Democracy under fire

THE POLITICS  in The Monthly  TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2023

But what?

By Rachel Withers

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese gesticulates in the House of Representatives
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during Question Time, May 30, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images
The right to peaceful protest is important – no ifs, no buts

South Australians have taken to the streets to oppose draconian anti-protest laws aimed at cracking down on those who dare to challenge the government’s mates in the oil and gas industry. More than 80 civil society groups have signed a letter urging the SA Labor government to review the rushed bill, which already passed the lower house with bipartisan support, with members of SA Unions, the Working Women’s Centre, Amnesty International, the Australian Democracy Network and the Human Rights Law Centre involved in the protest. Unions are furious, arguing that the law – which will see penalties of up to three months’ jail or a $50,000 fine– will “fundamentally threaten” the right to protest on workplace issues. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, however, was his usual self when asked on ABC Radio about the new law. “Of course, free speech is important,” he said. “But it’s also important to exercise responsibility as well,” he added, arguing that protests shouldn’t disrupt. He went on: “It’s important that people be able to express their views. But it’s important also that they don’t alienate the public.” Someone tell that to legendary unionist Zelda D’Aprano, who in 1969 chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission to demand equal pay, and of whom former PM Julia Gillard has just unveiled a new statue in front of Melbourne’s Trades Hall.

There is something deeply concerning about those prime ministerial “but”s. Freedom of speech is important – no ifs, no buts. And civil society groups say this hastily drafted bill (“passed in just 22 minutes, with no debate or interrogation”) impinges on free speech, more or less outlawing protest, with the harshest penalties in Australia. As Human Rights Law Centre senior lawyer David Mejia-Canales points out, the proposed laws “are so broad and vague that even the suffragists could have been jailed under them”. This is especially relevant considering South Australia’s status as the first Australian jurisdiction to give women the right to vote. “Progress is, more often than not, won through protest, demonstrations and robust public debate,” added Working Women’s Centre director Abbey Kendall, arguing that people should be able to protest without fear of jail time (or bankruptcy, for that matter). As the “Santos Government” put it, in this week’s satirical Honest Government Ad, “We realise this might discourage many of you from attending any protest ever again. But we’re here to reassure you: that’s precisely the intent.” (“Rest assured,” it went on. “It definitely has nothing to do with the fact that [Premier Peter Malinauskas’s] brother works for Santos as head of government relations.”)

Albanese’s qualifying “but”s reveal so much. We see them in politics constantly, with leaders often making statements that should be indisputable and adding a sneaky caveat that completely undermines what they have just said. “Racial abuse of any nature is not acceptable, but…” said Opposition Leader Peter Dutton just yesterday, after being warned by the Race Discrimination Commissioner that making the voice debate about race was emboldening racists. (Dutton certainly seems emboldened.) “We are committed to making information public where possible but…” saida spokesperson for Infrastructure Minister Catherine King, after Labor voted down an infrastructure transparency amendment it had tried to put up from opposition. “We want to see this country being completely powered by renewable energy, clean green renewable energy, but…” said NT Mining Minister Nicole Manison as she announced plans to frack the Beetaloo Basin for extra gas that we do not need for the transition.

When viewed in light of Labor’s disturbing relationship with gas companies, there seems to be far more to these qualifying phrases – an unspoken acknowledgement that the “but” is about the money. What else could explain the toothless changes to the Petroleum Resource Rent Tax, which we learnt today specifically exclude Woodside’s North West Shelf project, one of the largest operational gas fields in the world? The Greens are accusing Labor of carving out a “sweetheart deal” for Woodside, while the Coalition is now offering support in exchange for streamlined gas approvals. (It’s surely just a coincidence that Woodside is one of the major parties’ biggest donors, says Greens leader Adam Bandt.) And we should all be scratching our heads at the warm tributes flowing from mining billionaires to outgoing WA Labor premier Mark McGowan. It surely won’t be long before McGowan lands an $800k job in the gas industry.

Of course we want to see this country being completely powered by renewable energy, Labor is saying. But… there is still plenty more money to be made from gas before then. Of course free speech is important. But… if you’re going to do anything that might upset our donors, such as throwing paint on things, or “peacefully protesting outside a conference where they were discussing how to keep making more money from killing the world”, you are going to spend some time in prison thinking about what you’ve done. It’s important that people be able to express their views. But… it’s more important that corporations get to keep making big money out of the fossil-fuel game, without anyone making too much noise.

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