Cattle prods and welfare cuts: mounting threats to Extinction Rebellion show demands are being heard, but ignored


Piero Moraro, Charles Sturt University

Scores of arrests have been made across Australia as the Extinction Rebellion enters its fifth day of protests.

The activists are desperately trying to force the Australian government to take serious and effective action against climate change. And their brand of civil disobedience has caused major inconveniences, from hanging off bridges to locking themselves to gates, vehicles or cement blocks.

But while inconvenient, their protests are still non-violent. This is an important point to stress, as the members of state and federal government peddle the view that they are criminals and anarchists.

In fact, as the movement grows stronger, so do the governments’ attempt to stop it. It shows the Extinction Rebellion’s demands are actually being heard, but at the same time, the drastic responses make it clear policy-makers will still choose to ignore them.

Draconian responses to social protest

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk last month used social media to denounce the “sinister” tactics of “stupid” protesters. She claims the current XR protests are “absolutely ridiculous” and are endangering people’s lives.

Her government is now fast-tracking new legislation that would mean possessing a locking device could lead to a jail term of up to two years, or a fine of up to $6,000.

Pauline Hanson has said Queenslanders should use cattle prods on climate change activists, whom she labelled “unwashed idiots”. And a few days ago, Studio 10 host Kerri-Anne Kennerley said motorists should run over XR protesters.




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Peter Dutton and Michaelia Cash added fuel to the fire. The Home Affairs minister labelled the XR protesters “fringe-dwellers”, and claimed they should face mandatory jail sentences and welfare cuts.

Senator Cash added: “taxpayers should not be expected to subsidise the protests of others”, since protesting is not an exemption from a welfare recipient’s obligation to look for a job.

What’s more, NSW Police have imposed stringent bail conditions on protesters, traditionally used with members of bikie gangs. The bail conditions prevent them from “going near, or contacting or trying to go near or contact (except through a legal representative) any members of the group Extinction Rebellion”. They’re also not allowed to be within 2.5 kilometres of Sydney’s CBD.

These conditions had the curious result of also preventing defendants from attending court in the Sydney CBD.

Ad hoc laws

Yesterday, former Greens Senator Scott Ludlam had his bail conditions revoked by deputy chief magistrate Jane Mottley, who said they were not necessary given the low seriousness of the offences. It’s expected many more cases will be dismissed on the same ground.

Nevertheless, this use of bail conditions against XR activists raises serious concerns, as citizens are threatened with jail if they insist on partaking in political activism.

The conditions appear to violate basic democratic rights, namely, freedom of opinion, movement and assembly, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.




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But it’s not the first time we see these kinds of ad hoc responses to social protest. Earlier this year, the federal government introduced The Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019, specifically targeting the growing animal rights movement in Australia.

Before then, the NSW government introduced the Inclosed Lands, Crimes and Law Enforcement Legislation Amendment (Interference) Bill 2016, targeting anti-mining protests.

And some have expressed concerns that Palaszczuk’s efforts to crack down on civil disobedience are reminiscent of the authoritarian Bjelke-Petersen era, when the QLD government allowed extreme police violence against peaceful protesters.




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But it’s worth remembering these XR protests have so far only caused traffic disruptions. While it constitutes a punishable offence, they are fine-only offences at most, as the judge noticed in Ludlam’s case.

Laws already exist to sanction those who breach traffic regulation. With reference to Queensland’s proposed anti-protest legislation, the Human Rights Law Centre noticed:

devices such as sleeping dragons, monopoles and tripods are commonly used in peaceful protest across Australia — our criminal laws already adequately cover their use when they cause major disruption.

The new laws may allow the police to search and arrest anyone who engages in a peaceful protest.

Communicative nature of protest

As I argue in my recent book on civil disobedience, this form of illegal protest has an inherent communicative nature. It seeks to elicit a reply from governments concerning the necessity of changing a law or policy.

From this standpoint, the tough, and seemingly unnecessary, responses to the XR movement are, paradoxically, encouraging. They reveal governments cannot continue to ignore the voices of environmental activists.

On the other hand, the way state and federal governments have chosen to respond show their unwillingness to entertain the activists’ demands.

Besides the mere goal of deterring people from engaging in further protest, governments are also following a familiar strategy involving the use of patronising language, aiming to dismiss XR activists as not worthy of its attention. For instance, the millions of young people who took part in the School Strike for Climate were just “skipping school”.




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These are all ways for governments to avoid having to answer for the legitimate questions about its controversial policies and careless attitude about scientists’ warning about rising global temperatures.

As they strives to come up with more demeaning labels for the XR movement, we are left to hope they may eventually apply their creative skills towards finding ways to finally cut Australia’s carbon emissions.The Conversation

Piero Moraro, Lecturer in Criminal Justice, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Extinction Rebellion protesters might be annoying. But they have a point



Police arrest a protester after Extinction Rebellion blocked the corner of Margaret and William Streets in Brisbane in August 2019.
Darren England/AAP

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

If you live in a major Australian city, expect your daily routine to be disrupted this week. Protest group Extinction Rebellion is carrying out a week of flash mobs, sit-ins and marches to block traffic and bring more attention to the pressing problems of climate change and biodiversity loss. Many arrests are expected.

Extinction Rebellion protesters say peaceful civil disobedience is an important social and political strategy for achieving a just and sustainable world.

Their protest actions may make us feel uncomfortable, annoyed or worse. But it is important that the general public understands the reasoning that underpins civil disobedience and why this radical strategy is being deployed this week.

Resistance movements are no stranger to law-breaking

The Extinction Rebellion movement has three bold demands of governments. First, government should declare a climate and ecological “emergency”. Second, by 2025 governments should decarbonise the economy and halt biodiversity loss. Third, citizens’ assemblies should be established to work with scientists to inform environmental policy-making.

Many aspects of Extinction Rebellion deserve, and have received, critical analysis, including whether its decarbonisation timeframe is unrealistic and whether their disruption tactics will alienate rather than inspire the general public.

The movement’s civil disobedience strategy is one of its most controversial. Civil disobedience is defined as public, non-violent and conscientious breaches of law which aim to change government policies.




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Law-abiding citizens are right to be concerned about others deliberately breaking the law to advance their social, political or environmental goals. But many of the most significant social and political advances over the past century owe much to social movements that relied on this tactic. Think of Gandhi’s independence movement against British rule in India, the suffragette fight for the right of women to vote and the US civil rights movement.

These precedents raise the question: might future societal advances also demand peaceful acts of civil disobedience?

Images from the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, a series of protests in the US state of Alabama against entrenched racist policies. The US civil rights movement deployed civil disobedience strategies.
Wikimedia

Civil disobedience: the case for and against

Imperfect though it is, the basic theory of democracy is that we vote on who represents us in government. In this way, democratic societies are said to have created the institutions and processes needed for their own peaceful improvement.

So critics of civil disobedience argue that people shouldn’t just break the law because they disagree with it. They say if you do not like a policy or law, you are free to campaign for change, including for the election of a new government.

But proponents of civil disobedience argue that democracy is flawed and in some cases, non-violent breaches of law can be justified.

First, they say laws and policies can be shaped undemocratically by powerful mass media, corporate lobby groups, or billionaires. Proponents say citizens do not always owe political allegiance to laws and policies that are not produced through fair, robust, and representative democratic processes.




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Second, many political and legal theorists say just because something is enshrined in law, that does not mean it is necessarily just. This was the view advanced by American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, which inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Throughout history, many laws and policies produced in democracies were grossly unjust. These include laws which institutionalised slavery, legally entrenched racial segregation, criminalised homosexuality or particular religious practices, or prohibited women and people of colour from voting.

When a law or policy is clearly unfair, a case can be made that there is a place for civil disobedience. We must accept that even laws produced in a democracy get it wrong sometimes.

An Extinction Rebellion protest in Melbourne on Monday, October 7, 2019.
James Ross/AAP

Will Extinction Rebellion fall on the right side of history?

The Extinction Rebellion is promoting civil disobedience because it says across the world, governments have failed to respond adequately to the climate crisis and the steep decline in wildlife populations. It argues that the political system underpinning this failure must be resisted, even if this causes inconvenience to the general public.

The movement’s supporters include 250 Australian academics who signed an open letter saying they feel a “moral duty” to rebel and “defend life itself”.

It could be argued that the activists should wait until governments take action. But judging by recent history – including a lack of substantial progress at last month’s UN climate summit – an adequate, timely global response to the climate crisis seems highly unlikely. In this case, waiting for government action means being complicit in an unjust system.




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Some people will inevitably dismiss Extinction Rebellion protesters as troublemakers and criminals. But their actions must be assessed against the big picture. The world’s best climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that if global warming is not kept below the 1.5℃ limit, Earth’s natural and human systems will suffer dire consequences. The legitimacy of Extinction Rebellion’s disobedience must be weighed against the wrongs that triggered it.

As Extinction Rebellion causes chaos in our cities, we must avoid superficial, kneejerk reactions. Whatever your views on civil disobedience, the climate emergency would be far less serious if governments had taken action decades ago. Further inaction will only lead to more numerous and active social movements, driven by the same mixture of love and rage that provoked Extinction Rebellion.The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.