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Environmental boycotts and the free market

  • 04 November 2019


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.

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