters, clinic staff and patients.
In the past month, she has also met the premier, Daniel Andrews, and opposition leader, Matthew Guy, to discuss the protests.
The protesters, from the group Helpers of God’s Precious Infants, jostle and harass women and staff attending the clinic, preventing them from exiting their cars, and distribute anti-abortion literature, clinic staff have said.
Patten told Guardian Australia on Friday that police said they were fed up with the continual disputes.
“They’d be very supportive of some form of legislative instrument that gave them power to prevent people from standing metres away from the front of the clinic,” Patten said.
“I think Tasmania got it right in legislating to implement exclusion zones around abortion clinics there, and I’m investigating what I can do, possibly through a private member’s bill, to introduce similar legislation here.”
In a document obtained from Melbourne city council last week through freedom of information laws, Patten found that the city council lord mayor, Robert Doyle, approached the former Coalition government in 2011 to request an exclusion zone around the east Melbourne clinic.
Council’s approach of using local laws to help women “enter and exit without harassment” had failed, Doyle wrote, adding that an exclusion zone would stop protest activities occurring “within a small bubble around the clinic” without altogether stripping them of their freedom to protest.
In his response to Doyle in 2012, the former Victorian attorney general Robert Clark wrote he was “not convinced an exclusion zone would be an appropriate solution”.
“Existing law provides a range of remedies for responding to allegations that persons are acting improperly in a protest or harassing other people,” Clark wrote.
“These remedies include injunctions, criminal charges and on-the-spot notices for breaches of by-laws relating to obstruction or public nuisance.”
Melbourne city council refused to comment on this story.
But in a case relating to the clinic before Victoria’s supreme court this week, a council lawyer said that council staff had no such power to issue injunctions or other penalties to the protesters, unless the protesters were blocking the entry door to the clinic.
The only option council had, the court heard, was to investigate complaints against the protesters and then make a recommendation.
The council was brought before the court by the clinic, who argued the council had failed to protect women from activities dangerous to their health under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act. Judgment will be handed down at a date yet to be announced.
Victoria’s attorney general, Martin Pakula, would not answer questions about whether the Labor government would support exclusion zones at abortion and fertility clinics.
A spokeswoman for Pakula cited the case before the supreme court as the reason, despite that case being between the city council and the clinic, and not involving the government.
“We await the judgment of the case with interest,” the spokeswoman said.
In his response to Guardian Australia the shadow attorney general, John Pesutto, said when in government the Coalition had enacted move-on laws that gave police stronger powers to deal with protesters in all situations, including at abortion clinics.
This legislation was repealed by the Labor government after it was elected in November last year, he said.
“The Coalition would welcome the re-introduction of move-on laws of the sort the government repealed,” he said.
However, those move-on laws were never used by police to remove protesters outside the clinic. Melbourne east senior sergeant, Dale Huntington, said police had been responding to the protesters for more than two decades and that moving them on was an ineffective long-term solution.
“It doesn’t stop them from coming back the next day and starting again,” he said.
Police supported the right of people to protest and freedom of expression, Huntington said, adding that women should also be free to get medical treatment without facing harassment.
“I know Tasmania has no-go zones in relation to clinics there and it seems that would afford people the right to protest while also allowing people to attend a legal health service,” he said.
Police received complaints from women who had been harassed by the protesters, he said, but few wanted to take the matter before a court.
“I understand why,” he said. “We have most often young ladies who truly don’t want to be identified, sometimes getting very personal procedures, and going to court and being identified is not appealing.”
Police also received complaints from protesters, he said, who reported women had pushed them or ripped placards out of their hands.
He welcomed the issue being put back on the agenda through the case unfolding in the supreme court, and through discussions about the pros and cons of exclusion zones.
“If we continue with the business-as-usual approach, we’ll be in this same situation for another 10 years,” he said. “And really, that’s not good.”
The leader of Helpers of God’s Precious Childrens’ Melbourne arm, Tanya O’Brien, said the group were not protesters, but “petitioners”.
It would not be possible to petition the women from across the road from the clinic, she said.
“Our activity is to offer assistance to women and we can’t do that from across the street,” she said. “We seek to establish a personal relationship with the woman and to find out what is causing her to resort to abortion.”
There were no medical or life circumstances where the group would support an abortion, she said.
If an exclusion zone were implemented, the group would “cross that bridge” at that time, she said.
O’Brien rejected reports from clinic staff that women had been traumatised by their activity.
In 2001 a clinic security guard was murdered by an anti-abortion protester at the clinic.
A 2011 study of 158 women attending the clinic, led by the University of Melbourne, found women on average, “women indicated considerable distress in participants when exposed to the picketers”.