Canberra's season of protest

Nick Bryant
New York correspondent

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe tax is being presented as posing an existential threat to the Australian way

They descended upon Canberra with Aussie flags draped round their shoulders, "No carbon tax" stickers affixed to their shirts and wearing Akubra hats and baseball caps to guard them from the early spring sun: 4,000-5,000 protesters who had amassed on the lawns of Parliament House to vent their fury at plans for a carbon tax which they believe will increase fuel bills, wreck Australia's resources-dependent economy and do nothing to halt global warming.

Many, probably most, vehemently reject the science underpinning worldwide efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In recent times, these protests have come to be judged not so much by their size as by their placards and slogans. On Tuesday, they ranged from the polite to the profane, the humorous to the hateful. Julia Gillard was the target of much of the spitefulness.

Indeed, the rally was timed not only to coincide with the first sitting day of the Spring session of the parliament but the anniversary of her "no carbon tax" pledge during last year's federal election. It is starting to have the same haunting effect as George Bush senior's famous cry of "read my lips, no new taxes", ahead of the 1988 US presidential election. He, of course, ended up being a one-term president.

"Juliar", was the raucous cry of many. Banners reading "Ditch the Witch" were also held proudly aloft. "Stop Destroying Australia". "Gillard Green Govt Gotta Go Now." One man had fashioned a banner reading: "Julia, we know you just hate Australia. So I will pay for a one-way ticket back to Wales." On the back it said "England's burning. Don't think it can't happen here." Another man held aloft the Eureka flag, another symbol with rebellious historical echoes.

Though the no carbon tax T-shirts were selling the best, the stall on the fringes of the rally was also doing a speedy trade in "Election Now" T-shirts. The retail spending strike being experienced across Australia right now does not evidently extend to the protest paraphernalia on sale at these rallies.

"Election now, election now," was frequently the chant, and a fallback line for some of the speakers - like the Nationals leader Warren Truss - who are not renowned for the power of their oratory. Shouting "election now" was like telling a joke that you always know will raise a laugh.

The speakers who received the most rapturous receptions were the ones who harnessed the simmering anger of the crowd. The Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella got sustained applause when she presented the carbon tax as a threat to the Australian way of life: "We don't want to de-industrialise our country," she bellowed.

But it was Senator Barnaby Joyce, the barnstorming Queensland populist, who probably got the biggest cheers of the day. "There are people in Australia who stay in bed because they cannot afford to stay warm," he shouted, as his rosy face turned a deeper shade of red. "And that is disgusting that that happens in our nation."

"It was your birthright. We had cheap power. That is one thing we had. And we had the choice between cheap power and cheap wages and we thought we would look after the Australian people. Give them a decent wage and go with cheap power. This woman wants to turn it around."

Again, the tax was presented as posing an existential threat to the Australian way.

Death threats

Tony Abbott, on the other hand, exercised rhetorical restraint. It was the Liberal leader, of course, who first called for a peoples' revolt against the carbon tax. But he was criticised in March for addressing a similar rally at which ugly banners reading "Juliar" and describing the prime minister as "Bob Brown's Bitch" formed the backdrop.

Wary no doubt of how a repeat performance would be viewed on the evening news bulletins, he started his speech by saying that he agreed with some placards but not others. But there were two propositions, he said, that everyone could support: "First we don't want a carbon tax. And second, we do want an election."

A few things struck me about crowd. Many of the protesters were old and retired, as one would expect from a protest in the middle of the week. Many were attending their first ever protest rally, which is more significant. Rising energy bills was something that had got these first-timers out in force. Nobody that I spoke to at the rally thought the Gillard minority government had any legitimacy, let alone any mandate. Most thought it incompetent, and said the carbon tax had crystallised broader fears.

A surprisingly high number, curiously, were Brits who have settled in Australia. Many were farmers and blue-collar workers. But I also ran into a GP, who had given up $2000 in consultation fees for the day to drive down to Canberra from Sydney. In other words, this crowd could not be written off as a "red-neck mob", tempting though that caricature might be to supporters of the carbon tax. This was an Audi estate crowd as well as a "ute" crowd.

Afterwards, when the crowds had dispersed, I met up with Anna Maria Arabia, who heads up the nation's peak scientific body FASTS (the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies). She, like a number of scientists, has received death threats, and recently launched a campaign called Respect the Science. She was worried by the anger on display in Canberra.

"The sort of protests we see today, with extreme behaviour, sends a message to the public that this sort of extreme behaviour is acceptable and it is simply not. And it leads to the sorts of emails that are death threats and are quite extreme behaviour that climate change scientists and others involved in this field have experienced."

In parts, the debate over climate change has got very ugly, coarse, vituperative and personal.

This, of course, was not only the anniversary of Julia Gillard's pre-election "no carbon" pledge, but the death of "the King". Sure enough, an Elvis impersonator was there to bring the rally to a musical finale. "If they put a tax on burning love, I'd be bankrupt," he said.

Elvis has now left the parliamentary precincts. But on Monday, in another anti-carbon tax protest, mighty trucks will thunder into the capital in its first "big wheel" protest since the mid-1990s. The season of protest will continue, and so, too, Julia Gillard's problems selling the carbon tax.