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Ramping up Repression as the Australian Continent Burns

The Australian government’s latest proposition to ban climate protests appears as the country’s east coast is ravaged by fires. In the face of “climate barbarism” from both traditional parties, is a grassroots campaign stepping up?

CFA Members work on controlled back burns along Putty Road after devastating fires tore through the area, on November 14, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Brett Hemmings / Getty Images)

“These unprecedented fires are an indication that a much-feared future under climate change may have arrived earlier than predicted.” That’s bushfire experts Ross Bradstock and Rachael Helene Nolan, discussing the conflagration presently consuming Australia.

At the time of writing, out of control fires still burn on a million hectares or so, with their containment potentially taking months. The smoke from New South Wales forms a column visible from space. The area affected totals four times the land that burned in all of 2018, even though this year’s fire season has barely begun. Three people have died; more than a thousand properties have been destroyed.

Australia, the driest continent on the planet (other than Antarctica) has long been recognized as especially vulnerable to a warming climate. As far back as 2003, a report issued on previous Victorian fires explained that “climate change throughout the present century is predicted to lead to increased temperatures and, with them, a heightened risk of unplanned fire.”

The next year, the National Inquiry on Bushfire Mitigation and Management delivered a similar assessment to the Council of Australian Governments:

Fires’ frequency, intensity, and size are expected to increase under climate change as temperatures rise, rainfall variability increases, droughts become more severe, and ecosystem dynamics alter, resulting in changed biomass fuel loads and types. The projected hotter, drier, windier conditions associated with climate change caused by greenhouse warming would extend the period of fuel drying and increase rates of fire spread.

As Dale Dominey-Howes from the University of Sydney says, the “rapidly warming climate, driven by human activities, is exacerbating every risk factor for more frequent and intense bushfires.”

King Coal

Coal plays a key part in the Australian economy, the second-largest resource export for most of the last decade. The country remains one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of the stuff, digging up some 510 million tonnes in 2017–19. With quarters of that sent overseas, Australia weighs in as the third-largest exporter of carbon-dioxide emissions, behind only Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, the carbon lobby plays a significant role in Australian politics, particularly through the influence it exerts on the major parties. Yet, as in other countries, it has oscillated between different climate strategies: essentially, between greenwashing and denial.

In the mid-1980s, the industry briefly accepted the arguments of Bob Hawke’s Labor government that global warming could be tackled in a business-friendly fashion. But by the end of the decade, as historian Maria Taylor says, “industry groups, free market advocates, and climate contrarians got to work to reframe the issue from the science to the economics” — much as they did in the United States.

In the early 2000s, the fossil fuel companies convinced John Howard, the doyen of Australian conservatism, not to support an emissions trading scheme (ETS) — at the time, the favored policy of most of the Right. They later worked closely with Howard to water down renewable energy targets.

When, however, Labor defeated Howard in 2007 — in a campaign partly fought on climate — the sector briefly swung back to an acceptance of market-based carbon reduction policies. That year, Labor’s Kevin Rudd pledged to respond to what he called “the great moral challenge of our generation,” and, with the public enthusiastic about action, a journalist declared that climate change had “become one of the most prominent matters in business leaders’ minds.”

In 2009, the hard-right Tony Abbott took over leadership of the (conservative) Liberal Party, and campaigned aggressively against Labor’s approach. The next year, a rattled Rudd abandoned his ETS — and his popularity plummeted. Abbott used the same strategy against Rudd’s successor, Julia Gillard, identifying her with a carbon tax and mobilizing conservative populists against it.

The Coal Consensus

Abbott’s success in destroying two Labor administrations reestablished more or less overt denialism as the default position for conservative politicians and the resource sector, a stance reconfirmed by the 2019 election. In that poll, new Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison — who, as treasurer, once brandished a lump of coal in parliament — won the conservatives another term, in part by reviving an Abbott-style climate scare.

In the wake of defeat, Labor recalibrated its position. Its MPs joined the bipartisan Parliamentary Friends of Coal Exports group, and senior ministers repeatedly declared that the party supported the continuation of the coal industry.

As for Morrison, he now barely even pretends to care about global warming. The government boasts about meeting its Paris agreements — but only through transparent accounting tricks. On his most recent visit to the United States, Morrison pointedly did not attend the New York climate summit and then gave a speech attacking environmental activists for subjecting children to “needless anxiety.” He refused to meet with former fire chiefs warning of the looming disaster, while finding time to hobnob with the chief executive of coal company Glencore.

Morrison responded initially to this week’s fires by drawing on the NRA’s denialist script, tweeting his “thoughts and prayers” to those affected. “[We] have firefighters out there saving someone else’s house while their own house is burning down,” he said. “And when we are in that sort of a situation, that is where attention must be.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese agreed, saying, “I’m not seeking to politicize this at all.”

Yet, at more or less the same time, former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce of the country-based National Party (you might recall him from his feud with Johnny Depp) blamed the fires on the Greens on the basis of a long-discredited conspiracy about environmentalists preventing burn-offs. He then, bizarrely, identified two of the dead in his electorate as “Greens’ voters” — and, even more bizarrely, linked bushfires to the sun’s magnetic rays.

We might, to borrow an appropriately rural colloquialism, dismiss Joyce as having a few roos loose in the top paddock. At the same time, by straying so crazily off script, he might also be revealing something about the shape of climate politics to come, in Australia and perhaps elsewhere.

Criminalizing Dissent

While Australia exports its coal, it imports its ideas.

For several decades now, agribusinesses in America have perfected strategies against animal rights militants, whistleblowers, and other perceived threats, whipping up confected outrage and then relying on friendly legislators to pass anti-protest legislation (so-called ag-gag laws) written by lobbyists and pressure groups.

The Australian agricultural sector has watched and learned. In April this year, a brief sit-in by vegan protesters at the Flinders Street intersection in Melbourne demonstrated how effectively these methods had been assimilated. The media hysteria that followed — Morrison publicly denounced “un-Australian green criminals” — allowed the government to pass the Criminal Code Amendment (Agricultural Protection) Bill 2019, ostensibly to protect farmers from dangerous invasions by activists. Yet, as Piero Moraro notes, “the legislation makes no mention of a farmer’s personal safety, instead targeting behavior that would cause problems to a business.”

The same techniques have been adopted to shield the coal industry. In Queensland, for instance, the Labor government has pledged itself to facilitate the construction of the Adani company’s massive Carmichael project, a mine that will open up vast new coal fields across the state — with catastrophic environmental consequences.

This October, the civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion staged a number of relatively small (and decidedly nonviolent) protests in Brisbane, occasionally blocking traffic. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk joined with the Murdoch press to condemn the activists for using “sinister tactics,” while Police Minister Mark Ryan declared that the rallies were “not protests,” but manifestations of an extremism “contrary to the shared values of our democratic society.” The government then blocked, on the grounds of cabinet confidentiality, the public release of the evidence it used to base its claims of dangerous tactics, before passing draconian new anti-protest laws: the perfect preparation, you might say, for the expected protests as the Adani mine nears completion.

Earlier this month, Morrison himself drew from the same playbook, announcing his intention to criminalize consumer boycotts of companies responsible for climate pollution. At a speech to the Queensland Resources Council, a key mining industry lobby group, he promised to stamp out what he called “economic sabotage.” “Together with the attorney general,” he explained, “we are working to identify mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten the livelihoods of fellow Australians.”

The progressive Australia Institute’s Tom Swann responded by circulating a list of examples of Morrison’s colleagues advocating (pro-coal) climate boycotts, from Resources Minister Matt Canavan wanting consumers to sanction Westpac over its refusal to fund mines, to George Christensen asking his social media followers to eschew Ben & Jerry’s ice creams because of the company’s involvement in an event titled “Scoop Ice Cream Not Coal.”

Law professor Kate Galloway described the government’s position as “diametrically at odds with its professed ideological priorities — in particular, ‘traditional’ freedoms, the free market, and small government.” Stuart Palmer from the superannuation group Australian Ethical reacted similarly, insisting on the right of investors to make judgments as to their own best interests. “What would that legislation look like, to stop people turning up at the companies that they own, that they’re invested in, and asking questions? It’s just bizarre.”

In fact, the plan’s entirely consistent with the Liberals’ historical efforts to privilege the bargaining power of employers. Indeed, as Morrison explained his proposal, he presented it as an extension of anti-union measures against “secondary boycotts,” laws first implemented by the Fraser government to prevent unionists blockading businesses.

Clampdown

In Australia, the two major parties have collaborated over many years to establish one of the most draconian industrial relations environments anywhere in the democratic world. As Adelaide University’s Andrew Stewart said in 2017, “Australia’s laws against industrial action are not only in breach of international law, they are without peer among advanced economies with a tradition of civil liberty in oppressing the right to strike.”

Since then, the anti-union regime has, if anything, only intensified, with the government currently seeking passage of its Ensuring Integrity Bill, a package intended to render normal union operations almost impossible by allowing the disqualification of union officials for a range of trivial offenses. RMIT University’s Anthony Forsyth correctly describes the legislation as an attempt to “directly interfere with the rights to freedom of association and independent functioning of trade unions guaranteed by, among other international instruments, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise.”

Morrison’s attempt to extend secondary boycott legislation to cover climate activism isn’t, then, anomalous or some peculiar violation of Liberal philosophy. Rather it illustrates the likely shape of climate politics to come: an extension of an existing coercive infrastructure to maintain the political and economic status quo in the context of a burning continent.

In her book On Fire, Naomi Klein warns of what she calls “climate barbarism” as a way that the wealthy world will adapt to the disruptions of ecological collapse, with governments intensifying the most toxic political tendencies already present in the body politic. “What starts as brutality at the border will most certainly infect societies as a whole,” she says.

Australia provides an obvious example. Prime Minister Morrison keeps on his desk a sculpture of an Asian fishing boat emblazoned with the words, “I stopped these.” The trophy — a gift, he says, from a constituent — memorializes his time as immigration minister, a period in which he deployed naval vessels to turn back refugee boats at sea.

The country maintains one of the most draconian refugee policies anywhere in the democratic world, a regime admiringly invoked by demagogues and overt fascists across the globe. For decades, the Liberal and Labor parties have competed to demonstrate their “toughness” on border security, together constructing a policy of mandatory offshore detention for all boat arrivals. Notoriously, that has meant the ongoing incarceration of desperate people in camps established on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island: desolate facilities outsourced to two of the poorest nations in the world, in which detainees (most of whom have been officially classified as refugees) languish for years.

A 2016 report by UNICEF Australia and Save the Children put the total cost of boat turnbacks and offshore and onshore detentions between 2013 and 2016 at a staggering $9.6 billion.

Experts expect floods and desertification linked to climate change to force millions — perhaps hundreds of millions — out of their homes. Australian politicians know this full well. In 2015, a live mic captured Scott Morrison joking with then prime minister Abbott and then immigration minister Peter Dutton at a forum about climate change with leaders of Pacific Island nations. Dutton made a racist joke about a meeting running to “Cape York time” and then, before Morrison gestured at the mic, quipped that “time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to have water lapping at your door.”

But the category “climate refugee” does not exist in international law.

As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is obliged to protect from refoulement those fleeing political persecution. No similar legal obligation exists to protect people displaced by climate change.

If Australia brutalizes those to whom it owes a legal obligation, what will it do to the far greater numbers with absolutely no protection in law?

It’s not simply that the infrastructure (the camps, the boats, the extraordinarily well-resourced staff) to repress the victims of climate change already exists. It’s also that several generations of Australian politicians have drawn particular political lessons from the response to refugees.

Institutionalizing Dysfunction

In an era of parliamentary dysfunction, in which most Australian prime ministers have quickly become “lame ducks,” introducing new measures directed at asylum seekers has become a method of asserting political authority. The political class might be incapable of solving the housing crisis or protecting the aged or decongesting the roads. But they can always devise a fresh piece of anti-refugee cruelty to demonstrate their command.

The same method will apply as the environmental crisis worsens. A political class unwilling and incapable to address the increasingly ghastly manifestations of climate change will see repression as a simple and low-cost way to demonstrate they remain in control. A long-term ruling class strategy for negotiating a crisis of this scale will require some kind of social base. To ensure the maintenance of a carbon economy in the face of increasingly terrifying natural disasters, the political class needs consent, as well as coercion.

That’s perhaps how we should think about Morrison’s anti-boycott legislation. It’s not clear precisely what his law will look like or even if it will be constitutional. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Whether or not Morrison can deliver his law, the mere proposal helps to consolidate a distinctive constituency upon which a repressive climate policy can be maintained.

In the Guardian, Peter Lewis noted that one-third of respondents polled on the scheme backed the proposed ban, with the same number opposing and another third undecided.

The surprisingly robust support hints that a base might exist for a developing strategy, one based on channeling social anxiety about climate change against those seeking to stop it.

Again, the infrastructure for what we might call climate authoritarianism already exists. In New South Wales, police responded to Extinction Rebellion protests by imposing bail conditions preventing protesters from associating with other XR members, a technique developed out of anti-terrorism laws before being deployed against biker gangs. Similarly, in Melbourne, the brutal response to the blockade against the IMARC mining conference made use of the ongoing militarization of domestic policing in the years since 9/11.

The repression against climate activists over recent months has been accompanied by increasingly shrill — even violent — denunciations of them. The racial populist Pauline Hanson proposed attacking climate protesters (“unwashed idiots”) with cattle prods; TV host Kerri-Anne Kennerley said environmentalists should be run over by cars and starved in gaol.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said environmentalists should be imprisoned and have their welfare benefits cut off (an idea echoed by Employment Minister Michaelia Cash). Perhaps more startlingly, Dutton also called for activists to be publicly harassed. “People should take these names and the photos of these people and distribute them as far and wide as they can so that we shame these people,” he told Sydney radio 2GB. “Let their families know what you think of their behavior.”

The outbreak of the fires doused some of this language, with the leaders of the major parties seeking to avoid any discussion of climate all. But Joyce’s outbursts — and the support he received from some of his colleagues — hinted at what might be still to come. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, for instance, attacked climate change as a preoccupation of “inner city lunatics” and explained that Australians “didn’t need the ravings of some pure enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time when they’re trying to save their homes.”

The emerging rhetoric pivots from dismissing climate change as an abstraction (and thus irrelevant) to accepting as inevitable a warming planet in a way that makes attempts to fight climate change an indulgence with which only the privileged can engage.

The discourse employs a technique developed during the establishment and maintenance of the offshore detention regime, with the unease about obvious injustices (the deaths of refugees, the destruction of the planet) displaced into a hostility to those drawing attention to the injustices, along the lines of, “I hate you for making me feel bad about myself.”

The new rhetoric from the right depends, utterly and absolutely, on an absence of alternatives from the left.

Morrison won the 2019 election less on any positive program than because of the confused messaging from Labor. Labor leader Bill Shorten attacked Morrison as a denier and repeatedly stated his own belief in the reality of climate change. But even though Labor offered more ambitious targets on emissions, it equivocated on the new Adani mine, offering different positions to different sets of voters. The ambiguity as to whether the development would go ahead under a Shorten government meant that Labor could not offer any plan for locals desperate for work in the area — and, as a result, Morrison successfully painted his opponent as indifferent to the future of those employed by the resources sector.

The Necessary Challenge

In other words, the Australian example shows, with particular clarity, the necessity for an ambitious climate project.

The scale and the ferocity of the bushfires reinforces something most people know intuitively: simply that responding to the unfolding environmental catastrophe requires massive social and economic change. As a result, if you want to win popular support on climate, you need to spell out in detail how, exactly, you will transform society.

Furthermore, after the experience of recent decades, most ordinary people now automatically identify pledges of “major economic reform” with neoliberal austerity. The fact that many of the best-known climate mitigation schemes have been thoroughly neoliberal makes shaking that association all the more important.

The Left needs, in other words, to make clear how its climate plans will avoid punishing society’s poorest for a crisis created by society’s wealthiest. The project must address legitimate concerns about jobs and wages and conditions, as well as more traditional environmental themes.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, on climate, you go hard or you go home. Moderation no longer seems either serious or convincing.

The Australian example also shows that the traditional parties of government cannot be relied upon. It is, after all, a Labor government in Queensland both facilitating Adani and spearheading anti-activist laws.

That’s why the student climate strike, the Extinction Rebellion actions, and the spirited anti-IMARC blockade have been so important: they are the beginnings of a grassroots climate campaign.

The necessity for such an alternative has never been more urgent. If the Left does not offer hope, climate barbarism will build on despair.

We’re not there yet. But the fire’s lit, and there’s no way of telling exactly where it will burn.