ALISON BROINOWSKI. October and a discontented world

Oct 24, 2019

This is the October of our discontent. Suddenly, its manifestations are everywhere. Unless the few in power heed the shouts, slogans, and strikes of the many demanding change, worse may occur.

Quite suddenly, outraged citizens are telling governments they’ve had enough and won’t put up with it any more. What ‘it’ is varies from country to country. In Santiago, a rise in train and bus fares ignited a popular uprising against the Chilean government, which declared a state of emergency and put troops on the streets. In Barcelona, a general strike was called and half a million people rallied in the response to the Spanish court’s prison sentences for leaders of the Catalan separatist movement. In several cities in Lebanon, protestors against corruption called for the dysfunctional government to go. Street barricades in Port-au-Prince followed weeks of violent demonstrations by the opposition against the president of Haiti.

Protests have persisted throughout the northern summer in Hong Kong, where demonstrators ignore bans and police violence, responding with fires and counter-attacks, and repeating their five demands, ‘not one less’. The authorities in Beijing may not be showing their concern, but such civil disobedience must worry them, even while they let Carrie Lam’s government in Hong Kong take the heat for putting forward legislation for extradition to the Chinese mainland. People in Hong Kong fear that could apply not just to criminals, but to anyone of whom Beijing disapproves.

Outside the Palace of Westminster a million people opposing Brexit protested on the weekend of 19/20 October, while the Commons delayed a vote on the Prime Minister’s agreement with the European Union for Britain to leave by 31 October. Forced to seek an extension of time, Boris Johnson wrote two letters: one doing so, but brief and unsigned, to the EU; and the other, longer and over his signature, to an EU official urging him not to agree to the delay.

Meanwhile in the US, where public protest is a way of life, it has become endemic since the Trump ascendancy. Inside the chaotic White House, the Administration is effectively at war with itself, as a retired admiral wrote in the New York Times (William McRaven, ‘Our Republic Is Under Attack From the President’). By suddenly announcing a partial withdrawal of troops from Syria, President Trump made good his long-standing promise to get out of ‘endless wars’. But Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ‘got what [he] wanted’, which didn’t please more warlike Americans; nor did the revelation that Trump had suspended a large grant to Ukraine in order to extract information damaging to his potential electoral rival Joe Biden.

Meanwhile Erdoğan and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine are favouring Russia over their unreliable US ally, but both face discontented groups at home. President Putin’s charm offensive in the Middle East apparently doesn’t offend King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who welcomed Russia’s ‘active role in this region’, or Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, who referenced the Emirates’ ‘deep strategic relationship’ with Russia (Tony Walker, ‘Power balance favours Moscow’, SMH, 21 October 2019: 24). Saudi Arabia, which got minimal support from the US after a recent attack on its oil installations, is another country where popular unrest is emerging. Prince Mohammed, with a journalist’s blood on his hands, has been obliged to a few gestures by relaxing strict Wahhabi social codes.

Canada might seem to be something completely different, but there too popular disaffection is mounting. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apparently improper interference in support of a Canadian company started it, and the publication of images of him in black or brownface as a younger man followed. His credentials as a proponent of reconciliation with Canada’s first peoples are now being questioned by voters.

Which brings us to Australia, where the summer promises more record temperatures, fires, and with them, mounting discontent. Not only is there no end in sight to the drought in Queensland and NSW, rivers are dying and people are walking off their land, while political water shenanigans and unthwarted tree-clearing are business as usual. Children protest en masse at government inaction on climate change and are ignored or told to go back to their classrooms. Local councils on the coast bury reports warning about sea level rise and storm surges, and commission new ones that assure them sea walls will keep land values up. Buildings in the cities buildings have flammable cladding and unstable foundations, and sites for residential development are polluted with fire retardant and asbestos. The people evicted last Christmas from their Sydney apartment tower or from their homes near the Westconnex are angry, and they’re not alone.

Suddenly, the mainstream media suspend their campaign for longer opening hours for the pubs and clubs owned by the hotel, liquor and travel industries that fund what’s left of their advertising income. Deploring the ‘culture of silence’, they point to ‘national security’ laws befitting a police state, citing the suppression of names of nursing homes where more than 4000 assaults occurred last year, the protection of the Taxation Office and Centrelink from accusations of misuse of their power, and the secrecy surrounding the long-running inquiry into the behaviour of some Special Operations troops in Afghanistan in 2012.

They unite in campaigning for freedom of the press and the public’s right to know. What is government covering up? they ask. Yet freedom of expression and the right to know are not guaranteed in Australia. The trials of David McBride, Bernard Collaery, and Witness K are shrouded in government-imposed secrecy. The government refuses to defend the rights of Julian Assange, a journalist and publisher imprisoned for 50 weeks for breach of bail. The impassioned defenders of freedom for the print media in Australia do not ask and are not told what’s happening to him, nor do they say why their rights are worth defending and his are not. Discontent is mounting, and it spreads beyond the mainstream media.

Dr Alison Broinowski AM is a former Australian diplomat, academic, and author.

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