Civil disobedience in the public interest

It’s a challenging process to write a submission for a parliamentary inquiry that seems so likely have a forgone conclusion. The committee that is examining the tax deductible status and regulations of environment groups telegraphed their desired outcomes long before receiving any evidence.

Luckily for us, the mining companies were a bit slow on the uptake. They were allowed late submissions, and thus so were we. Which is exciting; we thought we’d missed the chance with a full plate, and only slightly less resources than the mining industry!

Overwhelming support for the environment moment

Over 99% of the more than 9000 submissions supported the environment movement, and the incredible history and gains that have been made for everyone in this country. This has been achieved through a range of protest, lobbying, advocacy, markets and divestment campaigning and yes, tree planting.

Apparently the last one is the only one that is worthwhile though, according to the framing of the terms of reference of the inquiry. We have a slightly different perspective on what “on ground work” could look like. More on that later.

On calling out for examples of what we termed “public interest civil disobedience”, we were reminded of the vast, and diverse examples there are. Over the last few decades of environmental protest, we have witnessed the strength, commitment and dedication of people acting with a profound love of country and place, defending wild and precious ecosystems.

It is important history and it should be discussed more. Interestingly, the NSW State education department considers it important too – as this fascinating heritage timeline attests.

For the greater good

It’s important to note that most civil disobedience is in the public interest. Though some might be better planned, more strategic or more successful, it is rare that people participate in civil disobedience with selfish or malicious motive. It is generally done in the interests of the greater good – even if our current law makers would disagree.

As history attests, it is the outliers and those on the edges that help move issues into the mainstream. Issues with widespread public support today were always pushed into the public domain by those on the outskirts. Whether it was voting rights for women or first nations people, workers rights, awareness of discrimination against gay, lesbian or trans people, or the defence of natural places that are now today’s national parks, all of these issues involved a range of approaches, including advocacy and peaceful protest.

Effective civil disobedience

We chose to highlight three criteria we believe gives good examples of particularly effective civil disobedience.

One of these is best demonstrated by the rise of farmers across the country. They have stepped up to learn about and participate in civil disobedience, something inconceivable up until a few years ago. The farmers are perfect examples of the absolute failure of the political process, recently illustrated in the starkest of terms, by Barnaby Joyce. As Agriculture Minister and a high profile member of the ruling coalition, Joyce was apparently unable to influence an outcome in the controversial Shenhua coal mine. Consequnetly, the farmers are vowing civil disobedience to defend our food bowl.

Another sector that is stepping up to broaden the now incredibly diverse movement of people taking nonviolent action in this country is religious and faith leaders. Acting on principle – both on climate and in support of refugees – we are seeing incredible leadership from our own religious leaders, as well as the Pope.

Many areas have been secured in the public interest for the long term. Related peaceful protest has been thoroughly vindicated, when advocacy and legal intervention has also been used to push for outcomes that result in more permanent protection.

Whether its as an option of last resort, to demonstrate commitment and a moral imperative to act, or to protect places while other interventions secure them, we pay our respect to people who stand in the way.

Read our full submission here.

Excerpts from our submission

One of the instigators of this inquiry was the particular interest shown by members of the committee in “illegal activities”. CounterAct does not resile from the fact that we believe peaceful, civil disobedience plays an important role in our society. It is part of a long tradition of legitimate community protest. There are many examples of civil disobedience activities within broader campaigns which have led to legislated outcomes, such as securing national parks.

Whilst we can understand a level of concern from the committee that laws not be broken, we are confident that our work is fully compliant with the requirements of the ITAA 1997 and Charities Act and guidelines for the Register of Environmental Organisations. We seek to provide some larger context for the necessity of protest and civil disobedience to democratic function, and for the benefit of society and the environment.

Civil disobedience historically has been characterised by demonstrating the highest respect for the law. Whilst the author does not seek in any way to compare our work to that of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, there are many millions of people that have drawn inspiration from their words, leadership and bravery in advocating for necessary social change.

One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” ~Martin Luther King

An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

People who participate in civil disobedience are making a moral and ethical choice to accept the consequences of the legal system.

Their choice to do so is entirely personal, and to infer that any environmental organisation in Australia can compel people to commit acts of civil disobedience is to take away entirely their sense of personal agency. Just as inferring that people are not educated enough to make an informed choice about who they donate hard-earned money to, anyone who donates to an environmental organisation in Australia tends to be well aware of their activity.

In recent years, there has been a substantial shift in Australia in the demographic of people who are engaging in acts of civil disobedience in support of environmental, climate and social justice outcomes.

Farmers vs Shenhua coal mine

In June 2015 a group of young farmers indicated their willingness to commit acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protest to demonstrate their level of concern at the proposed Shenhua coal mine, which is to be situated in one of the most fertile regions in the country: the food bowl of the Liverpool plains.

NSW farmers are urging all Australians to sign onto a public letter condemning the project, and have publicly acknowledged the growing threat from climate change to their livelihoods in a significant motion at their July conference. The local member, high profile National MP and Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce has stated on public record that as Agriculture Minister he was opposed to the mine in the food bowl region: “This is a ridiculous place for a mine.”

In this context it is reasonable to understand farmers’ concern at the political process having failed the interests of Australians. They argue that a foreign-owned company is receiving preferential treatment and a destructive project is being allowed to proceed, despite substantial community opposition. As with most cases of nonviolent direct action, they are considering its use as an option of last resort, having witnessed all other avenues of recourse fail them, and with the Minister responsible publicly admitting he was unable to influence the decision.

Demonstrating moral leadership

The Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) is one of a number of faith organisations who have participated in community protest against the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, which is destroying irreplaceable ecosystems and contributing to air, water and carbon pollution.

Alongside climate scientists, lawyers, academics and students, they represent a broad cross section of society who are taking an ethical stance on climate change and the expansion of the fossil fuel industry by participating in nonviolent direct action.

Thea Ormerod from ARRCC stated, “This is a well-worn path for people of faith….The movement to wind down coal-mining in Australia may be counter-cultural but it is the truly conservative one. Its aim is to keep the Earth’s ecosystems more or less intact for those who suffer the impact of climate change in developing countries, for our own young people here and for future generations. Not a radical position at all.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2014)

“We have broken the law only because it seems to be the only option left when so many other options have failed. It seems that regardless of the science, regardless of the good work of many good people to care for Creation for our children and grandchildren, our governments refuse to act to protect the common good.”

(Bible Society, 6 August 2014)

“We are all Christians concerned about the harm coal and gas mining is doing to Creation and to other values we hold as sacred. We believe this so strongly that we are prepared to put ourselves in the way of the work and risk arrest.”

Rev Brentnall

Pastor Carroll said he was getting involved in the protest because it was a matter of inter-generational justice: “Will we not be judged harshly by future generations if we leave them infertile soil, poisoned water and irreversible destruction to our planet?”.

Significant moral leadership on the issue of climate change has recently been demonstrated by Pope Francis.

And while the Pope calls for practical steps like recycling and improving public transportation, he said structural injustices require more political will and sacrifices than most societies seem willing to bear. Nothing short of a “bold cultural revolution” could save humanity from spiraling into self-destruction, the Pope warned.

Our care for the environment is intimately connected to our care for each other, he argues, and we are failing miserably at both.

“We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social,” Francis writes, “but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

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