Michael McNamara (Tweed community activist)
In recent years we have seen governments in various jurisdictions increase dramatically the penalties for community members who have the effrontery to oppose the government’s wishes (or those of its corporate allies).
This is an international trend, with examples in the United Kingdom, Canada, the US and various Australian jurisdictions.
Before the last Tasmanian state election the opposition leader, Will Hodgman, proposed fines of $10,000 for protesters defending the state’s old-growth forests from an expansion of the logging industry.
It is yet to be seen what the reaction of Labor premier Lara Giddings will be to those who oppose her recent decision to bring back the pulp mill that Gunn’s had proposed in northern Tasmania.
In Victoria the government is currently proposing fines of up to $8,660 for protesters and increased powers for police to break up protests.
In Queensland, in an apparently unrelated move, the government has introduced draconian legislation that purports to address a threat to civilised society from ‘bikie gangs’.
One problem is that the legislation does not mention bikie gangs. Instead, it talks about ‘unlawful associations’. The definition of what constitutes an ‘unlawful association’ is left to the government of the day.
This is an extremely dangerous road to start travelling down.
Any group that opposes the wishes of the government of the day could be designated as a ‘lawless association’ and if three or more people who were judged by police to be members of the group congregated in one place they could be subject to arrest and imprisonment.
At the moment, the government is talking about separate prisons and pink prison uniforms for bikies jailed under this legislation. They may introduce green prison outfits for others in the future.
This trend of criminalising civil opposition and activism is growing internationally.
An article in The Guardian yesterday describes the close relationship between state security agencies and energy companies in the UK, Canada and the US.
It outlines the strategy of criminalising community opposition to activities such as fracking and oil pipelines.
Terrorism statutes are being used as the rationale for spying on citizens who are doing nothing more than exercising their democratic right to dissent.
This is a dangerous trend, especially when it happens in so called ‘democratic societies’.
The development of western democratic institutions is littered with attempts by the ‘powers that be’ to limit the rights of the individual or of groups of concerned citizens to express their views.
The often violent struggles that typified the development of the trade union movement are a case in point.
Constitutional democracies typically have a written codex of laws that govern the interaction, and often competing interests, of the individual and the state.
Should anyone think that this is a trend only at national level or overseas then they need look no further than the recent actions of Narrabri Council in seeking to find reasons to close down the protest camps at Leard State Forest and the Pilliga State Forest.
The Narrabri Council, according to Cr Bevan O’Regan, wrote to the fire brigade seeking assistance in finding reasons to close down the camps.
In what looks like an increasingly rare demonstration of common sense it seems that the fire brigade did not participate and, further, expressed their concerns in writing.
This sort of alleged collusion by local government in support of corporate interests should, in a perfect world, be grist for the mill for the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Let’s wait to see what happens.
What those in government need to realise is that they are playing with fire in upsetting that balance.
Their recent efforts to defend the interests of powerful vested corporates will not quell the opposition. It will only generate further alienation and opposition.
It will drive that opposition underground and bring about the very situation it supposedly seeks to prevent.
Protest groups in western democracies are, in the main, peaceful and community based.
By criminalising ‘knitting nannas’, as the Victorian government recently tried to do, they will harden the resolve of communities and radicalise normally conservative people.
The sometimes extreme and violent actions of police in protecting the interests of mining companies at various community-based protests throughout NSW in recent years will only encourage more radical and extreme protest actions.
Community-based protest groups are in the main committed to peaceful, non-violent direct action.
This does not equate to non-interventionist protest and it does not mean there will be no risk of injury to those involved.
Waving placards at the side of the road as the corporate juggernauts ride roughshod over your community is not seen as a viable strategy.
The Lock The Gate Alliance (LTGA) is a case in point.
Across the country a coalition of farmers, environmentalists, neighbourhood progress associations, community groups, religious groups, tourism operators and ordinary, individual community members have built a strong and co-ordinated campaign that opposes the rapid, and rabid, expansion of the coal, coal seam gas, shale gas and tight sands gas industries.
The word fracking has entered the vernacular as the verbal equivalent of Claytons, the Scotch you have when you are not having a Scotch.
LTGA is committed to ‘peaceful direct action’, the use of non-violent protest strategies to disrupt and delay the imposition of corporate will.
The possible strategies are endless. The growth of social media in recent years, and the almost innate larrikinism that stereotypically typifies rural Australia, have led to the growth of a wide range of protest activities.
They are not limited to the traditional strategy of ‘locking on’ or physically blocking the developer.
Mocking the MP
A group of women in Lismore started the Knitting Nannas Against Gas (KNAG) and have targeted their local state MP, Thomas George.
They meet outside his local electoral office each Thursday and ‘knit’. They decorate the oversized picture of him in the window and mock the way he stands, hands on hip, by doing ‘The Thommo’. They then post pictures of their escapades on social media to the great delight of many.
The Girls Against Gas dress up in colourful outfits, like superheroes with their undies on the outside, and perform at various protests.
Although lighthearted in one sense, these groups have a serious message. It is that they have a right to protest and they will not be silenced. It’s almost an ‘in your face and up yours’ approach to social dissent.
Politicians of all persuasions and at all levels fail to take note of the views of their communities at their peril.
In NSW, for instance, National Party MPs are facing the very real prospect of generational traditional supporters voting Green for the first, and possibly only, time in their lives at the next state election.
If you want to see where ‘conspiracy theories’ come from, and why they gain traction, you need look no further than the actions of governments across the western world.
By aligning themselves with the interests of multinational conglomerates, whether it be in relation to mining or GM crops or any other issue, rather than the interests of those they supposedly represent, they lose the trust of ordinary citizens and generate a climate of distrust of all government (and other institutional) decisions and actions.
It’s time for change. We have to be the change, before it’s too late.