I arrived at the Parliamentary triangle sometime around 11am, tied up my bike outside Old Parliament House and started to amble up the hill towards The Hill. Around the side of the building, somebody had parked a Landcruiser. In the back window, partly obscured by the dirt, was a single, torn-out page from a spiral notebook, with "No Carbone Tax" written on it in biro. The doors were open, revealing a hotbox, an esky and a sleeping bag. The driver was hunched in the corner created by the open passenger door, urinating into the gutter.
Through all the rhetoric of broken election promises, right-wing extremism, great big new taxes, bogus science and announcements of the birth of the Australian Tea Party, at the Consumer and Taxpayers’ Association’s (CATA) ‘no carbon tax’ rally, I kept returning to the tawdriness of this initial moment: some bloke pissing on our former seat of Parliament in front of 60-odd kids heading into the electoral education centre.
The CATA rally was not quite so rabid as the media fallout would suggest.
Until midday, the vibe was something like the showbag hall at the Easter Show but without the Bertie Beetles. Nan and Pop were wandering around and a vague sense of menace permeated the event, born, perhaps, from the desire to shut up screaming children. They were tired already. It was sunny, the crowd was almost uniformly in baby boomer or blue-rinse territory or on the way there and many protested from their seats, scrawly grandpa script Ju-Liar! signs clutched in one hand, lunch in the other.
It wasn’t strictly a rent-a-crowd either. Many came under their own steam, including a small contingent of bikies, who were lauded by a nearby demonstrator as "carrying on the great Australian entrepreneurial tradition, if only for a short while longer". Others converged on Canberra from the Central Coast, Newcastle, Sydney and across NSW in buses organised by CATA. Although the group claims to have been independently funded with most protesters paying their way, one bus driver I talked to thought his boss had "probably donated the buses". At any rate, after the state by state shout out it was clear that New South Welshmen outnumbered every other state, except maybe the media, who swarmed like gnats for the first hour before dissipating.
Labor MP Nick Champion labelled the protesters "extremists" but many of the old blokes I talked to seemed genuinely concerned, and perhaps a bit bamboozled. Graeme, a 73-year-old retired schoolteacher from Griffith, drove to Canberra to protest Gillard’s broken promise and attend his first rally.
"She’s unethical. I have to teach my students about politics and morals. How can I do that in good faith when she breaks promises like this? You can’t bring in a new tax like this without going to the people at an election … But Howard was different. The GST was different, Howard went back to the people."
What about the science? "The jury’s still out. What they should do, is Abbott should get three of his scientists, Julia should get three of hers, and they should just have a forum, sort it out. I’m sick of it."
Presumably one of those scientists would be Ross Garnaut, public enemy number three after the PM and Bob Brown. On more than one occasion I heard people mutter "Garnaut’s a crook".
The disconnect between a large group of mostly reasonable elderly voters and the legitimate crazies at the event was obvious, even judging purely by age. The outer rim of Gen X came to shout "ditch the bitch" but for a lot of the oldies, it looked like a pretty pleasant excursion to the nation’s capital. The boomers and their parents learned about politics in the Menzies years and to them, Tea Party populism sounds like shallow bluster. Once NSW has its cathartic moment this weekend the anger that fueled yesterday’s protest may evaporate.
Angry Anderson was there for the Gen Xers, but he’s so leathery now he could have been there to entertain Cro-Magnon man. In a series of bizarre rants he defined geology as "a Mexican word for a bloke who digs in the ground", refused to swim in anything other than his Speedos at the beach "regardless of what whinging minorities say", and claimed that the Australian "rank and file", obediently following the law of the "best and brightest democracy on the planet", have been made to feel guilty about their lifestyles. "It’s not our fault", he said. As a statement of purpose, denial isn’t too lofty.
There was, however, a truly toxic, parasitic fringe that should have been weeded out by CATA, the Coalition — or the rallygoers themselves. The Citizens’ Electoral Council, better characterised as the acolytes of convicted fraudster and American political activist Lyndon LaRouche, were pushing their papers on rallygoers in the Trotskyite fashion, proclaiming the carbon tax to be the product of a eugenicist British Imperial conspiracy. Pauline Hanson’s how-to-vote cards were circulated hours before she arrived to press the flesh. Occasional outbursts of racism weren’t always sublimated in the crowd; one punter held a sign reading "Illegals stay, Aussies pay". I was asked constantly for my email address and phone number, so that I could be educated, because I apparently look like a "misinformed GetUp! type Greens voter".
Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella and the whole gang were working the crowd. The NSW pollies who made it down had a field day too. NSW Christian Democrat candidate for Sydney Peter Madden, sporting a leather Akubra, took great delight in telling me, in between barbs about Sydney’s gay community and more GetUp! jibes, how Gillard was being manipulated by the "Brown snake in the lodge". The rally was true "middle Australia", genuine voters, not privileged lefties, inner city homosexuals or the like, he said.
As the single, burning purpose of the neoconservative right’s cultural politics it can’t, shouldn’t and doesn’t get any more sophisticated than this. Middle Australia is for white men’s men like Angry Anderson and Tony Abbott, God and business. It’s about "real" values, preferably Biblical, and is hostile to "political correctness" and being held hostage to minority interests. They are, as one bloke kept shouting the whole day, the self-appointed "silent majority".
Unionists are hacks and cowards, condemned out of hand for not realising the tax is going to harm their own workers. Academics, writers and artists are bludgers at best and politically compromised at worst, except when they’re courageous climate sceptics speaking out against the scientific conspiracy. If the figure of 3000 attendees was correct there were no more than 30 who weren’t Anglo-Saxon. There were more young people than that, but the ones who didn’t look hangdog and press-ganged were fervent, as young Tories can be. Middle Australia is an imagined polity, evidenced by the odd fact that its members and banner-carriers like Madden dress in cowboy costumes, 10 gallon hats and all. Their salt-of-the-earth leader, Tony Abbott, is a Rhodes Scholar.
The speeches by Abbott and others said nothing we hadn’t already heard and fulfilled their dual purpose of legitimising the apparently apolitical event and dog whistling to the fringe. They also pushed the crowd’s energy off the scale. One protester shouted "She’s a dictator!" continuously during both Abbott and Andrew Stoner’s speeches.
Apart from interjections from the faithful, the speeches were delivered without interruption, because there was no organised counter-protest for the duration of the rally. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition, which serves as an umbrella group for environment groups on university campuses nationwide, had ordered local climate groups like the Australian National University Climate Whistleblowers to stand back, frustrated members of the group said. Because the AYCC had allegedly organised a press conference with the Prime Minister they didn’t want to be seen to be "entering into that discourse" by protesting. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) were also no-shows, despite being ACT demo regulars.
The sole counter-protest was mounted by six ANU students, carrying a purple banner that read "The Earth Is Flat". The statement was short-lived, as the banner was torn from their hands with jeers of "Marxists! Lefty Scum!" The students were quickly chased away with five armed Federal Police in hot pursuit, who asked them, in the condescending voice police traditionally use when speaking to students, what they were doing, if they knew the Carbon Tax Protest was a legitimate demonstration, and that CATA had booked the land. They were only there to ensure everyone was safe, which raises the question as to who posed a threat: thousands of protestors hurling sexist epithets at the Prime Minister, or six students with a bedsheet? One of the protesting students said after the fact she felt lucky to make it away without having been hit.
CATA’s rally isn’t the start of Tea Party politics in Australia or a further bastardisation of the political process. After all, the left has been throwing demos for decades. Moreover, the net effect of the day will certainly be less than the invective suggested. The rally was composed of true believers and took place in the most sterile location in Australia. As it was winding up around 2.30pm, all that was left was a gaggle of Christian Democrats and a stack of discarded DLP placards. The radical right were the real winners of yesterday’s rally; they had an afternoon to spruik their wares to a captive crowd and bask in the largely uncritical media spotlight. Much like our friend treating Old Parliament House like an historic men’s room, it’s these vandals who do the real damage to the Australian polity, because they had nothing invested in it in the first place.
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