When more than 300,000 school students and their supporters rallied across the country on September 20 to protest climate inaction, acting prime minister Michael McCormack described the protests as “just a disruption
Earlier this month, when two Extinction Rebellion activists glued themselves to a Brisbane bridge, Queensland Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington said, “These protesters are disrupting everyday Queenslanders.”
Disruption, say our leaders, is bad.
Except not all disruption is bad, is it. The philosophy of disruption dominates contemporary business thought, with the likes of Uber and Amazon worshipped for their disruptive innovations.
The difference between the two disruptions, of course, is that one lot of disruptors make money for the investor class, while the other lot threaten the interests of the investor class by challenging the status quo.
So when a police officer says, “A peaceful protest does not disrupt the services in the CBD,” as Superintendent David Clayton did after April’s vegan protest
in Melbourne, what he’s really saying is, “The state accepts your right to protest provided it does not in any way inconvenience it.”
But what would be the point of that?
Fight the power
From the eight-hour working day to women’s right to vote and ending our involvement in the Vietnam War, many of the most important social reforms and decisions in Australian history have been achieved in large part
by protest. Disruptive
But the powerful have never been big fans of the great unwashed standing up for themselves, usually because whenever they do it’s to either demand that those in power give up that power, or to exhort them to do something they’d rather not.
Those who gum up the gears of capitalism invariably find themselves subjected to the state’s wrath. That’s why we have legislation restricting labour strikes
, making it almost impossible for workers to withhold their labour. (A mass strike like the one that saved Medicare
in 1976 would result in the deregistration of unions today.) It’s why we had the tyranny of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s police state
And it’s why over the past few years, during which the activist left has enjoyed a resurgence, there has been another concerted effort by governments of both stripes to undermine the right to protest and protect the interests of businesses.
Last year’s Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill
, presented as essential for responding to new threats of foreign interference in our democracy, could be used to jail Australian political activists
, and placed the protection of profit above civil rights by recasting espionage as acting against “economic interests”. The legislation was so troubling even the Institute of Public Affairs complained
Legislation was also passed earlier this month targeting the activities of animal rights protesters
. The laws, which criminalise behaviour that “would cause detriment to a primary production business”, create harsh new penalties for people who incite others to trespass on farms.
In Queensland, where Brisbane has become the front line for anti-fossil fuel activism, the Labor government has tabled legislation
(for which they sought mining industry advice) which proposes new penalties for protesters who disrupt transport or block access to businesses, and grants police new powers to search activists for “dangerous attachment devices”.
The laws have brought memories of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years roaring back
for many Queenslanders. The LNP-dominated Brisbane City Council even tried to ban a protest
organised in response to the legislation but was defeated in court.
In New South Wales, the Right to Farm
bill introduced last week to ostensibly stop animal rights protests on farms, has been attacked
for being so broad as to outlaw civil protest in any enclosed space. The new laws come on the back of last year’s anti-assembly regulations which give low-level bureaucrats the power to disperse protesters
on state-owned land.
Meanwhile, in Tasmania, the Liberal government campaigned at last year’s election on restoring anti-protest laws that were dubbed “Pythonesque” in their absurdity
by the High Court.
At a time when the power of corporations is in the ascendancy, we can’t rely on millionaire executives
, the billionaires to whom they answer, and the politicians who do their bidding, to voluntarily solve the great problems of our epoch. Without putting too fine a point on it, they’re not our friends.
In the face of intractable racial and class injustice, rising inequality and an existential threat to the existence of life, the only thing we can truly count on is lots of people, in solidarity, saying “no more”.
No legislation can ever stop that.
Queensland Greens MP Michael Berkman’s piece
in Green Agenda
is an excellent appraisal of the current challenges to Australian democracy.
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