Charities muzzled when climate action advocacy is most needed

Dec 3, 2021
school climate change protest canberra
Australia's "let it rip" strategy on Covid mirrors its approach to climate action. (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Blocking charities from lobbying on “political” issues such as climate change is a blow to a liberal democracy and to our children’s futures.

It is increasingly clear that the greatest threat facing humanity is the firestorm of crises that make up the climate emergency. As vested interests move to block or delay crucial changes, people fighting to speed up the transition are under threat. Australia is following the petrostates into suppression of protest.

It is uncertain whether storms or pandemics, droughts or famines will be the worst we face in the decades ahead. For every degree warmer the planet edges, the more besieged our future looks; every year that dramatic action is delayed, the higher the looming toll. Intolerable heat in the tropics alone is predicted to be a primary driver of mass displacement. War over access to water looks likely. It is hardly surprising that people who understand the scope of the threat are not content to remain calmly on the sidelines.

Australia’s Coalition government is becoming a global villain for its refusal even to feign a willingness to act on climate in any plausible fashion, let alone commit to action. The fact that these politicians see the nation inescapably shackled to fossil fuel plays a sizeable role in the our decaying into a competitive authoritarian regime. It is not, however, only the Coalition government acting to crush protest in Australia.

Last week, the combined forces of opposition prevented the Coalition government handing a single appointee — the charities commissioner — the ability to investigate and deregister charities for even the most trivial of offences such as blocking a road.

This week Labor allowed the Coalition to pass a somewhat mitigated bill to cripple the ability of charities to speak on “political” issues about which they are expert. What is “political” is often dictated by the right as a way to cast a crucial issue outside the realm of the quiet Australian’s concern. Our wicked abuse of refugees, for example, is defined as “political” rather than a matter of human decency. Speaking about one’s non-straight, white, male experience is dismissed as “identity politics”. From being purely a fact for George HW Bush and Margaret Thatcher, climate science became “political” in the 1980s when the fossil fuel sector decided to destroy the discussion instead of diversify into new energy sources.

This blow against charities’ ability to lobby for their cause is a blow to a liberal democracy. As Reverend Tim Costello pointed out, silencing charities is the action that the authoritarian petrostate Russia took to suppress opposition.

Costello says he told Putin, “Look, you only have one word in Russian for two words in English: politics and policy. Civil society will always advocate and speak out on policy. That’s what civil society does. It doesn’t make them a political danger.”

Given the distinction between the two parties, the limits on “partisan” activity by charities is concerning. The Coalition in particular has a number of deeply unpopular — and harmful — policies that demand charities join the community in objecting strenuously. There is no doubt that the Coalition will continue to label that speech “partisan” and work to silence it.

Australia is one of 158 countries that restricted collective protest during the pandemic. Disturbing imagery of police crackdowns were countered by disturbing imagery of white supremacist thugs and conspiracists aiming to hurt police. It will be important to watch what militarised strategies our state forces continue to import from America in the aftermath of lockdowns.

The states in Australia, have, however been implementing limits on protest before we had heard of Covid. The UN expressed “serious concerns” about the anti-protest laws Queensland’s Labor government implemented in 2019. They described the laws as “inherently disproportionate”, working to criminalise peaceful demonstrations and at odds with International obligations. Western Australia has a 2015 bill that readily makes protests “unlawful activity”.

NSW Coalition governments have been mounding up ever more draconian anti-protest laws since 2016. In 2018, they removed the right to protest on Crown lands and bureaucrats gained the power to ban protests. In 2019, “hindering” a business while trespassing was made to attract huge penalties. Fines rose from $5000 to $22,000 with the prospect of a three-year jail sentence for peaceful protest.

As a result of these NSW laws, last month 22 year-old Eric Herbert was jailed for 12 months. His wrongdoing was the peaceful obstruction of a coal operation. NSW Police Minister David Elliott, described his act as “nothing short of economic vandalism”. It is worth keeping in mind that the Black Summer’s smoke impact on health alone cost almost $2 billion dollars. Is the coal mining corporation or the protester then the economic vandal?

Two Victorian women face charges that risk a 25-year sentence in the same peaceful protest.

This has an echo of India — one of the three nations that stopped a strong statement on phasing out coal at COP26 — where a young climate activist was jailed earlier this year for being part of writing a document to explain the farmers’ protests. Disha Ravi’s treatment is not uncommon in Modi’s authoritarian India. Any speech that criticises his Hindutva government is considered part of a global conspiracy to defame India.

India’s 2021 digital media law is ostensibly meant to protect the nation from the wild west of the cyber realm. Instead the tech giants are instructed to silence dissent on platforms like Twitter, while Hindutva trolls barrage the government’s targets with vile abuse. Simultaneously the tech companies are expected to invade users’ privacy to provide information to the government. Australia’s single individual in charge of eSafety and new regulations to be aimed at online trolls can be similarly misused.

In the countries and regions where the fossil fuel dollar carries the most sway, those on the frontline demanding a crucial rapid end to the dying energy model risk much. Global Witness has reported that in the past year at least 227 people have been murdered defending the ecosystem. The most vulnerable are First Nations people.

In the USA, counterinsurgency tactics from foreign wars were used against First Nations people and allies protesting pipelines crossing their lands. These tactics were instigated by private corporations using private mercenary operations.

A joint report from a group of Australian human rights and environment bodies released this week examines the “fever pitch” of repression on protest here. It is not just the anti-protest laws. It reveals that the government agency VicForests hired people to carry out a “campaign of surveillance” on opponents. Bail provisions are being used in a fashion usually reserved for organised crime figures.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Yusur Al-Azzawi describes the private sector’s legal cases aiming to delay protests, tie up resources or bankrupt groups. He condemns the combining of governments’ actions with police tactics and private sector attacks as a “systemic and broad-ranging attack on climate defenders”.

Australia can continue on this trajectory towards fossil fuel vassal status. It will, however, take the continued decline into authoritarianism and suppression seen in so many nations dependent on fossil fuels. Brazil, Russia, India, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not places where one wishes to dissent. As the climate crisis becomes more apparent, community objection will become louder.

America alone had experienced 18 climate events costing more than $1 billion in 2021 by early October. Nearly one third of Americans experienced such an event. Climate scientists in the 1970s knew this was coming. It was only a matter of “how bad” and “how soon”. We are starting to learn the answers and they are mostly at the worse end of projections.

Bill McKibben, American environmentalist, believes that we have reached the limits of what governments will be able to achieve on climate at the moment and argues “money” is the lever we need to pull. For this reason, he has co-founded Third Act, for Americans over 60 to join the young in demanding action. Controlling 70 per cent of America’s resources, they have the power to make the money listen.

Australia’s adults need to band en masse with the students who are frightened by our government’s intransigence on this existential challenge. We need to add our money and our voices to their protests to make sure our states and our private sector do not jeopardise our children’s future by continuing to prevent change.

It is obscene to retire to peace after we have lived the most comfortable of lives. We must not allow our governments to work to silence protest. We cannot leave our children to endure the consequences of our inaction.

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