Statisticisation

“There are three types of lies,” the old saying goes: “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Learning to distrust the supposedly simple mathematical truths of statistics is an essential survival mechanism for navigating our way through advertising promises and endless conflicting reports.

And yet I feel like over the years I’ve seen statistics becoming more and more prominent in our culture, taking on influence where once they seemingly had no relevance.

One of those areas is sport. American sports always loved statistics, and cricket by its bizarre nature always lent itself uniquely to mathematical analysis. But in recent years this has been taken to newheights – each year the television coverage boasts of some elaborate new way of crunching numbers. Popular website cricinfo has a regular feature of statistical analysis so detailed it has to be seen to be believed.

Other sports too have seemingly become obsessed with stats – soccer, aussie rules and rugby – in coaching and media all now seemingly dominated by the nerdy kids picked last on the playground who abandoned the sports field for lunchtime extra maths study. Most discussions about sport these days seems to turn to stats within a few minutes. This is despite the fact sports fans are not usually associated with loving maths, and that many of the most important elements of sport – teamwork, creativity, courage, discipline – can not easily be quantified.

Art also seemingly improbably has become dominated by statisticisation. For a long time the seemingly esoteric notion of artistic expression has been attempted to be quantified by things like sales numbers and price tags. But that’s nothing compared to the analytics offered these days by online companies like Youtube and Spotify. The mystery of artistic communication here is unravelled into a set of numbers that say a lot without ever getting close to ideas of metaphor, imagery, beauty, transcendence.

Typing “statistical analysis of music” into a search engine will yield hundreds of studies. Startups like Music Xray claim to be able to discover potential hits using data analysis, while others attempt to use computer programs to write hit songs using mathematical patterns.

Of course the main way statistics is influencing art is the way companies use data analysis to recommend to users what art they will like. Music streaming service Pandora was set up entirely on this pretext, and it is now a feature of virtually every big media company as a way of keeping our attention. This statistical obsession of online media has created a whole new artistic genre – “gaming the algorithm” is the process of creating artistically worthless products that get played and thus earn revenue by conforming exactly to the statistical attributes these media companies use to recommend content.

This influence comes through in the idealistic quest of political campaigning too. Using statistics to measure social progress is not new – the UN millennium development goals are a famous example. But these days data analysis is overwhelmingly seen as the answer to the question of how to create desired social change. Political parties can abandon big picture political ideas and instead zero in on the concerns of a small sample of swinging voters. Or in the case of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party a few years ago, electoral success can be based entirely on elaborate mathematical preference deals. Companies like Nationbuilder and Action Network collect mountains of data on individuals to supposedly enable better political communication. They pretty much just collect statistics about people’s online habits, but these days running a political party or campaign without one of these programs is seen as hopelessly out of touch and ineffective, and thus loads of money donated to political causes ends up paid to these companies.

There are other subtle ways I see a statistical mindset shaping how we think about politics – the prominence of what we might call a “politics of media representation”. This is a view, fairly frequently heard, that a way of creating social change is to increase the visibility of minority/oppressed groups in mainstream culture. I don’t disagree that this is a good thing, but it’s interesting to note how it is heard often at the expense of (mostly qualitative) questions of how the everyday lives of people in these groups can be better.

It is statistical in that it assumes people are pure numbers in a dataset, not varied individuals with differing motives – that just belonging in the same defined group means you have the same needs and desires as another. And what seems to be important is the number of people represented, rather than the content itself – an example being the way the big-budget Marvel film Black Panther was seen as a radical political piece of art because it is full of black faces, even though its message could be interpreted as politically conservative.

It’s in the workplace that statistics have the strongest hold on our lives. Industry has always been obsessed with stats – the quest for profits demanding ever increasing measurement of productivity, value and target audiences. The privatisation of services that were once considered unprofitable, like education and care services, has meant a whole new area of life to be measured and counted – a whole new industry of statisticians coming up with ways to measure things. Thus we have Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) in virtually every sector of work. One result is that the parts of life that can’t be measured – like, for instance, genuine education and care – are sidelined for the sake of things that can. Another result is that workers of all kinds find themselves endlessly filling out paperwork at the expense of what they are theoretically paid to do. Whatever skills we have, whatever needs we are supposed to fill, the endless hunger for statistics reduces us all to interchangeable bureaucrats.

Now some people do love statistics for their own sake I’m sure. But mostly, and I don’t think this is controversial to suggest, the drive for increased statisticisation is so more money can be made from more areas of life. Music and art are measured so they can be commodified like items on a supermarket shelf, our tastes measured so companies can demand more of our attention (and thus money) by offering us a neverending stream of stuff they know we like. The obsession with stats in sport is surely due to the industry around sport – professional pundits who can sound like experts by spouting numbers, not to mention the sports gambling industry, or the “fantasy” online sports that have the same addictive quality and do so by turning flesh and blood players in a team sport into digital avatars measured only by their individual contribution.

Statisticisation in politics is surely partly due to that class of professional NGO “changemakers” who need a way to claim expertise separate from the average street person; and need to measure the value of their work to justify their job. Key Performance Indicators – need I say more? The spread of statistics is the spread of capitalism – which, running out of far flung lands and unexploited natural resources, now colonises our entire lives by mapping out and selling the aspects of existence once uncommodified.

Of course, there have been bureaucratic states that weren’t capitalist. And even today much of the most detailed mapping of statistics – surveillance from the Chinese Communist Party to the NSA to the US military drone program – is done not for profit but purely for control.

But in the 21st century, control is often in the name of monetary gain. And ultimately, control is what universal statisticisation achieves, even when it claims to be in the name of giving us better targeted consumer choices to make our lives better.

The greatest bureaucratic program in history is the current rise of algorithmic capitalism. Never have so many statistics been gathered on the population, never more far-reaching in their scope. For-profit websites measure our friendships, our interests, our romantic and sexual desires.

But they don’t simply measure them. The algorithm increasingly dictates what information we see, the physical places we go, how we socialise, how we mate. As “ask google” becomes the destination for more of our questions, the answer more and more is “google’s profits”.

Statisticisation doesn’t just collect data about us. By dictating more of our lives, the algorithm turns us all into statistics – one-dimensional, predictable, controllable mathematical equations. The ideological bubbles of social media are one outcome, the reduction of our lives to a set of social media spectacles (if you didn’t livestream it, were you really there?) is another. Human traits like empathy, adventure, creativity and nuance are being threatened. Statistics can measure everything but seemingly can’t stop us from destroying our planet or suffering a mental health epidemic. You could even say they help us do it more efficiently.

In response, we need to resist statisticisation. Like Wendell Berry said, “every day do something that won’t compute”. Reclaim the value of the unquantifiable. Measure ourselves by who we are, not by our output and input. Dream of futures that can’t be handed to us by a “recommended” feature. We might be measured more than any other generation, but you and I are not numbers. And ultimately our lives will not be made better by computer programs pretending we are.

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My top ten songs of 2019

It’s become a yearly ritual for me compiling a list of my favourite ten songs. This year I had an odd connection to new music – I spent a lot of it travelling or living in remote places, which meant I had less access to live music and community radio – the main ways I usually discover new music. In place though, I did write a lot of reviews of new albums – 24 in all. One way or another, I managed to hear a bunch of new songs through the year that impacted me. Here are ten of them.

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Salary – Pogo

I wrote a lot about music this year, but only one song inspired me to write a whole zine. Sean Gorman’s tale of discovering punk rock as a teenager simultaneously filled me with nostalgia for my own teenage record collection and with inspiration for the possibilities of how art can change a life.

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Petrol Girls – The Sound

“I think about the power of sound and how we might use it”, says Ren Aldridge in the introduction to Petrol Girls’ album Cut & Stitch, before launching into this song. Cut & Stitch was my favourite album of the year, full of powerful punk music and on-point lyrics. As well as the actual record though, I loved the fact that for a full month before its release I eagerly looked forward to hearing it. In an age of total music saturation, it seems rare to have that kind of connection to a band. The album too was one that inspired attachment – I grew to love it more the more I listened to it.

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Feraliza – Like It Or Not

The second half of the year found me living at Camp Binbee, a remote protest camp set up to stop the construction of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. There weren’t many concerts to attend in the traditional sense then (well, apart from the occasional high profile muso playing in our shed), but it was certainly a musical place. There were guitars passed around camp fires, songs sung on picket lines, open mic nights, guitar lessons, jam sessions.

At one point, I decided to try to capture some of the musical life of the camp by making a compilation album, and it became a project I worked on sporadically for a couple of months. In the course of that I listened to all the songs on the record a lot of times, but I absolutely love the finished product. This track is a great example – a joyous song about resistance by someone with no formal musical releases to her name; who didn’t just sing about climate change but got out there and locked herself to an Adani drill rig.

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Spindles – Dream Human

This song was also on the Frontline Action on Coal compilation, though Spindles is no stranger to my end of year list. I first heard this song a few years ago, but this year it really took on the role it was always destined for – as an anthem of hope for people trying to create change. Seeing groups of people sing along to this, even an ensemble of amateur guitarists learning it (the song had to be rearranged into standard tuning!) was a beautiful sight. I hope it gets sung more in 2021 too, because it is a beautiful song with a message we need to hear.

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Carly Rae Jepsen – Want You In My Room

I must admit I am a long way out of the loop when it comes to mainstream pop. So who knows, maybe I miss out on a lot of songs this good, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t know very much about Carly Rae Jepsen, and there’s no special meaning to unravel here – just the joy of pure pop well made. That jangly guitar, the rhythmic drop at the start of the chorus, those vocoder backing vocals, the sax solo – there are so many elements to this song that I just love. There’s something endearingly innocent and daggy about the whole thing too – Carly can sing “I want to do bad things to you“, but neither the song nor accompanying film clip are trying very hard to be seductive or sexy in a conventional sense.

Anyway, for whatever reason I loved this song and feel like I love it more every time I hear it; even though I’ve played it for numerous people and no one else seems to like it as much as I do. It never made the pop charts anywhere either, which I guess leaves me as far from mainstream tastes as ever.

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Kate Tempest – People’s Faces

It seemed like anxiety was a topic it was impossible to avoid in 2019 – in the news, in conversation and especially online; the “anxiety epidemic” was never far from view. There were several worthy albums exploring anxiety, with veteran feminist punks Sleater Kinney and young British pop songwiter Nilufer Yanya approaching it from different angles. But the best musical analysis of anxiety was from London poet Kate Tempest, who mercilessly pulled apart the anxieties of interpersonal relationships and of living in 21st century capitalism.

As conservative politicians continue to utilise fear as a political weapon to powerful effect, it was a valuable contribution to make. Kate Tempest doesn’t hold back in her self-examination nor cultural critique, but she also doesn’t succumb to cynicism – the album ends with a powerful uplifting note of how connection can transform us from fear into hope.

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The Cutaways – Dead Name

I’ve known and enjoyed the music of Emmy Hour’s various musical projects for a few years now. This year’s Wax Woman was a great album, and hit a musical spot I was craving with its mix of classic rock and classic punk. The subject matter is maybe not as traditional – “It’s an album of a journey through life as a trans person” said Emmy. It’s a story that increasingly needs to be told these days, but there’s also something universal about the quest to find our authentic selves beyond the life we were “assigned at birth”.

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The Little Lord Street Band – Frankie’s Back in Town

At a festival organised by Perth community radio station RTR, between sets by raucous punk bands and hip indie kids, The Little Lord Street Band got up to bash out some good old-fashioned country rock. I turned to my friend and said “I unironically love this music.” They’re probably the wrong band to expect layers of meaning from, but Frankie’s Back in Town is a joyous stomp, and I do love how it conveys the way a person by their presence can transform their surroundings.

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Ausecuma BeatsAida

Slowly but surely, the African diaspora is making its presence felt across Australian culture. This is good news for music, letting more people experience the extraordinary musical traditions of that continent. In 2019, Zambian-born Sampa The Great sent critics wild with her debut album of afro-hip hop, Seychelles-born Grace Barbe made a gorgeous album of feminist afro-pop, Gordon Koang brought the sound of South Sudan to the hipster bars of Australia, and Ausecuma Beats dropped their debut EP of funky afrobeat onto unsuspecting dancefloors.

With a flurry of polyrhythmic percussion and the syrupy smooth voice of Yusupha Ngam, Aida is a straight up banger and an invitation to enter Ausecuma’s world of cross-cultural creativity that is hard to resist.

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Terra Mater – Holocene Extinction pt II

At 14 minutes, this is definitely the longest song ever to have featured in this list. Punk shows were an unfortunate rarity in my life this year, but Terra Mater’s epic prog-crust was the best one and a reminder of how good they can be. By the end of the year, their lyrical vision of a human race driving itself to extinction and a vengeful nature rising up in chaos had gone from crust-punk cliche to all too prescient.

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Hayao Miyazaki, and everyday magic in a time of despair

In the last few months I have managed to do something I’d been intending for years – I have sat down and watched a bunch of the films directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli.

These films; like Howl’s Moving CastlePrincess Mononoke and Spirited Away; all share a distinctive style of illustration but they also share a certain worldview – each incorporate what we might call “the supernatural” into often charming, heartwarming tales of simple morality.

What I really like about these films is the way “magic” is woven into the story. These tales are not set in an elaborately constructed fantasy world, nor do they draw a distinction between those who practice magic and the “muggles” who don’t.

Miyazaki films are typically set in average towns and cities, with spirits and spells that exist as a constant (if often unseen) part of life. Characters are often everyday people who get caught up in unseen forces. And while their lives are usually dramatically altered by these forces, they in turn affect the spiritual realms by their actions. In Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, young girls afflicted by curses end up redeeming multiple spirits with their simple acts of kindness.

If I can share a seemingly unrelated fact, the setting for me watching these films has been Camp Binbee, the community where people gather together to try to stop the construction of the Adani Carmichael coal mine and the climate breakdown it represents. The films came to be somewhat a part of camp life – to the extent that when we built a new table, occupants took turns each painting a Studio Ghibli character on the table until the whole thing was covered.

Most recently the setting was a lounge room in Melbourne, where half a dozen of us who had been at the camp and active in other parts of the climate movement gathered together. Most of us were on a new year’s break from dedicating our lives full-time to climate activism. We had each travelled south through a country ravaged by fire and blanketed by smoke, some had been forced to evacuate from the beautiful natural settings where we were meant to be enjoying relaxing holidays.

This bleak scenario is exactly what many of us have long feared and worked hard to try and avoid. Like so many we are shocked and saddened by the reports from fire-affected areas. In grappling with these stories though we also come face to face with our inability to stop the exact thing we had warned could come from our continuing abuse of fossil fuels. Not only that, but we face an online barrage of abuse for us greenies who supposedly caused the fires by opposing hazard reduction burns (something virtually no greenie has actually done) or even, from some of the more bizarre commentators, accusations we deliberately started the fires. The combination of these experiences brews a despair that sits in the pit of our stomachs, which we ignore or suppress to get through the day.

So we gathered together. Made food, talked about fires and politics, but also took a break to watch another Hayao Miyazaki film – like we did occasionally after exhausting days trying to organise resistance to a proposed mega coal mine in central Queensland’s sometimes inhospitable climate.

Watching these films isn’t pure escapism though. At times these animations seem more like our lives than you might think. The current inferno does at times kinda resemble the powerful vengeful natural spirits unleashed by human selfishness in Princess Mononoke or Pom Poko. But there are all kinds of ways we interact with various unseen forces.

In Studio Ghibli films, characters’ lives are entwined with the supernatural – they are unexpectedly cursed, or come into contact with spirits and creatures they have to figure out how to interact with. For better and worse, the spiritual realm is something that affects them and they affect.

In a metaphorical way, I think our lives are like this. Nothing in our lives is ever purely tactile. We carry around with us every day the baggage and blessings of our past, even from before we were born. Our actions are partly our choice, but partly determined by powerful forces that often go unseen – cultural norms, social contracts, fear, inspiration. Theoretical borders and barriers enable or restrict our movement. Ethereal financial markets dictate so much of our lives, often at the expense of our physical environment. Our actions have short term impacts we can see, but almost always other less tangible effects – anthropogenic climate change being a perfect example. We walk with one foot in the world of flesh and blood and one foot in the unearthly realm.

But this only tells part of the story. Because as viewers of Miyazaki films can tell you, our actions can unleash forces for good as well as bad. Barriers that took years to set up can be dissolved with a single act of kindness. Our negative pasts and ways of relating to ourselves can be transformed with loving words. An act of courage can send ripples around the world, inspiring others to act and bringing down immense structures built on fear.

Every action we make has an impact in both the physical and the metaphysical realm, and the consequences are not always readily apparent. Times of uncertainty like we are currently experiencing leave a lot of room for positive actions. And in a time of despair and hopelessness, it is good to remember that we are all capable of magic. The knowledge that our actions have unseen and unknowable consequences can be enough to keep us doing good even when everything seems hopeless.

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Police and courts misuse bail on environmental activists

On Tuesday December 3rd, two young men climbed on top of a stationary coal train near the Port of Brisbane and refused to come down. They had a banner draped from the carriage showing statistics from recent bushfires. They were protesting against government climate inaction, in a way that so many have in recent years.

The two were arrested, as they normally would be in this kind of civil disobedience protest. The young woman who was nearby acting as media spokesperson was also arrested as a “party to the offence”. This is less common in protest situations, but legally if the prosecution can prove she was involved in the commission of a crime they have a case regardless of whether she physically stopped a train or not.

Over the last few years there have been many protest actions like this. At least 50 people have been arrested around the country stopping coal trains. But what happened next was unusual – in the watch house police refused to offer bail, and then when the arrestees were taken to Cleveland Magistrates court the prosecution opposed bail there. The magistrate Deborah Vasta agreed, saying the protesters were “holding a gun to the public’s head”. The three were remanded in custody (sent to prison) until their next court appearance in 15 days time.

Now you may suppose the magistrate did this as a deterrent to these young people who seem to believe their conscience gives them grounds to break the law of the land. You may think she did it as a general deterrent to any other people thinking of stopping trains as a protest. After all, there have been a lot of these and the recent penalties don’t seem to be dissuading people. You may think they were imprisoned because these actions cause great expense to freight companies. On such company, Aurizon, already have a lawsuit pending against other activists who took similar actions; claiming hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. 

But if you supposed any of those things you would be missing one vital part of information – these are principles to be used in sentencing an offender after they have been found guilty. These three had no trial. Whatever the magistrate thought of their character or political beliefs, she had no right to sentence them – this was an abuse of the bail act.

As it turned out, the legal system agreed. An appeal was launched, and on Friday the 6th the Queensland Supreme Court overturned the decision. The three were released on bail, as they should have been originally.

It’s not the first time this year that controversial use of bail on environmental activists has been on the news. In October, former senator Scott Ludlam was given bail conditions saying he wasn’t allowed to go within 2km of the Sydney CBD or to have any contact with members of the group “Extinction Rebellion”.

These conditions were also overthrown on appeal, and widely reported in the media. It certainly helps gain attention when a high profile former politician is on the receiving end; but the truth is that bail conditions restricting the freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of political expression are extremely common.

The legal principle that underlines any decision on bail is the presumption of bail. This means that unless the court has specific reasons not to, bail should be granted. This presumption extends to bail conditions – legally, conditions should only be given to defendants if certain requirements are met. In normal circumstances, bail should be offered with the only undertaking that of turning up to court.

Section 11 of the Queensland Bail Act lists the circumstances in which the court or police may apply certain conditions on someone’s release on bail. They are:

Where a court or a police officer authorised by this Act to grant bail considers that the imposition of special conditions is necessary to secure that a person:

(a) appears in accordance with the person’s bail and surrenders into custody; or (b) while released on bail does not—
(i) commit an offence; or
(ii) endanger the safety or welfare of members of the public; or
(iii) interfere with witnesses or otherwise obstruct the course of justice

that court or police officer shall impose such conditions as the court or police officer thinks fit for any or all of such purposes but shall not make the conditions for a grant of bail more onerous for the person than those that in the opinion of the court or police officer are necessary having regard to the nature of the offence, the circumstances of the defendant and the public interest.

The presumption of bail is a fundamental part of the law because it is built on a respect for the institutions of the law – that you are innocent until proven guilty in a criminal trial, and that sentencing should be decided then by the presiding magistrate or judge. To adhere to those very basic legal principles of presumption of innocence and separation of powers, it should be made clear that bail is not to be used as punishment.

As we have seen in the legislation above, the factors that affect the normal presumption of bail are whether the defendant is likely to dodge court (is a “flight risk”), to recommit an offence, is a danger to public safety, or likely to interfere with justice. In the case of the three at Wynnum, it’s hard to see which of these applies – none of the three had previous criminal convictions, nor was their offence one that is likely to be done on a whim (meaning they are unlikely to do it again while on bail). They had also done their action openly so there was no reason to assume they would either run away or attempt to interfere with witnesses.

What’s more, their charges were relatively minor offences which do not usually result in a sentence of imprisonment. So by sending them to prison without trial, the magistrate was effectively taking away the ability of her colleague when it came to trial to decide a fair sentence based on the evidence.

The reasons given by Ms Vasta in court for their imprisonment seemed to be largely about her disagreement with their tactics: “by stopping traffic you’re making the problem worse, you’re not solving anything… the means and methods you use is absolutely bullying society, holding a gun to everyone’s head… you keep getting fresh meat, people with no history, on the assumption they will get out on bail and get a slap on the wrist.” She is of course entitled to disagree with Extinction Rebellion’s politics or tactics, but these reasons simply do not give a legal justification for refusing bail.

You could assume that what we have here is one random magistrate letting her political preferences get in the way of legal principles. But while this is an extreme example, use of bail as punishment against political activists is so common it can almost be taken for granted.

The case of Scott Ludlam is a noteworthy one because the conditions, besides being onerous, made no sense – he was forbidden from having contact with Extinction Rebellion members, but the group has no formal membership; and the court he was required to attend was within the geographical area he was forbidden from entering. But this just illustrates how thoughtlessly those who should know better routinely use bail to punish those engaged in civil disobedience.

Frequently people are given conditions that restrict their movement. This is not necessarily related to the place where an offence was committed – though at times (which is what is implied in the bail act) the conditions are not to go back to that location. But the conditions will frequently prohibit going near “any Adani infrastructure” or “any coal mining infrastructure”. Distances people are required to stay away vary from 100m to 20km. The argument is that this fits with the legal provisions in that it is to stop people reoffending. But it’s not against the law to stand outside a coal mine (certainly not to stand 20km from one), and if someone was to do something illegal at a coal mine then normal police powers would enable them to arrest that person or take other action as necessary.

But what about bail conditions prohibiting Extinction Rebellion activists from going into the CBD? Or activists who have stopped coal trains banned from catching passenger trains? Can anybody honestly argue this condition is necessary to stop them reoffending? How about Emily Starr and Matilda Heselev, who in July after blocking the entrance to Adani’s Abbot Pt coal terminal (15km north of Bowen), were given bail conditions barring them from the town of Bowen? Most extreme of all was 21 year old Freya Nolin, who earlier this year was given bail conditions banning her from the state of Queensland – 1,727,000 square km of Australia rendered illegal to her on the whim of one magistrate before she had even been brought to trial.

Similar to these are conditions banning people from specific residences. Probably 50 people this year at different times have been given bail conditions banning them from going within 100m of Camp Binbee, the property near Bowen where many people stay to organise frontline resistance to Adani. Police don’t seem to offer any proof that any individual has been involved at the property, but they are happy to restrict people’s access to a safe place to stay and a support network. Police say the camp is involved in organising illegal protests, but again if that is the case police have the power to gather evidence and arrest people who are breaking the law. That is literally their job and the reason we have laws. 

Indeed if the property is such a threat, then people shouldn’t be allowed to go there whether on bail or not. But to actually restrict people’s movement is an extreme act that requires stringent evidence tests police would struggle to meet. Summarily using bail conditions to do the same is simply a way of bypassing those legal requirements. Anybody could plan to break the law from any location, that surely doesn’t mean police can arbitrarily pick destinations where they can’t go. And when it comes to actual sentencing for these crimes the punishment is usually a monetary fine, not a restriction of movement. So why is it acceptable for police, before someone has had a fair trial, to deem where they can and can’t go?

The other liberty bail conditions often impinge upon is freedom of association. Not always as extreme as Scott Ludlam’s, but nor was that an isolated event. I personally was given bail conditions a few years ago with a list of 10 people I wasn’t allowed contact with. None of them had been charged with any crime. This goes beyond just freedom of association – in spaces where activist groups often act as informal legal support, it is depriving people of that. But the conditions are not really designed to deny people legal support. What it is designed to do is to stop people taking part in political protests.

It should be noted to that use of bail in this way is not new. I have heard that in 2002, after activists helped some asylum seekers to breakout of detention at Woomera, police arrested everyone they could – giving bail conditions that they could not return to the isolated detention centre. The charges were based on no evidence and were eventually dropped, but they had the effect of stopping people who had travelled across the country from contacting the detainees they had come to support.

Back in 1994, political bail conditions were taken to the Victorian Supreme Court. Forest activists John Flynn and Stewart Paton were given conditions that said “the defendant is not to attend at or interfere with any logging operation.” They refused to sign them and took the case to the Victorian Supreme Court. There, Justice Byrne declared “the imposition of such a term is inconsistent with the primary purpose of bail which is to ensure that the accused in each case attends to answer the charge with which he is currently facing… it strikes me a collateral objective is being sought by imposing the conditions the magistrate did.” That ruling should have acted as a precedent, but in the quarter of a century since sadly not much has changed.

A few years ago, I spoke to Michael Cope, president of the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, about the prevalence of this. He was adamant: “it is entirely inappropriate to use bail as a device to stop people taking part in legitimate political protest… it’s just an infringement of freedom of speech

And yet preparing for the punitive bail conditions likely to be applied is a basic part of taking civil disobedience actions. With this month’s example in mind, we might have to change that to say preparing for the prospect of arbitrary imprisonment.

Why this is the case is not hard to imagine. Protesters breaking laws are annoying and inconvenient for people trying to go about their daily business. They not only break the law, but by claiming they have the moral authority to do so they are disrespecting the very institution of the law, a sacred artefact many employed in the law-enforcing professions hold dear. They create extra work for police; who feel they should be attending to more important duties; then are often let off with a slap on the wrist by courts that accept their acts as valid protest. Maybe they hold political beliefs others find disagreeable. Whatever sentencing principles are being applied currently are clearly not deterring anyone – acts of civil disobedience are becoming more common, not less.

For all these reasons, it’s easy to see why people take the opportunity to slip in a bit of extra punishment when and where they can. But to do so is an abuse of legal processes, not an enforcement of them.

And yet it happens all the time, in all parts of this country. It is a part of the apparatus that keeps people in line. It should come as no surprise to anyone that our legal system is stacked in favour of those who enforce the laws and against those who get on the wrong side of them. But on top of that, the people who go on most about the importance of keeping the law are still just as likely as any to manipulate the legal system when it suits their purposes.

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Spirit of Place in the Climate Crisis

It was a quiet afternoon at Camp Binbee – the exhausted recovery from the at times frantic activity of trying to stop Adani’s proposed mega coal mine. As the hot breeze rustled through the trees, a few of us sat down for tattoos. The medium was the “stick and poke” of a pot of ink and a steel needle. The design was modelled on the patterns that adorn the hundreds of ironbark trees dotted around the property; except this motif also incorporated lines from the topographical map of the surrounding area.

A bit abstract then, but these were undoubtedly Camp Binbee tattoos. The funny thing was though, the tattoos said nothing about coal mining, or blockading, or even protest. They were a permanent etching on our bodies not just of this campaign, but of this place. This hundred acres of scraggly eucalypt, cleared grassland and dry creekbeds that so many of us have, for varying lengths of time over the last couple of years, called home.

Every morning here, the daily meeting begins with an acknowledgement of country. It is a recognition of the Birri people who are the area’s traditional owners, unjustly dispossessed of this land long ago and still struggling to right those wrongs. But it is also, in a way consistent with that aboriginal culture, an acknowledgement of place – a reminder that we are in a specific site with its own characteristics, history, and needs. It is a grounding in where we are, a recognition that our life is entwined with the physical space we inhabit. It affects us, and we affect it.

Camp Binbee is in some ways a world unto itself. Isolated by distance from big cities and towns; and removed by intention from the everyday world of apathy, distraction and complicity that shields us from the reality of climate breakdown. It is a place where radical ideas and practices that are frequently marginalised can thrive. It is no overstatement to say this place has changed lives.

It’s a place where people have been able to find a community. A group of people who, purely by the fact of their awareness and desire for action, reassure that you are not crazy and we are indeed in a climate crisis that demands our attention. A community committed to taking personal responsibility for this crisis, to breaking through our conditioned apathy and holding to account those who are benefiting from the destruction of our planet. A community committed to working together – to resolving interpersonal disputes that arise, to making decisions by group consensus, to working on the parts of ourselves that affect others negatively. Binbee is a place where, if not always successfully, these processes are at least attempted and seen as important.

It is a place where close relationships are forged – lives lived together, hopes and fears explored, intense moments experienced with others in a way that can turn strangers very quickly into close friends. It is a place where we discover new sides of ourselves. Facing needs and opportunities we never had before; we find previously unknown abilities, passions and reserves of energy. Where the sharing of skills and knowledge is encouraged, even across the usual social determinants of gender or age.

It is a place that makes transformation visible. Permaculture principles turn a dry wasteland into a flourishing garden. Connection to a culture and history of political movements make social change seem possible. Encountering new ideas and experiences, we begin to feel ourselves change and believe that the way things are presently need not be how they have to be.

All this is not to say it is a perfect place. It can be frustrating, overwhelming, dysfunctional. People’s experiences of it wildly fluctuate depending on a whole range of factors. But what is certain is that Camp Binbee’s existence as a physical location allows for the possibility of things that would otherwise not exist. In a world where we are becoming ever more removed from our physical surroundings – where we spend increasingly more time in interchangeable buildings or suburbs, or in the altered reality of cyberspace; Camp Binbee is a reminder of the power of “Genius Loci” – the spirit of place.

At the same time there exists a tension. Most of the residents of Binbee over the last couple of years are not originally from this area and don’t envision our long term futures being spent here. When the campaign against Adani’s Carmichael mine concludes one way or another, nobody claims that Camp Binbee and all its wonderful characteristics will continue to have a purpose or even continue to exist.

We are frequently reminded of this fact by local politicians and voices in the media saying we are southern blow-ins who should have no say in what happens in central Queensland. The chorus repeated once again with Labor’s election review last week, of “Queenslanders don’t like being told what to do”.

The identity of place in this part of the world is strong – aided by the geographical distance from the big cities that hold more social and political influence in Australia. But it’s a sense of place that at times resembles a siege mentality – defined by the exclusion of outsiders. Recently it has manifested as a spirited defence of mining and its role in local industry.

That notion of locality though is manufactured by that placeless, mystical idea we call “economics”. The dynamics of monetary exchange certainly has a role to play in the formation of physical spaces, but it has no loyalty to them – witness the sadness of busted mining towns like Mt Morgan. Or the shift visible in places like Bowen – a town once built on a local industry of fruit pickers but now, unable to pay anyone a living wage, carrying a perpetual transient population of broke backpackers essentially doing indentured labour in order to get their visa extension.

Loyalty to an industry that has traditionally succeeded in that physical locality is not the same thing as a healthy attachment to an actual place. This can be discovered when the mines aren’t profitable any more and the multi-national companies that own them pack up and move, or when the outside world moves on and a blinkered community distrustful of outsiders suddenly discovers their sense of place was based on nothing after all. The panic caused by China refusing to buy Australian coal this year is a foreshadow of how this can happen.

More immediately, we can find our attachment to a theoretical place removes us from our actual surroundings. Central Queensland mine workers feeling threatened by calls for climate action find themselves claiming climate change is a myth, even a global conspiracy (those pesky outsiders again) – they state this again and again even as drought and unprecedented bushfires ravage the actual place they live. Great Barrier Reef tourism operators won’t allow anyone to talk about the issue of coral bleaching out of fear it will stop customers coming. Their local identity has become so distorted by economics they live out of touch with their surroundings, even out of touch with reality.

Climate change seems so emblematic of our society’s disconnection from place. Our lifestyles have caused drastic changes that affect our surroundings, yet some unseen force makes us unable to recognise or to change it. As sea levels rise, extreme weather events become more prevalent and weather patterns change; we find ourselves strangers even in once familiar places.

Though it is a global issue that has so far mostly been hindered by the parochialism of specific locations (think of Scott Morrison’s response to the UN last month: “We won’t be copping from any global institution any directions that are at odds with our national interest”); I still think that finding solutions to the climate crisis is somehow entwined with finding authentic ways of relating to the spaces we live in.

Grounding ourselves in the places we inhabit can be an act of climate resistance. It makes us more aware of how the climate is changing and the actions we need to take to adjust – or ideally to stop it.

But as Camp Binbee demonstrates in some small way, committing ourselves to the physical spaces around us can also be a powerful act of resistance because we are always influenced by our physical surroundings. We need to create spaces where people can develop new skills and ideas, where we can connect to a culture that enables us to believe change is possible and to a group of people that empowers us to make it happen. Spaces that can inspire and educate; that can enable people to push beyond societal norms, to attempt audacious things without fear of potential failure.

Climate change is potentially a worldwide threat unrivalled in human history. But as ever, the global and the local are entwined – to have a chance of stopping climate disaster, we need to be conscious of how we relate to the land beneath our feet.

– Andy Paine

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Climate tensions coming to the surface

“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

“Australia is taking real action on climate change and getting results,” Scott Morrison said in September. “We are successfully balancing our global responsibilities with sensible and practical policies to secure our environmental and economic future. Australia’s internal and global critics on climate change willingly overlook or ignore our achievements, as the facts simply don’t fit the narrative they wish to project about our contribution. Australia is responsible for just 1.3% of global emissions. Australia is doing our bit on climate change and we reject any suggestion to the contrary.”

Nothing to see here folks. Climate change isn’t a problem, our government has it all under control. It doesn’t take an expert in climate or political science to see some level of tension underneath statements like this. For one, Morrison’s claims are just false. Australia’s carbon emissions are growing. 1.3% might sound small, but Australia’s population is 0.3% of the world’s and we are in fact one of the highest per capita emitters. Nor does that figure include the emissions produced by Australian export industries from which our country profits. The idea that we are meeting our Paris Climate targets is similarly based on the dodgiest of accounting methods, using the fiction of “Kyoto credits” to pretend we are meeting international agreements that we are not. Last time Scott Morrison was at the United Nations he took the opportunity to talk not of “global responsibilities” but instead to publicly complain about the international body meddling in his domestic affairs.

In Queensland the state government can claim, with slightly more credibility, to have the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy plan. They do this with notable regularity – the five government media releases about renewable energy in the last week being a not unusual sample. This also doesn’t tell the whole story though. The Queensland government doesn’t factor the emissions of the state’s coal exports into those figures. In fact, environmental approvals for mining projects don’t take downstream emissions into account. The Queensland government’s climate plan is either based on the pretty unlikely assumption that coal will never be burned, or the narrow perspective that the money the state receives from those exports has nothing to do with what happens with that product once it leaves our shores.

The federal and state governments’ support of Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine ignores one of the essential tenets of meeting that Paris climate agreement – as the IPCC report on meeting the goal says, “any production from new oil and gas fields, beyond those already in production or development, is incompatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C.”

So there is a tension inherent in those confidently made claims. Not an especially hidden tension – the claims are made by incumbent governments seeking not to inspire dramatic change, but to reassure the population that they are doing enough. Pretty much anybody can see that these claims are made not with climate justice in mind but are an attempt to disguise the fact that, as the world lurches into climate breakdown, our governments are unable or unwilling to to take the steps required to stop it.

The tension, mind you, is not limited to governments and mining lobby. It’s in the daily lives of Australians. Living in the midst of a human-caused environmental disaster and existential threat; we go about our lives as if nothing unusual is happening, no news more noteworthy than the everyday banalities of work and leisure.

This year, those tensions have come to the surface. Vast numbers of people have taken part in climate protests. And not just a Saturday afternoon rally. Kids and workers going on strike, cities shut down in chaotic traffic “swarms”, dozens arrested disrupting work on Adani’s mine or at businesses involved in the mine.

Last week was probably the most tense yet – demonstrations attempting to disrupt the smooth operation of the International Mining And Resource Conference in Melbourne were met with police batons, horse charges and pepper spray strewn into crowds as if it was silly string at a kid’s birthday party. Following public outcry and extremely distasteful revelations about some of the police involved, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews defended the police, saying “there is a big difference between peaceful protest and what we saw yesterday”, while opposition leader Michael O’Brien praised police for “trying to make sure that these ferals can’t stop people going about their lawful business in this state”.

Inside the Convention Centre, federal Resources Minister Matt Canavan was literally living in a fairy tale – his speech started with “Our friends in the green activist movement so often present themselves as the Big Bad Wolf. They make threats, they inflate their support base and they build themselves up to be scary to all. However, when it comes to actually blowing something over they are so often shown to be more huff than puff.”. Canavan’s vision is a fantasy where the mining industry (which naturally includes his own family) are the good guys heroically defying the unjust force of evil protesters. Where business is sacred and the profits of companies have no negative consequences.

The spectacle of riot cops defending the industry meeting was Martin Luther King’s quote acted out before our eyes. For all the talk about the importance of protest to a democracy, this is what will happen if there are enough of you to actually threaten the ability of mining executives to get together and discuss how to profit from the destruction of your future. It was not a pretty sight, but then pointing the light at those dusty corners where we like to keep the tensions hidden can unearth some nasty surprises.

In Queensland, the Dangerous Attachment Devices legislation outlawing “lock-on” devices came into effect on Wednesday. That day, Premier and architect of the laws Annastacia Palaszczuk gave a speech proudly repeating her refrain that the state had an ambitious target of 50% renewable energy by 2030. In the same speech, she announced she was opening up vast areas of the state for gas exploration.

Palaszczuk lives daily in the tension. In a state where her government holds a tenuous grip on power (especially after the federal election result), with a powerful mining sector on one hand and a huge tourism industry based around the rapidly bleaching Great Barrier Reef on the other. She spruiks the state’s credentials as climate action pioneers while the nation’s most symbolic climate battle rages in the middle of the state.

Queensland has also seen the country’s most disruptive climate civil disobedience in recent times – this year in Extinction Rebellion protests, and over the last few years against the proposed Adani mine both in Brisbane and central Queensland.

Palaszczuk’s response to the tensions has, of course, been to go on the attack against environmental protesters, demonising them as extremists and bringing in new laws against protest activity. She still tried to have it both ways by defending her environmental record and insisting the laws are aimed not at restricting protest but at “potentially dangerous tactics by a small cohort of individuals”. This is no more honest than the PM’s claims we are on track to meet the Paris Climate Agreements. The truth is Palaszczuk misled parliament and the public over make-believe “booby traps” and suspended normal parliamentary procedure to rush through the laws. All to keep up the facade that her party were the responsible middle ground between environmental action and economic growth.

On Friday, Brisbane was the setting for another politician talking up new laws to shut down protest. A day after the chaos of the IMARC protests, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was leaving no room for illusions about which side he was on. At a lunch organised by the Queensland Resources Council, Morrison railed against “selfish and indulgent” protesters and promised new laws to stop secondary boycotts targeting mining contractors. Of course, those protests aimed at a range of businesses involved somewhere in the fossil fuel food chain had begun precisely because the government had proven so unwilling to act.

Mass protests, violent policing, new laws criminalising dissent. It sure was a tense week in the world of Australian climate politics. But if politicians think you can just clamp down and suppress it they are battling the laws of physics.

Many of us have grown accustomed to living in a state of unbearable climate tension. Kids being told to go to school and study for a future that is being actively taken from them; citizens expected to follow law and order that protects those who destroy our planet and criminalises those who try to save it; activists setting aside their lives and interests to stand for a greater cause only to be repeatedly vilified, threatened and accused of being selfish parasites.

This is the hidden tension of everyday life in a time of climate emergency. No need to be surprised when it rises to the surface.

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Repeat a lie often enough – Lock on laws passed in parliament

You know the saying, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. Various psychological studies over the years have found some validity in the theory, and on a daily basis around the world people try it out for various reasons and to various extents.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk seems to have stumbled across the old adage while struggling for solutions to the tricky spot her Labor Party finds itself in currently. She must have watched with horror her party decimated in her home state in May’s federal election. She faces an election next November, and if Labor was to get a similar result they would lose government. There was no time to waste. Her assessment of the situation was that Labor had lost Queensland federally because of the party’s stance of not wanting to get anyone offside so not really taking a position on new coal mines like Adani’s Carmichael project in central Queensland.

Within days she set out rectifying the situation, announcing she was “fed up” with delays on the Adani project and was setting a timeline for its approval. Her deputy Jackie Trad posted on social media that Labor had been wrong and were now in full support of Adani.

It was an uncomfortable position though for a government that regularly spruiks its climate credentials, in a state that reports have said will be the worst affected by climate change. The tensions were an issue in the electorate (where regional seats are under threat from One Nation/LNP and inner city seats from the Greens) and within the party.

By this point too the Stop Adani campaign was not the only climate movement to deal with. From the UK came Extinction Rebellion, proposing mass civil disobedience in cities as a political tactic. Queensland was a state that had already seen sustained climate protests for half a decade since Campbell Newman approved the Adani mine, and Brisbane became the most enthusiastic Extinction Rebellion chapter.

It’s also a state with an extremely powerful mining lobby (Queensland Resources Council headed by former federal government minister Ian Macfarlane), and a print media virtually monopolised by Murdoch newspapers. Both went into a frenzy over this new wave of climate protesters causing “anarchy in the streets”. The LNP were accusing the government of being too soft, and proposing tougher laws against protesters. The climate issue was causing Annastacia headaches again.

Clamping down on political protest is not a comfortable fit for the Labor party in Queensland. They hold tightly to their own mythology as a party formed out the militant 1891 shearers strike (Palaszczuk did her mandatory pilgrimage to Barcaldine on Labour Day in 2016), and one that fought hard for civil rights during the two decades of Joh Bjelke-Peterson as conservative Premier. In Queens Park in Brisbane stands a statue of TJ Ryan, the legendary socialist Labor premier who defied the federal government by distributing anti-conscription pamphlets in World War One when it was illegal to do so.

So a bit of airbrushing would be required. Just the usual political spin, you know. New laws aimed at slowing down protest and placating the LNP, mining lobby and Murdoch press would be presented as purely about the safety of police officers. And the climate activists could be cast as the bad guys. Why not? They were already being publicly vilified anyway, and it would mean Labor could present itself as the reasonable force of moderation.

So on August 20, Palaszczuk introduced new laws to parliament. They would give police new stop and search powers and create new offences related to the “lock-on” devices sometimes used by environmental protesters to disrupt work. Accompanying the laws was a remarkable accusation. Palaszczuk had apparently been shown evidence of protesters using devices “laced with dangerous traps” designed to injure police rescue personnel who come to remove them. Protesters were using butane canisters and shattered glass to threaten the lives of innocent police officers. Police Minister Mark Ryan issued a press release that used the word “extremist” four times.

The media lapped up the sensational claims. Violent protesters! What a scandal, what a threat to the very fabric of society. Few journalists stopped to ask where the evidence was. If this had really been occurring, wouldn’t someone have been already charged with attempting to maim a police officer? Surely some news outlet would have reported all the gruesome details of the assault by now? And wait a minute, if these activists are planting explosives in these things, why do they lock themselves to the bomb?

There weren’t many people prepared to stand up for the protesters in the context of this moral panic. Queensland Council for Civil Liberties, normally a vocal champion of democratic rights, was hedging its bets: “If these allegations are true those planning such conduct are to be condemned and should face appropriate legal sanction. The QCCL has always supported the right of peaceful protest, even if that causes inconvenience to others.” Lock-on devices have been used for decades in Australia, but mostly in rural forest protests. The majority of city-dwellers, whatever their political beliefs, are not really very familiar with the devices.

An exception was Member for Maiwar Michael Berkman, the state’s lone Greens MP: “The government is using this fabricated notion – that peaceful protesters are using dangerous, booby-trapped tools – to silence dissent and distract from their own hypocrisy on climate change… These are dangerous, anti-democratic new laws that pretend to solve a nonexistent problem.” The solitary voice speaking up for the humble lock-on pipe was a role Berkman would have to get used to.

By the time the laws were presented to parliament on September 19th, Palaszczuk had soothed the rhetoric a little. References to explosives were quietly dropped, though with no apology to the environmentalists she had essentially publicly accused of being terrorists. That line was going to be hard to hold on to anyway. The day after the initial accusations, The Guardian had contacted Queensland police. They said “the placing of items into a locking-on device had the capacity to cause harm but was designed to delay the attempts of police to extricate protesters in a timely manner”. Which, funnily enough, was exactly what the protesters had been saying.

The gist was pretty much the same though. “The Palaszczuk Government is introducing new laws to ensure the safety of front- line emergency service workers and the broader community. These new laws are vitally important because these are the people who often put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of others.” so went the government media release.

Another subtle propaganda tactic was present now too. The proposed laws contained references to sinister-sounding devices called “sleeping dragons” and “dragon’s dens”. Thankfully the law provided definitions for the terms, because even the activists who use the devices never use this terminology. These devices are always, and I mean absolutely always, referred to in Australia as “lock-on pipes” and “concrete barrels”. Those phrases are just so unglamourous though. From that moment on, every single media report on the laws contained more dragons than a teen fantasy novel.

The explanatory notes for the bill contained a remarkable sentence that said so much: “It has been reported some people have claimed that they have placed glass or aerosol canisters inside devices such as ‘sleeping dragons’ and metal fragments have been used to lace the concrete found in ‘dragon’s dens’” It has been reported some people have claimed? A pretty tenuous justification for laws that could send someone to jail. But the accusations had already been picked up by almost all media; and how many people actually scour the explanatory notes to parliamentary bills?

By the time the public submission process on the laws had closed on October 8th, Brisbane was in the midst of more disruptive Extinction Rebellion protests stopping traffic in the CBD. Annastacia Palaszczuk was declaring an emergency, but it wasn’t quite the one the protesters outside her office were calling for.

She announced she was fast-tracking the laws, but tried to reassure the public that proper process would still be followed. “We’re asking for the hearings to still happen, but to be brought forward.” She also said she wanted the laws in action by the end of the month. So much for the independent cross-bench Legal Affairs Committee.

Palaszczuk was at pains to say the laws were not about restricting protest, in fact she gave a spirited defence of the importance of protest to democracy. “I give this guarantee that this is not about people doing the right thing and peacefully protesting”. The laws, of course, are not aimed at anything other than political protest – what other context do people lock themselves to things using steel pipes and refuse to leave? What she means of course, is everyone is free to protest politely, without disrupting anything. Disruptive tactics, developed and proven effective by the history of movements for social change, don’t count.

Someone dug up a photo of a young and hip-looking Annastacia speaking at a rally for 4ZZZ after the community radio station had been kicked out of its university headquarters and illegally reoccupied the space. It seemed like she had betrayed the ideals of her younger self, but she hadn’t really. For a politician, the line between courageous freedom fighter and lawless rabble is always dependent on whether the protest is politically advantageous to you or not. As ever, few put it as bluntly as the Katter’s Australia Party; whose MP Nick Dametto said in parliament “I’m dead against that (climate protesters), but I want to make it clear that if farmers want to disrupt traffic in Brisbane, we’d support that“.

There had been 214 public submissions on the proposed laws, totaling over 500 pages. But the day after submissions closed on October 8th, following Palaszczuk’s press conference, relevant stakeholders were invited to testify at an enquiry on Friday October 11th. They had to RSVP with names by midday October 10th. In total they had less than 48 hours to prepare and present their evidence. I guess this is what she meant by fast-tracking.

Michael Berkman is not on the Legal Affairs and Community Safety Committee, but he forced his way into the inquiry by virtue of the fact he is the only MP who actually knows anything about environmental protest. Who knows what it would have been like had he not been there, as he was the only one who thought to ask police if there was actually evidence of gas canisters being placed inside concrete barrels. Shane Williams, police “expert on attachment devices”, offered one anecdote from 2005 when police had heard of said canisters being used. When asked if they had actually been used, he couldn’t confirm. “That’s the only example I can give you. When we wrote the training package we included aerosol cans in it for that reason.” Berkman also asked if there had been incidences of police intentionally injured by the devices, to which Williams responded there hadn’t. The hearing ended with police tabling photos with no date or location included. They gave evidence last, so no other witness could speak to those claims.

Rail freight company Aurizon meanwhile, were asked (by guess who) about the remarkable figure, contained in the bill’s explanatory notes, of $1.3 million that a single person climbing on top of a coal train had apparently cost the company. The witness said “Aurizon did not communicate this loss to the committee, nor has it made any public comment to this effect in any other forum. We understand this figure is taken from a Brisbane Times article”. “It has been reported that some people have said” indeed.

The final report stated “the bill generated substantial interest from the community, with over 200 submissions. Most submissions opposed the bill… A small number of submitters supported the bill.” Apparently these small number made a compelling argument, as almost all the evidence included in the report came from them. The committee recommended the bill be passed with no modifications.

Participants at the hearing weren’t just critical of the legislation itself – Queensland Council of Unions stated “we are concerned about fast-tracking laws like this. These are serious laws; they deal with people’s democratic rights… comments in the media about fast-tracking these laws and the fact that the committee process has been called on much earlier than it was otherwise scheduled does lead to some concern on our part about the integrity of this process”. The report listed three other groups making similar statements.

The report also gives another insight into the world of political spin. It had been reported in the media that Queensland Resources Council CEO Ian Macfarlane had spoken to cabinet in the drafting process of the laws. To reassure the public of the fair and balanced process though, the bill’s explanatory notes listed five other organisations consulted. When it came to the enquiry though, two of those five questioned the extent of that consultation, while others asked why the notes had no reference to any findings from said discussions. On top of that, Australian Conservation Foundation – the only environmental organisation listed among the five – said “No written correspondence has been received from the Queensland Government, by ACF regarding the Bill, nor has there been any formal opportunity to offer feedback… We request that reference to ACF be removed from the Explanatory Notes.

Within days, the laws were back in parliament. The LNP had come with amendments – to them the laws were not strict enough. Their proposals came straight out of the Joh Bjelke-Peterson guide to civil liberties: an “unlawful assembly offence” that applies where “3 or more persons are present together for a common purpose and 1 or more of the persons is behaving in a way that would cause a person in the vicinity to reasonably suspect the behaviour is intended to cause traffic congestion or otherwise interfere with the use of a public place by a member of the public. The offence will attract a maximum penalty of 1 year’s imprisonment. Any person who is twice convicted of the offence will be sentenced to a period of imprisonment of a minimum of 7 days.

Thankfully the amendments were rejected, but what did Labor party members think of the can of worms they had opened? We don’t know. As Michael Berkman pointed out, a number of prominent Labor ministers all stayed conspicuously silent during the debate. One unnamed MP had already stated to media “The right to protest or strike is part of what Labor was built on… I shudder to think what happens next if we’re saying it’s OK to make laws because we don’t like someone or don’t like their protest tactics.

The mythical explosives were dragged out again in the debate, plus a new “booby trap” thrown into the mix – “tripwires”. This is in reference to ropes by which treesits and monopoles are tied to machinery, suspending the activist and immobilising the machine. These ropes usually go from a height of 8-10 metres to be fixed on a machine. The physics of how anyone could possibly trip on this rope was never really spelled out, but the tripwires were of sufficient concern that they made an appearance in the government’s final media release.

In parliament, Michael Berkman was the only one to talk about the threat of climate breakdown. A couple of MPs denied climate change was a thing, and Whitsunday MP Jason Costigan gave a speech about how he walked out of a community event in a local church because he saw a picture of Greta Thunberg. Labor minister Grace Grace gave a rousing defence of the right to protest, then voted for the laws.

The bill passed on Thursday, 86 votes to 1. The government media release trumpeted again “Ensuring safety of first responders is paramount”. “This is first and foremost about safety“, Police Minister Mark Ryan said.

Is the world any safer? Probably not. We’re certainly no closer to addressing the climate crisis. Adani and Clive Palmer, both subject to legal proceedings against them by the government this year, are talking up their proposed new mines in the Galilee Basin. Annastacia Palaszcuk can rest easy that she got her bill passed though, and got to claim she had found the “sensible middle” compared to the LNP proposals.

These new laws strike the appropriate balance between the rights of our citizens to peacefully protest and have a voice, and the rights of our emergency services personnel and members of the general community to be safe,” she said. “What we will not tolerate is when protest activity puts our emergency services personnel at risk and disrupts the community to such an extent that people’s lives are at risk.”

I try to avoid hyperbole, and it would be hypocritical for me in this article to make exaggerated claims. I certainly didn’t start the article with the following piece of information in mind. But for the sake of doing proper research, while writing I thought I should look up who first said “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”. The quote, as it turns out, is attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister for propaganda.

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