You know the saying, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. Various psychological studies over the years have found some validity in the theory, and on a daily basis around the world people try it out for various reasons and to various extents.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk seems to have stumbled across the old adage while struggling for solutions to the tricky spot her Labor Party finds itself in currently. She must have watched with horror her party decimated in her home state in May’s federal election. She faces an election next November, and if Labor was to get a similar result they would lose government. There was no time to waste. Her assessment of the situation was that Labor had lost Queensland federally because of the party’s stance of not wanting to get anyone offside so not really taking a position on new coal mines like Adani’s Carmichael project in central Queensland.
Within days she set out rectifying the situation, announcing she was “fed up” with delays on the Adani project and was setting a timeline for its approval. Her deputy Jackie Trad posted on social media that Labor had been wrong and were now in full support of Adani.
It was an uncomfortable position though for a government that regularly spruiks its climate credentials, in a state that reports have said will be the worst affected by climate change. The tensions were an issue in the electorate (where regional seats are under threat from One Nation/LNP and inner city seats from the Greens) and within the party.
By this point too the Stop Adani campaign was not the only climate movement to deal with. From the UK came Extinction Rebellion, proposing mass civil disobedience in cities as a political tactic. Queensland was a state that had already seen sustained climate protests for half a decade since Campbell Newman approved the Adani mine, and Brisbane became the most enthusiastic Extinction Rebellion chapter.
It’s also a state with an extremely powerful mining lobby (Queensland Resources Council headed by former federal government minister Ian Macfarlane), and a print media virtually monopolised by Murdoch newspapers. Both went into a frenzy over this new wave of climate protesters causing “anarchy in the streets”. The LNP were accusing the government of being too soft, and proposing tougher laws against protesters. The climate issue was causing Annastacia headaches again.
Clamping down on political protest is not a comfortable fit for the Labor party in Queensland. They hold tightly to their own mythology as a party formed out the militant 1891 shearers strike (Palaszczuk did her mandatory pilgrimage to Barcaldine on Labour Day in 2016), and one that fought hard for civil rights during the two decades of Joh Bjelke-Peterson as conservative Premier. In Queens Park in Brisbane stands a statue of TJ Ryan, the legendary socialist Labor premier who defied the federal government by distributing anti-conscription pamphlets in World War One when it was illegal to do so.
So a bit of airbrushing would be required. Just the usual political spin, you know. New laws aimed at slowing down protest and placating the LNP, mining lobby and Murdoch press would be presented as purely about the safety of police officers. And the climate activists could be cast as the bad guys. Why not? They were already being publicly vilified anyway, and it would mean Labor could present itself as the reasonable force of moderation.
So on August 20, Palaszczuk introduced new laws to parliament. They would give police new stop and search powers and create new offences related to the “lock-on” devices sometimes used by environmental protesters to disrupt work. Accompanying the laws was a remarkable accusation. Palaszczuk had apparently been shown evidence of protesters using devices “laced with dangerous traps” designed to injure police rescue personnel who come to remove them. Protesters were using butane canisters and shattered glass to threaten the lives of innocent police officers. Police Minister Mark Ryan issued a press release that used the word “extremist” four times.
The media lapped up the sensational claims. Violent protesters! What a scandal, what a threat to the very fabric of society. Few journalists stopped to ask where the evidence was. If this had really been occurring, wouldn’t someone have been already charged with attempting to maim a police officer? Surely some news outlet would have reported all the gruesome details of the assault by now? And wait a minute, if these activists are planting explosives in these things, why do they lock themselves to the bomb?
There weren’t many people prepared to stand up for the protesters in the context of this moral panic. Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, normally a vocal champion of democratic rights, was hedging its bets: “If these allegations are true those planning such conduct are to be condemned and should face appropriate legal sanction. The QCCL has always supported the right of peaceful protest, even if that causes inconvenience to others.” Lock-on devices have been used for decades in Australia, but mostly in rural forest protests. The majority of city-dwellers, whatever their political beliefs, are not really very familiar with the devices.
An exception was Member for Maiwar Michael Berkman, the state’s lone Greens MP: “The government is using this fabricated notion – that peaceful protesters are using dangerous, booby-trapped tools – to silence dissent and distract from their own hypocrisy on climate change… These are dangerous, anti-democratic new laws that pretend to solve a nonexistent problem.” The solitary voice speaking up for the humble lock-on pipe was a role Berkman would have to get used to.
By the time the laws were presented to parliament on September 19th, Palaszczuk had soothed the rhetoric a little. References to explosives were quietly dropped, though with no apology to the environmentalists she had essentially publicly accused of being terrorists. That line was going to be hard to hold on to anyway. The day after the initial accusations, The Guardian had contacted Queensland police. They said “the placing of items into a locking-on device had the capacity to cause harm but was designed to delay the attempts of police to extricate protesters in a timely manner”. Which, funnily enough, was exactly what the protesters had been saying.
The gist was pretty much the same though. “The Palaszczuk Government is introducing new laws to ensure the safety of front- line emergency service workers and the broader community. These new laws are vitally important because these are the people who often put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others.” so went the government media release.
Another subtle propaganda tactic was present now too. The proposed laws contained references to sinister-sounding devices called “sleeping dragons” and “dragon’s dens”. Thankfully the law provided definitions for the terms, because even the activists who use the devices never use this terminology. These devices are always, and I mean absolutely always, referred to in Australia as “lock-on pipes” and “concrete barrels”. Those phrases are just so unglamourous though. From that moment on, every single media report on the laws contained more dragons than a teen fantasy novel.
The explanatory notes for the bill contained a remarkable sentence that said so much: “It has been reported some people have claimed that they have placed glass or aerosol canisters inside devices such as ‘sleeping dragons’ and metal fragments have been used to lace the concrete found in ‘dragon’s dens’” It has been reported some people have claimed? A pretty tenuous justification for laws that could send someone to jail. But the accusations had already been picked up by almost all media; and how many people actually scour the explanatory notes to parliamentary bills?
By the time the public submission process on the laws had closed on October 8th, Brisbane was in the midst of more disruptive Extinction Rebellion protests stopping traffic in the CBD. Annastacia Palaszczuk was declaring an emergency, but it wasn’t quite the one the protesters outside her office were calling for.
She announced she was fast-tracking the laws, but tried to reassure the public that proper process would still be followed. “We’re asking for the hearings to still happen, but to be brought forward.” She also said she wanted the laws in action by the end of the month. So much for the independent cross-bench Legal Affairs Committee.
Palaszczuk was at pains to say the laws were not about restricting protest, in fact she gave a spirited defence of the importance of protest to democracy. “I give this guarantee that this is not about people doing the right thing and peacefully protesting”. The laws, of course, are not aimed at anything other than political protest – what other context do people lock themselves to things using steel pipes and refuse to leave? What she means of course, is everyone is free to protest politely, without disrupting anything. Disruptive tactics, developed and proven effective by the history of movements for social change, don’t count.
Someone dug up a photo of a young and hip-looking Annastacia speaking at a rally for 4ZZZ after the community radio station had been kicked out of its university headquarters and illegally reoccupied the space. It seemed like she had betrayed the ideals of her younger self, but she hadn’t really. For a politician, the line between courageous freedom fighter and lawless rabble is always dependent on whether the protest is politically advantageous to you or not. As ever, few put it as bluntly as the Katter’s Australia Party; whose MP Nick Dametto said in parliament “I’m dead against that (climate protesters), but I want to make it clear that if farmers want to disrupt traffic in Brisbane, we’d support that“.
There had been 214 public submissions on the proposed laws, totaling over 500 pages. But the day after submissions closed on October 8th, following Palaszczuk’s press conference, relevant stakeholders were invited to testify at an enquiry on Friday October 11th. They had to RSVP with names by midday October 10th. In total they had less than 48 hours to prepare and present their evidence. I guess this is what she meant by fast-tracking.
Michael Berkman is not on the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee, but he forced his way into the inquiry by virtue of the fact he is the only MP who actually knows anything about environmental protest. Who knows what it would have been like had he not been there, as he was the only one who thought to ask police if there was actually evidence of gas canisters being placed inside concrete barrels. Shane Williams, police “expert on attachment devices”, offered one anecdote from 2005 when police had heard of said canisters being used. When asked if they had actually been used, he couldn’t confirm. “That’s the only example I can give you. When we wrote the training package we included aerosol cans in it for that reason.” Berkman also asked if there had been incidences of police intentionally injured by the devices, to which Williams responded there hadn’t. The hearing ended with police tabling photos with no date or location included. They gave evidence last, so no other witness could speak to those claims.
Rail freight company Aurizon meanwhile, were asked (by guess who) about the remarkable figure, contained in the bill’s explanatory notes, of $1.3 million that a single person climbing on top of a coal train had apparently cost the company. The witness said “Aurizon did not communicate this loss to the committee, nor has it made any public comment to this effect in any other forum. We understand this figure is taken from a Brisbane Times article”. “It has been reported that some people have said” indeed.
The final report stated “the bill generated substantial interest from the community, with over 200 submissions. Most submissions opposed the bill… A small number of submitters supported the bill.” Apparently these small number made a compelling argument, as almost all the evidence included in the report came from them. The committee recommended the bill be passed with no modifications.
Participants at the hearing weren’t just critical of the legislation itself – Queensland Council of Unions stated “we are concerned about fast-tracking laws like this. These are serious laws; they deal with people’s democratic rights… comments in the media about fast-tracking these laws and the fact that the committee process has been called on much earlier than it was otherwise scheduled does lead to some concern on our part about the integrity of this process”. The report listed three other groups making similar statements.
The report also gives another insight into the world of political spin. It had been reported in the media that Queensland Resources Council CEO Ian Macfarlane had spoken to cabinet in the drafting process of the laws. To reassure the public of the fair and balanced process though, the bill’s explanatory notes listed five other organisations consulted. When it came to the enquiry though, two of those five questioned the extent of that consultation, while others asked why the notes had no reference to any findings from said discussions. On top of that, Australian Conservation Foundation – the only environmental organisation listed among the five – said “No written correspondence has been received from the Queensland Government, by ACF regarding the Bill, nor has there been any formal opportunity to offer feedback… We request that reference to ACF be removed from the Explanatory Notes.”
Within days, the laws were back in parliament. The LNP had come with amendments – to them the laws were not strict enough. Their proposals came straight out of the Joh Bjelke-Peterson guide to civil liberties: an “unlawful assembly offence” that applies where “3 or more persons are present together for a common purpose and 1 or more of the persons is behaving in a way that would cause a person in the vicinity to reasonably suspect the behaviour is intended to cause traffic congestion or otherwise interfere with the use of a public place by a member of the public. The offence will attract a maximum penalty of 1 year’s imprisonment. Any person who is twice convicted of the offence will be sentenced to a period of imprisonment of a minimum of 7 days.”
Thankfully the amendments were rejected, but what did Labor party members think of the can of worms they had opened? We don’t know. As Michael Berkman pointed out, a number of prominent Labor ministers all stayed conspicuously silent during the debate. One unnamed MP had already stated to media “The right to protest or strike is part of what Labor was built on… I shudder to think what happens next if we’re saying it’s OK to make laws because we don’t like someone or don’t like their protest tactics.”
The mythical explosives were dragged out again in the debate, plus a new “booby trap” thrown into the mix – “tripwires”. This is in reference to ropes by which treesits and monopoles are tied to machinery, suspending the activist and immobilising the machine. These ropes usually go from a height of 8-10 metres to be fixed on a machine. The physics of how anyone could possibly trip on this rope was never really spelled out, but the tripwires were of sufficient concern that they made an appearance in the government’s final media release.
In parliament, Michael Berkman was the only one to talk about the threat of climate breakdown. A couple of MPs denied climate change was a thing, and Whitsunday MP Jason Costigan gave a speech about how he walked out of a community event in a local church because he saw a picture of Greta Thunberg. Labor minister Grace Grace gave a rousing defence of the right to protest, then voted for the laws.
The bill passed yesterday, 86 votes to 1. The government media release trumpeted again “Ensuring safety of first responders is paramount”. “This is first and foremost about safety“, Police Minister Mark Ryan said.
Is the world any safer? Probably not. We’re certainly no closer to addressing the climate crisis. Adani and Clive Palmer, both subject to legal proceedings against them by the government this year, are talking up their proposed new mines in the Galilee Basin. Annastacia Palaszcuk can rest easy that she got her bill passed though, and got to claim she had found the “sensible middle” compared to the LNP proposals.
“These new laws strike the appropriate balance between the rights of our citizens to peacefully protest and have a voice, and the rights of our emergency services personnel and members of the general community to be safe,” she said. “What we will not tolerate is when protest activity puts our emergency services personnel at risk and disrupts the community to such an extent that people’s lives are at risk.”
I try to avoid hyperbole, and it would be hypocritical for me in this article to make exaggerated claims. I certainly didn’t start the article with the following piece of information in mind. But for the sake of doing proper research, while writing I thought I should look up who first said “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. The quote, as it turns out, is attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister for propaganda.
– Andy Paine