The Link Between Rising Authoritarianism and the Protection of Big Business

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The Link Between Rising Authoritarianism and the Protection of Big Business

NSW premier Dominic Perrottet has done quite a good job of presenting himself as something of a “swell guy”, despite the fact he’s an extreme ultraconservative who has just overseen the passing of the most draconian anti-protest laws in any democratic jurisdiction globally.

In one authoritarian swoop, the NSW Liberal Nationals wiped out the rights of those in this state to take effective protest action when the authorities don’t agree with their message, via threat of substantial prison time or a fine of tens of thousands of dollars.

Both major parties shoved the laws down the throats of all state MPs in record time. NSW Greens MLC Abigail Boyd said she’d never seen anything like it before.

The bipartisan move was provoked by climate activists escalating actions, which are becoming more effective in getting the message of the serious nature of the crisis across.

The media pretext for the laws was selfish protesters causing inconvenience to the public, especially ambulances.

However, what is really at stake here is the profits of fossil fuel companies and their viability in continuing operations on a continent and planet that are both destructing before our eyes.

The passing of these antidemocratic laws, which has been overshadowed by the federal election, is just the latest in a general shift towards authoritarian neoliberalism, which basically boils down to small government bankrolled by big corporations enforcing measures to strangle the public sphere.

“This is coal… don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt you.”

Prior to the Coalition taking control in 2013, the government had been investing in climate research, but as then Bureau of Metrology rainfall data analyst Karin Xuereb tells it, staff were gagged from mentioning the issue from “one day to the next”, while “hundreds of climate jobs were cut”.

Besides silencing public sector employees, another immediate move the Abbott government made was to abolish the Climate Commission, and then slowly dissolve the Department of Climate Change into what’s now the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources.

And from there, the issue was solved, climate change no longer existed.

The reason why the Liberal Nationals were so keen on moving to suppress changing climate is that its bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry, which also serves as the past and future employer for many a Coalition MP, as Greenpeace details in the 2019 documentary Dirty Power.

Indeed, so emboldened was the Coalition with this agenda that then treasurer Scott Morrison trotted into parliament swinging a piece of coal, stating Labor had “an ideological and pathological opposition to coal being an important part of our sustainable and more certain energy future”.

As former Greens Senator Scott Ludlum explained to Sydney Criminal Lawyers recently, the state is captured by the fossil fuel industry, via a series of interrelated processes involving loads of cash, the threat of media attack for opposing it, preferential research, and guaranteed future employment.

Criminalising civil society

Rather inconveniently for the Coalition though, the months-long megafires of 2019/20 and more recently, the extreme flooding of the eastern seaboard – both crises having wiped out towns – have made it more difficult to keep the true nature of the climate crisis under wraps.

However, the profit-driven federal government was well aware that keeping the dying planet a secret was going to get harder, as island nations were already sinking, extreme heatwaves were becoming regular global events, as were more severe and increasing cyclones.

So, the Turnbull government commenced an assault on nonprofits and charities, so they’d be less prone to campaign against issues like climate, with laws designed to gag them being ultimately unsuccessful, but it was able to appoint a vocal opponent of charities to the role of commissioner.

Morrison recently had another go using a method of law-making that doesn’t require a vote. It would have extended a law that can see charities deregistered for protest conduct that results in the committing of indictable or civil offences to summary offences as well.

But a last-minute disallowance motion quashed these severe measures.

In 2016, the NSW Baird government was much more successful in passing anti-protest laws that saw an aggravated trespass offence created with a tenfold rise in penalties, and a broadening of the definition of mine, so that activists can be sent away for 7 years for a whole range of actions.

And more recently, we’ve seen the judiciary climb on board the silencing climate dissent operation, by imprisoning several activists who took nonviolent direct actions. These protesters who posed no real harm to anyone were given sentences that one might expect involved criminal acts of ill intent.

Legislating for corporations

“It is possible to identify an increasingly authoritarian character in recent measures to ‘crack down’ on opponents to fossil fuels,” writes Australian academic Finn Bryson, adding that government is working with fossil fuel interests to silence civil dissent via the increasing criminalisation of activities.

In his article published in the Journal of Australian Political Economy, Bryson focuses on the case of the Adani Carmichael coalmine, pointing out that the government worked with the Indian mining giant to create infrastructure that opens up the Galilee Basin for the creation of nine mega-mines.

Another aspect of this creeping authoritarianism in relation to fossil fuels is the passing of legislation that facilitates the creation of more greenhouse gas emitting operations, even though a large part of the constituency is opposed to these projects going ahead.

A key example was Turnbull’s passing of the Adani Bill.

In February 2017, the Federal Court ruled that the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) required all claimants to sign an Indigenous land use agreement (ILUA) for it to be validated, which resulted in a WA native title agreement being abolished.

Yet, this ruling threw into question the ILUA facilitating the Adani mine. So, two weeks later, then attorney general George Brandis introduced a Native Title Act amendment bill to change the laws in order to reverse the court decision and ensure the Carmichael coalmine could go ahead.

A global creep

In a recent article in the Conversation about her new book Global Burning: Rising Antidemocracy and the Climate Crisis, California University Professor Eve Darian-Smith outlines that this same authoritarian creep is occurring in the US in relation to climate, as it is elsewhere around the globe.

“In democratic systems, elected leaders are expected to protect the public’s interests, including from exploitation by corporations,” she says, adding that in recent decades this “core democratic principle” has been “aggressively undermined” in the name of “corporate profits”.

The professor then points to three prominent world leaders who “came to power on anti-environment and nationalist platforms appealing to an extreme-right populist base and extractive corporations that are driving climate change”.

These three leaders of “traditionally democratic countries”, who “all depend on extractive corporations to fund electoral campaigns and keep them in office” are now former US president Donald Trump, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Australian prime minister Scott Morrison.

“Morrison’s government ignored widespread public and scientific opposition and opened the controversial Adani Carmichael mine,” writes Darian-Smith. “The mine will impact public health and the climate and threatens the Great Barrier Reef as temperatures rise and ports are expanded.”

Dwindling opportunities

Ludlam makes clear that the way state capture works “means that elections don’t shift that institutional power”, which implies we’re likely facing more of the same: increasing extreme weather events, triggering escalating protest actions, leading to the passing of more oppressive laws.

UN secretary general António Guterres said that climate evidence from the IPCC signals “a code red for humanity”.

Most scientists and climate activists agree that we’re at a drastic stage, when things are about to tip over the edge, but there’s still time to turn things around.

The grand inquisitor in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four said, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

Perhaps he forgot to mention that there will be mighty extreme and unpredictable weather around at the same time.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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