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An Extinction Rebellion protester with police in Melbourne (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Perhaps it’s the name. “Extinction Rebellion” evokes the masked insurgents in the movie V for Vendetta. Maybe that’s what’s scaring otherwise sane politicians into saying some weirdly extreme things about the protesters who’ve been disrupting traffic.

We are talking about a protest movement which has so far aligned with Gandhi’s mantra of non-violent action, and whose sole aim is to draw attention to climate change. Not exactly Islamic State, is it? But you wouldn’t know the difference from the policing response.

The protesters have been regularly outnumbered by fully armoured riot squads; nationally, there have been mass arrests of protesters in recent days. The situation reached a farcical high point in Sydney on Thursday when a magistrate threw out the ridiculously onerous bail conditions that NSW Police had imposed on former Greens senator Scott Ludlam and another protester who were arrested as part of a group conducting a main road sit-in.

It’s worth pausing on what the police considered necessary conditions to be placed on peaceful climate activists: a ban on going anywhere within 2.5km of the Sydney CBD (meaning that even turning up to court would put them in breach) and a prohibition from “going near” or speaking to other Extinction Rebellion members, anywhere.

This was a protest that involved committing nothing more than summary offences which could attract, at worst, a fine. It’s fair to conclude that the police, in this instance, have been compromised by a political agenda that has corrupted their objectivity in assessing the public safety considerations that should be their only concern.

There’s been more of the same in Victoria, where the cops tried to impose a bail condition that protesters not attend any more protests. They too have been thrown out.

In Queensland, meanwhile, the Labor government of Annastacia Palaszczuk has come down with a chronic fear of traffic disruption. The state’s channelling of the ghost of Joh Bjelke-Petersen is now too obvious for satire. As the premier tweeted, “everyone has the right to protest in this state. But it’s when extreme protesters using dangerous devices put at risk our emergency services & hinder people going about their daily business that it oversteps the mark”.

Okay, let’s deconstruct that. “Extreme” and “dangerous” are loaded words, and if they’re going to be used to justify law-making that will overtly restrict civil liberties, then you’d expect them to have a basis in evidence (unless it’s Peter Dutton saying them).

However, to date, the only people who have been hurt by these protests are the protesters themselves, in the course of being dragged into police vans. There is no evidence of extremity in cause or activity.

And what exactly are these “dangerous devices”? An inventive woman managed to dangle herself above Brisbane’s Victoria Bridge last week from a home-made bamboo “tripod” device. That kind of thing can, of course, be dangerous. Existing laws already make it an offence.

The reports on social media that Queensland’s new anti-protest laws will make it illegal to take a tube of glue or a bicycle lock to a protest rally are wrong; actually the legislation goes out of its way to say that such domestic items aren’t going to put their owners in prison. However, the bill goes into a lot of detail about what it defines as a “dangerous attachment device”, including exhaustive introductions into the law of some exotic new terms like “dragon’s den”, “sleeping dragon” and “monopole”. The basic scheme is that police will be given wide new powers to search people and vehicles if they suspect that they have one of these contraptions. Using such a device, for example to disrupt traffic, will be a serious offence, resulting in fines up to $6500 or two years in prison.

Is this OK? In a context of genuine threat, to public safety or to property, maybe. As a society we’re a lot more comfortable than we should be with the constantly encroaching ambit of national security laws ostensibly designed to keep us safe from terrorist attacks. However, unless you’re Kerri-Anne Kennerley, you can probably distinguish between the threats posed by a terrorist who wants to kill you and a person who has decided to glue themselves to a public street to remind you about global warming.

What would be handy here, but is completely absent, is some perspective. It’s annoying when your peak-hour commute is disrupted by someone who’s lying down on your bus route. The social cost of that action may, depending on your point of view, justify physical removal followed by a fine and some stern words from a magistrate. But does it warrant draconian responses such as heavy-handed policing, ridiculously excessive bail conditions or panicked law-making? All that should raise the eyebrow of a dispassionate citizen, even if the context was not peaceful protest but a genuine risk of violence.

It’s obvious enough, objectively, that the frenzied reaction Extinction Rebellion is evoking is way out of proportion and more connected to the politics of diversion than to anything real. That reality can account comfortably for the right-wing media and usual Coalition mouthpieces. What’s more interesting, and troubling, is the ease with which that calculated over-reaction has co-opted the supposedly apolitical police forces of this country and the premier of a Labor state.

How far will Australia’s attempt to suppress climate protesters go? Let us know your thoughts at [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.

Peter Fray

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