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Environmental boycotts and the free market



Recent public rallies against inaction on climate change have generated public discussion about the right to protest and the limits of free speech. The Queensland government has rushed legislation through Parliament banning certain types of equipment used in protests — based on apparently spurious claims that have not been supported by evidence. Victoria police have responded to protesters with violence and signs of antipathy by individual police towards protesters.

Extinction Rebellion protesters at the intersection of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets in Melbourne on 9 October 2019 in Melbourne. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)Ministerial objections have also been voiced at the Commonwealth level. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has called for protesters to be jailed and Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has called for protesters on Newstart to lose their allowance. Then late last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison promised a meeting of the Queensland Resources Council that he was working with the Attorney-General to stop threats to mining interests through protests and 'secondary boycotts'.

The Prime Minister described a 'new breed of radical activism' that was 'apocalyptic in tone' and that protesting was 'indulgent and selfish ... disrupt[ing] people's lives and disrespecting ... fellow Australians'. Minister Peter Dutton has also claimed that protesters 'do not even believe in democracy ... they are completely against our way of life' and seek to sow 'disharmony' within our society.

While it is clear that the government is pro-mining and in particular, pro-coal, its response to widespread climate protests takes this bias to extremes. Ministers' overblown rhetoric seeks to promote mining through exaggeration, conflating a number of different forms of public protest, and the cognitive dissonance involved in banning behaviour promoting positions they disagree with while protecting the very same behaviour on issues with which they agree. Of note, the government position is diametrically at odds with its professed ideological priorities — in particular, 'traditional' freedoms, the free market, and small government.

The PM's speech slipped without warning between climate protests, secondary boycotts, and a vague handwaving notion of impending anarchy. The architecture of his speech certainly played to his audience of mining executives. But it was also on the mark for raising alarm among Morrison's so-called 'Quiet Australians' and paving the way for public acceptance of yet more government control over the activities of its citizens. 

What has been clear through the climate action protests is that Quiet Australians have been out marching. The existential threat of climate change has roused even the least activist citizen from their armchairs, and onto the streets. This is no 'selfish' or 'indulgent' move, but rather evidence of widespread public concern for our collective future.

Marches in public spaces may demand certain public order responses, but where they involve peaceful protest, there is no cause for violent police action or authoritarian police powers. Governments have, however, been capitalising on protests involving trespass on private property to enact punitive new laws. To justify them, they are conflating peaceful protests, violent protests and trespass to evoke an existential threat to our way of life.


"If there is disruption, that disruption is taking place within the market itself. Competition demands that companies adapt or die."


Although Morrison's speech failed to identify the difference, protests are also different to calls for a boycott of businesses that supply to miners. The Prime Minister called these 'secondary boycotts'. But they are not. They are simply the exercise of consumer power through public advocacy. A secondary boycott, under s45D of the Competition and Consumer Act is conduct that prevents the supply of goods or services to a person, causing substantial loss or damage to the business.

The government commissioned 2015 Harper Review into competition policy distinguished between public advocacy, which is permitted, and secondary boycott, which is not. Environmentalists simply urge consumers, or businesses, not to invest in, or provide services to, mining companies. This does not 'hinder or prevent the supply or acquisition of goods or services'. It is a matter for the consumer or the business to decide whether they wish to continue to transact with the mining company.

The Prime Minister is using the spectre of secondary boycott where there is none. I speculate that it would be impossible and undesirable to regulate public advocacy. To do so would prevent the very free choice of consumers and business to run their own affairs. It is up to business to determine what the market wants. And business is being given a very clear message of market sentiment, through people protesting in the streets. For government to attempt to regulate this somehow is a burden on freedom of speech and is also a significant imposition on the market mechanism — the very thing that Morrison and his government say they are trying to protect.

The final overblown assertion is that environmentalists are anarchists, and that the protests and boycotts are inimical to our democratic way of life. The calls are, in fact, for government action, thus inherently acknowledging the role of democratically elected governments to make decisions in the interests of society. The protests are democracy in action. The boycott calls are for consumers to exercise free choice in the market, acknowledging the role of the market and the imperative for business to adapt to consumer demand. If there is disruption, that disruption is taking place within the market itself. Competition demands that companies adapt or die.

The most puzzling aspect of this debate is the inability of the government to analyse the risks for our biggest export and for the communities that rely on it. Whether or not the government is able to comprehend the climate forecasts, at the very least the market is starting to look precarious for coal. Surely a government proclaiming economic credentials would be promoting diversification in the industry and the managed transition of employment.

The latest calls for clamping down on environmental activism ring hollow. For whatever reason, the government will stand by coal miners, come what may. And in doing so, it is failing on its own standards.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image: Extinction Rebellion protesters at the intersection of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets in Melbourne on 9 October 2019 in Melbourne. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

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I ask readers to read the following article by Ross Garnaut: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/03/wrong-side-of-the-chasm-australia-can-still-cross-the-bridge-to-a-low-carbon-world The pro-coal Coalition Government are doing great harm to Australia and the world by their inaction to seriously address climate change. Our carbon emissions have been rising ever since the axing of the carbon tax! Be careful who you vote for in future elections!

Grant Allen | 04 November 2019  

I refer to the banner held by protesters in the graphic included with this article. "Strike, Occupy, Shut it down" Perhaps I will leave the word "Strike" and its various interpretations to the discernment of others but will attempt to tackle the word "Occupy" based on the actions of various activists and associated disruption. I anticipate few readers, no matter how socialist, would welcome occupation of their (own, private) property by persons who have the intent to cause harm. If the property occupation is forced I'd have to suggest it must be akin to the "Invasion" of Australia by colonists...which seems abhorrent juxtaposed to the noble cause of the protesters. ...seems it's ok to determine the occupation of property as valid if the outcome suits your purpose; at least the colonists had the notion they were occupying "Terra Nullius" in their defence; activists are fully aware these premises are owned and determined to disrupt business. Interestingly, most Force Majeure clauses include civil uprising in the same class as Act of God, so aside from marginally increasing Australia's political risk profile the business disruption is temporary...

Ray | 04 November 2019  

Scene: One of the bearers of a “Strike, Occupy, Shut it down!” banner, trudging home to East Melbourne from Federation Square after a hard day’s slogan-yelling, stops for a breather and unknowingly rests his defiant sign against the fence of 118 Wellington Parade. Seconds later, the Vic Police, ever alert to high crimes and misdemeanors, screech onto the scene. “But I’ve a right to protest with this sign, officer!” “No sir, you don’t. You’re breaking the law. Hands on the car, please.” (Sobbing): “But I want my children to have a future! Think of the children!” “Sir, I advise you to keep silent. You’re breaking the law again just by saying that here.” “But what if the law will result in millions of innocent deaths? Don’t I have a right to protest that?” “Sorry sir, you’re only making it worse for yourself. I’ll ask you to step into the van. You can call your lawyer when we get back to the station.” “Officer, for heaven’s sake! I’m Rebelling against Extinction!” (Officer, helping him up): “Sir, in Victoria some Extinction Rebellions are more equal than others. Now, mind the gap there.”

HH | 05 November 2019  

Morrison continues an old Australian tradition. Fifty three years ago the Liberal Premier of NSW, Robert Askin, confronted with citizens protesting against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, interrupting his procession with Lyndon B. Johnson through the streets of Sydney, is reported to have said to the driver, "Run over the bastards." At that time we were "all the way with LBJ". Now we are one with Trump and the Minerals Council. Citizens who exercise their right to protest are not to be tolerated. We call it Australian Democracy.

Janet | 06 November 2019  

I live in Townsville and work in construction so I have a somewhat different outlook Kate. While I acknowledge the need for people to speak out on these issues, I think it’s absurd that truck drivers and carpenters should have to deal with picket lines to go to work on a highway project bringing flood immunity to a notoriously flooded section of the national highway: all because a connection between one company working for Adani and also for the State Government. Now I work in senior management and try to stay open minded about where my taxes go, but I can understand that the women and men working up a sweat on that highway job might be a bit bitter if their hard work is going toward taxes to fund picketers at their front gate...

Rob McCahill | 06 November 2019  

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