What’s the appropriate way to react after seeing a 60-year old man holding a placard depicting Bob Brown riding Julia Gillard, drawn as a rocking horse?
Or when being told from a podium that we should emit more carbon dioxide because it increases crop yields and offers a solution to the third world’s food security issues?
Could you engage constructively with a person who thinks racism isn’t a bad thing, because they define it as everyone just preferring their own race anyway? Is it even possible?
I attended the first CATA No Carbon Tax rally in March this year, and wrote about it for New Matilda. I thought then that far from being the rise of Tea Party politics in this country, it was a generally sane protest ruined by the nutcase right — people like Pauline Hanson, the Citizens’ Electoral Council and the like.
But following Wednesday’s rally there should be no doubt that Australian political discourse on the right has hit the event horizon. Not only were there quantifiably more attendees there — at least twice the number present at the first rally — and a lot more crazies, but it’s clear now that the lunatics are well and truly running the asylum. The otherwise reasonable message and tone of the first rally — Gillard lied and exceeded her mandate — has become completely deranged after six months in the echo chamber.
This time I caught the bus from Sydney to Canberra as part of the Carbon Convoy, going deep undercover as a young Tory for the scoop. Yeah, right. Instead I was trapped for four hours on a bus with the Probus crowd, accused of being a GetUp! plant there to sabotage the protest, and subjected to an earful of banal, self-obsessed but nonetheless heartbreaking sermons about government, history, politics and the school of life.
Apart from a coach full of self-funded retirees shouting "ELECTION NOW" I was startled most by the genuinely conspiratorial beliefs of many of the rally attendees. The cartel pushing the carbon lie, silencing the truth and coming to get them encompasses the media, government, universities, the UN and even, according to one elderly lady on the bus, the Australian Electoral Commission, the Reserve Bank and the Teachers’ Federation. The list of organisations grew as the trip wound on. If I wasn’t seen to be a sympathetic ear I doubt I would have got the full list; at any rate I’m doubtful whether I did.
The most virulent hatred is reserved for GetUp!, who have somehow managed to obtain the status of Soviet-style saboteurs in the rally-goers’ imaginations. Who stopped the motherland from achieving the five-year plan? GetUp! Who put that "Ditch the Bitch" sign behind Tony Abbott’s head? Getup! Who pulled out Lord Monckton’s microphone cable at the Hyde Park rally? GetUp! When I questioned whether or not the sign debacle was the combination of a dropkick looking for attention and a lazy Abbott staffer the people I was talking to looked at me like I was the crazy one.
"Climate denier" is another pet hate, because it connotes a similarity with holocaust denial. Fair enough I reckon. But when I raised the point with two attendees that Lord Monckton had smeared Ross Garnaut by using the swastika and comparing him to the Nazis, they balked. It couldn’t be true. Later in the day, one decided on her own that Monckton must have been referencing her original point about the term "climate denier". I questioned whether it was possible to both disagree with climate change and think Monckton was a dropkick, and mentioned that the UK’s House of Lords slapped him down over his title. That wasn’t true either, apparently.
The terrifying thing about the CATA/No Carbon protest movement is that, like the Tea Party, it is becoming defined by these paranoias. It has its own leaders, experts and its own constructed, fictional view of history that is self-reinforcing.
If you think there is a vast climate conspiracy out to silence you, corrupting science and public discourse in order to accrue power, then why accept the result of an election? Why accept the findings of the IPCC or CSIRO, or the authority of the UN? And by extension, why engage with any criticism, which is ideologically motivated to begin with? It’s the ultimate political and intellectual cul-de-sac; after all, to reenter the mainstream the protestors I talked to would have to recant their view that the whole world is conspiring against them. Unlikely.
The leaders, experts and idols of the movement encourage this kind of thinking. Barnaby Joyce said cheap power and good wages were the crowd’s "birthright", and unnamed Labor MPs who allegedly described the crowd at the last rally as oddballs, rednecks and Ku Klux Klan members were laughed down. A speaker from the Galileo Movement detailed a long history of UN corruption over climate change, and said that carbon dioxide was a product of warming, not a cause. Grover, a truck driver who had walked from Armidale to raise awareness, was hailed as a true Aussie hero. There was a lot of talk of defending democracy from the Greens, who are secret totalitarian socialists, and the "GetUp! dial-up crowd", who are wreckers.
People go off the deep end because this rhetoric plays to both of the defining neuroses of the far right persecution complex. First, it reinforces the self-aggrandising, obsessive nature of conspiracy theorists: "We know the truth and nobody else does. Our scientists are the only true scientists. The ABC is out to get us." Second, it strokes the crowd’s self-pity: "Why won’t anyone listen to us? We know the truth! We’re old and our grandchildren hate us!" The combination is both contradictory and self-reinforcing.
Despite desiring more than anything to be listened to, even sympathetic gestures were viewed suspiciously. Channel 7 turned up as the coaches were being loaded at Hornsby to interview the organisers and a few punters. I asked the reporter what she thought of the protest. "I think it’s time someone did something about it," she said. Later, when I brought up the Channel 7 crew with the same elderly lady who thought the AEC was crooked, she said they’d probably do a stitch-up job. The ABC 4 Corners crew, who had put cameras on multiple buses to interview attendees would do the same.
After travelling down on the bus, talking with participants and having no alternative but to listen to their constant 100 decibel sermonising for four hours, I’m convinced that the CATA carbon protest movement has disappeared over the edge of the abyss. This is no longer a debate between left and right, or the existence of climate change, or the efficacy of a carbon tax, but an incredibly self-destructive spiral; literally thousands of Australians, many of them seniors, have disappeared over the edge, and are no longer interested in matters of fact when it comes to public discourse.
The Coalition should be terrified by this after seeing what Tea Party politics did to the Republicans during America’s debt ceiling debate. Instead Tony Abbott continues to appear at CATA’s rallies. Moderates in the Liberal Party should be asking the same question as everyone else, the question I initially asked: How do we engage with these people? Should we? Is it even possible? Given how far the movement has degenerated in only six months, an answer needs to be found quickly, for the sake of both the Libs’ politics and the worldview of those going off the edge.
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