Even when a pre-election budget has the government handing out funding announcements like Santa Claus, for some of us official mail is rarely a welcome appearance in our letterbox. So I didn’t have high hopes when I opened a letter the other day. Inside the envelope was the news that the state government department is reconsidering whether I am a fit person to be working with children – apparently they are considering cancelling my approval because I “have a history of anti-social, public nuisance and other miscellaneous offending.”
“Public nuisance” I can accept – I’ve been called worse, and those words are actually written in my criminal record. It was “anti-social” that annoyed me – that after years of correspondence with me where I have talked about the motivation for various illegal protest actions, they still see these as random psychopathic acts.
I can handle the insult, and to be honest I will survive if they cancel my working with children qualification (though I would certainly be appealing it). Whoever is doing the character checks has a right to disagree with my personal political beliefs or tactics. But what really annoyed me is the implication about civil disobedience.
The progress of human society is full of people who stepped outside of social norms for the sake of moral causes – for democracy, racial and gender equality, workers rights, peace, environmental awareness and so many more. You can agree or not with their causes (though many positive aspects of the society we live in now are a result of their hard work), but there should at least be an acknowledgement that this tradition of sacrificing your own liberty and convenience for a greater cause is the opposite of anti-social.
While I was opening my mail, others were feeling the sting of government crackdowns on civil disobedience. Down in Sydney, activists associated with Blockade Australia did eight blockade actions over five days disrupting the operations of the Port of Botany. By the end of the week they had caused quite a fuss and generated quite a response from the government.
Federal Immigration Minister Alex Hawke announced he would be cancelling the visas of two German students who were arrested in the protests, though their offences are fairly mild. Hawke said “families going about their business, driving to school or work, do not deserve to be disrupted by the attention-seeking stunts of unlawful protesters. Australians expect guests in our country to comply with our laws. Under the Morrison Government, non-citizens who violate our laws will be considered for visa cancellation.”
It’s the legacy of Australia’s “stop asylum seekers boats at any cost” border policy which endows the Immigration Minister these unilateral powers – never mind the court system that once would have made these decisions with legal principles in mind. Alex Hawke doesn’t like these protests, so these two young men should be deported. Hawke is shameless about his use of this power, even as our news is full of rhetoric about the fight to defend democracy from autocrats in other parts of the world.
NSW Police Minister and acting premier Paul Toole had a similar view on democratic freedoms. He announced the government would be rushing through legislation that expands the penalties for blocking the Harbour Bridge and apply them to other roads – making it an offence carrying up to two years in prison or $22,000 in fines to block major roads. Toole’s justification was “unauthorised protests have no place in our state and these tighter laws and tougher penalties we’re introducing prove we have zero tolerance for this selfish, disruptive and unruly behaviour.”
It is astonishing to see a State Premier so happily say something so undemocratic, as if Australia’s democracy is a place where only state-sanctioned protests are allowed. In these quotes you find little glimpses of the real mentality of people in positions of power.
On Monday, one of the protesters Max Curmi was sentenced to four months in prison for his action dramatically climbing a 60 metre crane at the port. Max is the third climate activist to be given a prison sentence in the last few months – late last year Sergeio Herbert was sentenced to one year but is currently out on bail with an appeal pending, while Juliet Lamont was given a one month suspended sentence. The threat of prison is something activists must take into account when doing these kinds of actions, especially if they are going to do it repeatedly like those three. But these sentences are often political as well – politicians passing new laws specifically to target protesters when what they do is already illegal is a sign the government wants to influence the court sentencing despite the basic democratic principle of a separation of powers.
People may disagree with Blockade Australia’s tactics and politics aims, but there is a clear logic to the underlying reasoning – “Corporate and institutional power is driving the climate crisis and blocking climate action… Action that generates social, political and economic disruption cannot be ignored. It creates political leverage that is needed to make real change. This requires stepping outside of the rules and regulations which maintain and protect Australia’s destructive operations.”
Faced with a situation where global agreements and basic rationality are calling for significant environmental changes but they do not remotely look like happening; we should be questioning how power functions in our society, and whether it works in everyone’s best interest. Part of that should include asking what techniques everyday people have of making up for that power imbalance.
We don’t have the ability to deport multinational companies who are polluting our atmosphere and deforming our democracy, or to bring in new laws that make it a crime to destroy the planet for your own profits. But we can use our creativity, bravery and physical presence to disrupt. Disrupt media narratives, disrupt the general feeling of powerlessness, and disrupt the flow of money that is the greatest threat to our democracy and the livability of our planet.
That’s what people have done for centuries; though each time they were imprisoned, penalised, sometimes killed; and frequently denigrated as troublemakers, selfish, anti-social or worse. It comes with the territory I guess, but it would be nice if at least those whose jobs are theoretically to uphold democracy could acknowledge that the human willingness to break unjust laws and suffer the consequences is our best defence against tyranny and a tool that when used well can make a better world for us all.
– Andy Paine