The Prime Minister has put to rest the last suspicions that there is anything liberal about the modern Liberal Party. In a speech at the Queensland Resources Council last Friday, Scott Morrison was, well, Pentecostal.
Referring to the activities of climate protesters, Morrison deployed language of some extremity: “absolutist environmentalism” and “economic sabotage dressed up as activism” were his terms for what others might describe as a non-violent protest rally. “Apocalyptic in tone”, he said, “it brooks no compromise.” So, pretty much the anti-Christ.
It’s well established that the human right to protest is now a concept honoured by both major political parties only in symbolic terms. As Peter Dutton said in fierce agreement with his leader, “This is not about free speech, it’s not about the ability to protest, these people are completely against our way of life.” Labor deputy leader Richard Marles chimed in: “The protesters are completely indulgent … these are people that are not actually about a cause, they’re about engaging in a personal experience at the expense of Australians trying to get on with their lives.”
However, legitimising the repressive actions of the police is a race already run and won. It’s okay for a senior constable to post white supremacist-associated memes and make an alleged white power gesture while “controlling” protesters; he just gets a reprimand. The message is clear and universal: when a cop says get off the sidewalk, get off the fucking sidewalk. No amount of iPhone footage of unprovoked brutality is going to persuade any current Australian government to admit that they’ve sleep-walked us into a police state.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Morrison then provided a neat pivot point: the real danger to democracy comes not from climate protesters in Halloween masks, but is more deeply insidious: “Some of Australia’s largest businesses are now refusing to provide banking, insurance and consulting services to an increasing number of firms in the coal sector — the nation’s second largest export sector. I think some of our largest corporations should listen to, and engage, their ‘quiet shareholders’, not just their noisy ones.”
Ah, the quiet shareholders, those mums and dads who go about their business and never say boo except when barracking for the Sharks or assaulting people on Australia Day. We can’t be sure what they think about coal mining (since they never speak) but it’s safe to assume they’re for it.
It is in their name that Morrison announced he and Attorney-General Christian Porter are “looking into” criminalising “these indulgent and selfish practices”. What could he mean?
The target here is the consumer boycott. As activist groups like Sleeping Giants and Mad Fucking Witches have been demonstrating in campaigns against Alan Jones, social media has amassed the power of concerted action by ordinary punters to bring serious commercial pressure down on companies that do anti-social things. For example, the refusal of every major bank to lend money to Adani for its Carmichael coal mine was no doubt mostly driven by economics, but they would also have had an eye to the public optics.
The law currently prohibits “secondary boycotts”, where a business is prevented or hindered from acquiring or supplying goods or services. The classic case is where a trade union acts to effectively prevent a business from trading. The prohibition does not apply where the reason for the boycott activity is consumer or environmental protection.
The Coalition and business groups have been trying for ages to expand this provision to also outlaw consumer boycotts, particularly those led by environmental advocates. This is another attempt to revive that cause.
However there are a few snags. For one thing, Matt Canavan, a cabinet minister, not long ago called on consumers to boycott Westpac because it was not lending money to Adani. That may risk sounding “indulgent and selfish” to the untrained ear. Seriously, we’re in not just deeply illiberal territory here, but a world of impossible contradictions.
On Friday Morrison stuck strictly to his theme of protecting coal miners, but trying to turn his thought bubble into a coherent law will quickly expose the reality that you can’t try to pick commercial winners on ideological grounds without creating an unholy mess. A mess that will be even bigger than the one the government has created for itself with its other Quixotic quest, the religious freedom bill.
One thing that Morrison has established is that he’s not afraid of starting a pointless and divisive fight, purely for the purpose of exploiting the Labor Party’s agonising over how to upset fewer voters at the next election than it did last time. The key constituency, they’ve decided, is (you guessed it) the quiet one.
This is not, therefore, about good law making. Nor is it about an appropriate balancing of human rights with the rule of law. It definitely has nothing to do with a concern for preserving the foundations of democratic society.
It is, solely, an expression of Morrison’s unique combination of interests: politics as sport, and religion as politics. The meek (who have a go) shall inherit the earth (and get a go). Everyone else, shush. Or you’ll get pepper sprayed.