Centrist parties crush dissent, foreclose on race to avoid extinction

May 24, 2023
Protest or public demonstration, focus on microphone, blurred group of people in the background.

“We are thankful you are here. We are happy to a be recipient of [the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association] APPEA’s largesse in the form of coming here more often…The South Australian government is at your disposal…” (South Australian Labor minister for energy and mining, Tony Koutsantonis, May 15, 2023).

It is more shocking watching Labor governments implement draconian anti-protest measures than it is the right wing parties. The latter are by definition opposed to labour’s efforts to achieve a less-exploited life for the average citizen.

The workers that the labour parties nominally represent won a fairer life by the protests that the leaders are now banning. No wage labourer would have a 40 hour week, or a weekend, if the workers’ interventions had been forced to avoid “intentionally or recklessly” obstructing the “free passage of a public place.”

This wording from South Australian Premier Malinauskas’s rushed anti-protest bill is consonant with the work of governments around the anglosphere. In the hours leading up to the coronation in London for example, republican protesters were rounded up and arrested to avoid the spectacle of people in yellow t-shirts peacefully holding yellow signs along the procession route. The new measures were described as unnecessary and “deeply troubling” by the UN. King Charles III signed the anti-protest bill into law in the days before his coronation.

In America, Republican politicians are promoting the ability to shoot or drive into protesters.

For us, it is more often climate protests that promote this kind of overweening law that would hide protesters in dark alleyways where their message will not be seen.

Protests must disrupt.

The most important rights and protections are usually gained by highly inconvenient measures to disturb the thinking of those who accept the status quo. Women’s right to vote was won only after a number of troublesome and painful protests forced male politicians to cease withholding that civic engagement from half the population.

Conservative governments are by definition less likely to accede to change or to civil rights protests. Right wing politics that have supplanted the old conservatism are more authoritarian: reminders of the suffering of the masses are an inconvenience to executing the wishes of the powerful. It is only the bravest who continue to protest Putin’s invasion of Ukraine after the brutal crackdown on early protesters. Alexei Navalny’s fate shows what awaits those who contest kleptocrats’ extreme corruption.

Governments that represent the more progressive or labour movements seem at the surface level to be less compatible with protest-crushing legislation or draconian police intervention. They also mouth their acceptance of the fact that climate change is a dire threat to our continued survival.

It was a climate protest that provoked the South Australian rushed change to the law. This came just after an obsequious statement from the South Australian Labor minister for energy and mining made the rounds: “We are thankful you are here. We are happy to a be recipient of [the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association] Appea’s largesse in the form of coming here more often…The South Australian government is at your disposal, we are here to help and we are here to offer you a pathway to the future,” Tony Koutsantonis said.

Why relatively progressive governments continue to introduce new coal mines, or waste time and money with the carbon capture and storage distraction is difficult to know for sure. There is certainly the pressure from donors to consider. Whether they also feel pressure from unions to slow the shift from fossil fuel extraction is worth asking. Australia’s Labor parties have no doubt learnt, if not over-learnt, the lesson from the mining sector which spent $22 million on antagonistic advertising to punish PM Kevin Rudd for his attempt to introduce a mining tax.

It is also possible to argue that Australia’s government remains an outreach division of the fossil fuel sector. All the tens of billions of profit made by fossil fuel companies netted Australia, as an example, $30 dollars in tax in 2020-21. In return, the taxpayer gifts these same companies, currently, $11 billion a year in subsidies. And the Albanese government’s continuation of the carbon credit program, barely changed from the Coalition’s scam model, is the only way that these companies are promising to cut emissions. The carbon trading program is, as Nick Feik describes it, a “frictionless profit machine” pervaded with senior fossil fuel figures, based on “phantom” credits as well as dubious-quality offset action. The program is “state-sponsored greenwashing.”

It is possible that centrist political parties have also foreclosed the possibility that humanity can check the race to our destruction. It is easy to see why. The idea that Russian silovarchs and Saudi princes can work together with the corporatocracy of the (dis)United States seems a slim hope sinking into the rising seas.

Our government might feel trapped in a politics shaped by short-term problems and solutions, and that economies and energy supplies secured in old-school ways are the price to be paid for reelection. Despair at the prospect of a world that looks to be fracturing rather than uniting to limit the crisis might reinforce this short-term thinking.

If that is a factor driving the centre/left parties, we are in deep trouble.

If the parties that claim to represent the people have given up in despair at the thought of doing better than mouthing platitudes and performative gestures, we have no chance of limiting the climb of temperatures in the decades to come. This matters: it is increasingly clear that every fraction of a degree we can prevent the temperature rising is a whole swathe of crises prevented.

This abdication of ambition would make a likely motivation for Labor governments to join right wing parties in cracking down on protest. As the crisis worsens, so will public distress. Failure to act on pain over months of bushfire smoke in city air or rising food prices will push people onto the streets as the Black Summer bushfires did. Catastrophe-driven demands on our nations’ budgets will eat away at the services that governments provide.

Police are ill-equipped to deal with social crises and public distress. They have had little tolerance for those who dissent in an inconvenient fashion.

If even the world’s centre/left governments give up the possibility of preventing the worst, it is our children and grandchildren who will face the full catastrophe – and be jailed in repressive crackdowns if they protest the nightmare that looms.

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