Ever since dogs Pistol and Boo brought celebrities Johnny Depp and Amber Heard into the government’s crosshairs, Australia’s laws have been in the headlines.
But while our quarantine laws have a clear and important purpose, other laws seem just bizarre.
Depending on which state you live in, wearing pink hot pants after midday on a Sunday or riding a goat could be illegal.
In Western Australia, it’s illegal to possess more than 50 kilograms of potatoes, which Dr. Justine Rogers, a Law Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, says “was a product of the regulation of food during the Great Depression and post-War period.”
“Now, it’s more clearly tied to the farmers’ monopoly and a desire to keep supply low, and prices and quality high. But you wouldn’t know this by just looking at the rule itself.”
While playing expletive-riddled rap or sexist songs on the radio is apparently fine, laws in the Northern Territory and Victoria say singing an obscene song or ballad in a public place is an offence.
In Victoria, the Summary Offences Act 1966 states that it’s an offence to fly a kite or play a game in a public place “to the annoyance of another person.”
“Not only does that seem insufficiently serious to warrant criminal punishment,” notes to University of Wollongong Associate Professor Julia Quilter,” it’s also the kind of activity that we perhaps think we should be promoting – being outside and being active.”
Unsurprisingly, some of the world’s strangest laws are from the United States of America, including offences related to giving a moose a beer, feeding pigs rubbish and having a moustache that makes people laugh in church.
Rogers, who recently took part in Justice Connect’s Ridiculous Laws event, says “without their historical and policy contexts; they seem obscure, funny and, because there have been traditionally more men law-makers than women, often terribly sexist.”
There are a multitude of reasons why we end up with odd-sounding laws. Some, while archaic now, would have seemed reasonable at the time or were passed to deal with a specific event.
While many remain on the books because they are relatively harmless and there’s little political incentive to do repeal them, Professor Quilter explains there’s symbolism to repealing some laws.
“To repeal the offence that relates to obstructing a member of the clergy in the discharge of his or her duties, while it’s probably never been used for a billion years, is also symbolically problematic.”
Most of us understand that archaic laws, both in relevance and language, make the law less accessible to the public, but have less knowledge of the broader effects.
“Even if they seem harmless, having them there chips away at our confidence in the law. It seems out of touch and excessive,” warns Rogers.
“The law doesn’t just have the potential to be weird or odd; it can be downright harmful and discriminatory. There are real things about which people should be concerned and, where necessary, protest.”