It is difficult to overstate the importance and influence of disruptive, peaceful protest and non-violent direct action in social change.
On countless issues like women’s rights, LGBTIQ+ rights, justice for First Nations people, rights for workers, or campaigns against racism and xenophobia, large-scale protest, including disruption and direct action have been an essential ingredient of success. Globally, recent months have seen major wins as a result of protest, specifically in the withdrawal of Hong Kong’s extradition bill. Within the environment movement, most major wins have been thanks to direct action. Within the Australian context, some examples include the iconic campaigns to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania, the battle to stop uranium mining at Jabiluka in Kakadu National Park, and the Bentley Blockade against unconventional gas exploration in NSW’s Northern Rivers.
It should come as no surprise that these same tactics are coming to the fore again today, as governments continue to steer us ever closer to a catastrophic climate future and a deepening global extinction crisis. We’ve seen this in Brisbane in recent months, as climate campaigners have brought large-scale disruptive actions that force these issues into the limelight. The very targeted ‘Stop Adani’ campaign – the face of the climate movement in recent years – appears to have broadened in the wake of the recent Federal election, and the Queensland Government’s decision to back in Adani and other Galilee coal projects.
But recent disruptive protests and direct action are not only in response to this change of position from the State Government. They are a last resort. They follow years of petitioning, letter writing, rallies, marches, campaigning around elections, and directly lobbying MPs. And they are necessary – when it comes to action on climate change, we are at a tipping point. We don’t have long to turn the ship around before our chance to meet even the 2°C target vanishes.
New anti-protest laws in Queensland
The labour movement, and members of the Labor party, have historically been instrumental in movements for social change. Whether it be by strike, street marches, occupations or other confrontational tactics, large scale social change like the five day work week, or women’s right to vote can be directly attributed to more disruptive tactics. Against this backdrop, it is particularly shocking that Queensland’s Labor Government has announced legislation to crack down on protesters.
Labor’s proposed laws would extend police search powers and introduce a new offence that criminalises the use or possession of so-called “dangerous devices” with sentences of up to two years imprisonment. The exact definitions and details are yet to be released, but it seems the laws are intended to target “lock on” devices such as barrels, pipes, bike locks and superglue. In practice they could give police a wide discretion to stop and search anyone suspected of attending a peaceful protest.
The supposed justification appears to be a complete fabrication. The Premier and the Police Minister have described “booby trapped” devices, that are intended to harm emergency services personnel cutting protesters free. Yet participants in such activities are staunchly non-violent, and have refuted the Premier’s allegations, pointing to the fact that booby trapping devices would put their safety at the most risk. You’d think too, that if such allegations were true, both police and the Murdoch press would’ve been all over it for months. No such allegation has been made in Queensland, and police have never charged someone with such an offence.
Further, the law as it stands does not need to be expanded – laws already exist to deal with protest actions intended to cause harm to another, or that use tactics like blocking roadways. Rather than to deter, or protect, these proposed laws are designed to dehumanise, vilify and criminalise peaceful protesters, so that Governments can continue to justify ignoring their entirely reasonable policy demands.
Along with this announcement, we’ve seen a shift in the language used by both Labor and the LNP designed to do the same. Peaceful protesters are being impugned with inflammatory language like “extremists”, “danger”, “terrorise”. This language, and other imputations about protesters impeding fireys, ambos and police helping others, serves to pit protesters against the “common good” in an attempt to justify limitations on civil liberties and extended police powers. It’s a really concerning path for the Government to go down.
Perhaps even more concerning is the way Labor’s announcement has created the political space for even more drastic proposals from the LNP, which is unconstrained by any internal opposition to this kind of erosion of civil liberties. This risk has already materialised, with Brisbane’s LNP Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner having proposed changes to the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992 (Qld), and pressuring the Premier to limit street protesting at peak hour.
The Queensland laws as part of a broader anti-democratic crackdown
It’s important to understand these proposed “crackdowns” in the broader context of the democratic challenges Australia is facing right now. There’s the recent example of the Federal Government’s new legislation targeting animal activists. Or the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act, introduced by the LNP and rubber stamped by Labor in 2018, that impacts on freedom of speech, public interest journalism and non-violent protest, with penalties of up to 25 years in jail. Beyond specific legislative proposals, we’ve seen quite shocking encroachment on freedom of the press (think the raid on Annika Smethurst), and the enforcement of incredible penalties for whistleblowers.
I’m left wondering whether this kind of government response reflects the reality that, perhaps now more than ever before, we need dissent and peaceful protest to strengthen our democracy.
The vast majority of Australians want our Government to take action to curb the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Peaceful protest is about using what little power individuals or groups of people do possess, in the most effective way possible. It’s part of the political process; campaigners are marginalised while taking action, until the perspective somehow changes. Activists’ values are co-opted once they’ve succeeded in shifting the norm.
The idea that democracy is something that only happens every couple of years at your local voting booth is a dangerous proposition. Yet this is increasingly the way it appears to play out, with corporate interests and media moguls doing their darndest in the intervening years, both behind the scenes and in the headlines, to drive politics and policy in the interests of profit.
Murdoch & Co. are quick to label everyday people as “dangerous, reckless, irresponsible, selfish and stupid” for protesting governments’ reckless and immoral inaction. They are quick to criminalise their actions and label them terrorists. Yet when huge mining corporations like New Hope drill illegally at 27 sites they’re fined just $3,152. When Adani spews coal-laden sludge into the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area they were fined just $12,000. There’s no doubt our democracy is sick.
Protesting is a necessary mechanism for civic engagement and pressuring change when governments are no longer listening to their constituents. We have doubtlessly reached the point where that’s necessary in the face of inaction on climate change: the politics of self-interest and and the ever revolving door between politics and big business will leave the most ardent optimist with little hope that the necessary change will come from Governments.
The pushback on scrutiny and civil disobedience from governments at all levels represents not only a further alignment of government and corporate interests. It’s also a truly scary demonstration of government’s willingness to subjugate our right to fight against those interests, even where our collective future depends on it.
Back to the Bjelke-Petersen era?
Queenslanders are rightly terrified about this recent turn in our Labor Government’s policy and rhetoric, given our State’s historically brutal, racist policing, and entrenched poor democracy. With just one house of representation, the potential for poorly thought out proposals is significant.
The parallels with Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland cannot and should not be ignored. In 1967 civil liberties movements formed in protest against the Traffic Act, under which a permit was required to march on the streets or roadways. Queensland now has the Peaceful Assembly Act, which enables groups to apply and have their assembly approved automatically unless the police or government authority successfully challenges the permit.
In the lead up to Extinction Rebellion’s recent Rebellion Day in Brisbane’s CBD, the police attempted to quash their permit, but were unsuccessful because they failed to follow the appropriate procedures. Following this, Brisbane City Council challenged another permit, taking Greens Councillor Jonathan Sri to court in an attempt to stop a 15 minute march from going ahead. The march was about the right to peaceful protest. The Council lost the challenge, but the fact they even attempted such a move is a scary sign of where we are at.
Since declaring my public condemnation of these news laws, I’ve heard from a lot of folks unhappy with my support of disruptive protest and those who say they’re doing more harm than good to the movement.
But the reality is we have never before seen climate protest and surrounding issues saturate Queensland’s mainstream media the way it has in recent weeks and months. Non-violent protest, including direct action, is most effective when it’s attention-grabbing and cannot be ignored. Despite what many might argue, disruption is attention grabbing. Directly stopping or slowing work is attention grabbing. Indeed, if the critics (many of whom don’t dispute the motives of these protests) think they have a better way, I’d invite them to try it.
Because right now, with Governments at all levels supporting new thermal coal mining and gas exploration against the urgent pleas of the scientific community, we cannot afford not to try everything. Our current climate trajectory will condemn our Pacific neighbours, and First Nations people on the front lines, to climate chaos, and our children to an unsafe, unlivable world. That is extreme, that is unjust, and it is unbelievably negligent.
As far as I’m concerned, politicians and big business who have knowingly gotten us to this point, and continue to do nothing are the true criminals and extremists here.