A large protest erupted inside the House of Representatives on Wednesday afternoon, causing question time to be suspended and prompting recollections of the notorious 1996 union protest that turned violent and breached the front doors of Parliament House.
There will be an immediate investigation into the disruption – described as “extraordinary” by Speaker Tony Smith – in which about 25 protesters chanted “close the camps” and other messages at assembled MPs, accusing the Coalition and Labor of being world leaders in cruelty because of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
Located in the public viewing gallery, the group of activists glued their hands to handrails and linked arms, resisting the outnumbered Parliament House security guards’ attempts to remove them.
In a rare move, Speaker Tony Smith quickly suspended question time. Most Coalition MPs left immediately while Labor and the crossbenchers remained. Proceedings did not resume for 40 minutes.
The group continued to protest when moved out of the House of Representatives chamber and was then taken to the basement of Parliament House and released.
An organisation called the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance claimed credit, tweeting “we’ve shut down Parliament,” although not all the protesters were from the group.
Leader of the House Christopher Pyne described the occurrence as the “most serious intrusion into the Parliament since the riots organised by the [Australian Council of Trade Unions] in 1996”.
Mr Smith said there would be an investigation and described his decision to suspend question time as a “last resort” in “extraordinary circumstances”.
The Australian Federal Police said no charges had been laid yet but that their investigation was ongoing.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said one of Thursday’s protesters was arrested earlier this month for climbing on the roof of his electorate office.
Mr Dutton turned his sights on the “completely outrageous” comments made by magistrate Trevor Morgan who dealt with the matter, suggesting they encouraged the activist to ratchet up her actions.
“Believe it or not, the magistrate that dealt with the matter in the Petrie Magistrate’s Court in Queensland said – after he gave a $100 fine – to the three women that ‘if you were my daughters, I’d be proud of the fact that you were up on that roof’,” he told Sydney radio station 2GB.
He said the remark showed political bias and the protester “wasn’t hearing words of deterrence and she’s involved in the activity today”.
“I think it’s a good question frankly to ask the magistrate in Queensland or the chief magistrate how they feel now. What do they believe they were doing in making this political statement in the court.”
Outside Parliament House later, 45-year-old Samantha Castro said: “We came into Parliament today and like the cowards they are, the Turnbull government walked out.
“We came in today as taxpaying citizens into a public gallery to make a statement in the house of democracy.”
In dramatic scences, 22-year-old Sydney student Bridget Harilaou repeatedly screamed “you’re hurting me” as security officers tried to drag the group into the lift. After the protest she told Fairfax Media: “I got a few bruises on my arm but other than that I’m fine. I don’t think they were overtly rough to me.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale and immigration spokesman Nick McKim talked to and hugged the activists after the event, congratulating them on their actions and checking that they hadn’t been injured.
In a 1996 protest organised by the ACTU in response to the Howard government’s industrial relations agenda, demonstrators broke through the front doors of Parliament House. The riot resulted in dozens of injuries, property damage and multiple arrests.
In 2011, question time was interrupted by a group of 80 protesters angry about the Gillard government’s introduction of the carbon tax. They repeatedly interrupted proceedings, calling the prime minister a “liar” and yelling “democracy is dead”, before being ejected.