Yesterday’s Convoy of No Confidence, far from being a standard anti-carbon tax protest of the paranoid CATA variety to which we’ve become accustomed, was noticeably different in its demographics, and lack of conspiratorial anti-climate rhetoric — at least until the Alan Jones/Tony Abbott crowd took the stage.
It was really a rural protest in the tradition of the 1980s timber blockades and the recent Murray-Darling report burnings — all with an anti-carbon overlay. After all, that’s the flavour of the month for right-wing protests and a sure-fire way to get listened to, something which is and always has been the real problem for rural Australia.
At the rally I spoke to Tony Lee, a rural lawyer from Mission Beach in Queensland, who drove down to Canberra with the convoy. He had nothing to say about the science of climate change, and mentioned the carbon tax only as a justification for calling a new election: "We have an artificial scenario. The power is with the minority in parliament, and they’ve caused this government to go for a carbon tax. We believe in the dishonesty of what’s happened here."
That was it. More important to him was a Foreign Investment Review Board decision to sell the Tully Sugar Mill to a Chinese state-owned concern and the no-show of promised cyclone Yasi repair funds.
"All the money that was supposedly coming up for our cyclone aid hasn’t come through — we’ve got no money. The council’s broke, they can’t repair the island’s facilities and there are still dead trees all over the beach," Lee said.
Prior to Alan Jones’ arrival, the rhetoric on stage was also a lot calmer. While the carbon tax was an issue, it wasn’t the all-encompassing paranoid obsession that is was for the CATA protestors. Rashida Khan, a horse-trainer and rancher from near Darwin, spoke about a lack of respect for acute rural issues like farmer suicides, live exports, poor telecommunications and road infrastructure in rural communities.
"Climate change, lack of food, social unrest — we need to be able to address these problems … we don’t need to tune in to Parliament question time and listen to petty arguments", she said.
Considering the real problems that exist in Australian rural communities it was tragic that the convoy was a laughing stock. It was a numeric failure, going almost unnoticed by Canberrans except for the constant droning of truck horns. Any media attention for the discussion of rural issues was diluted by the inclusion of the CATA mob, Alan Jones and a truly awful band playing a tailor-made single about the Carbon Tax.
At any rate, it’s constitutionally impossible to call a double dissolution, so the stated aim of the convoy couldn’t be achieved — even if Gillard wanted to grant their wish.
Many of the participants drove from places as remote as Broome, Perth and Darwin, and paid their own fuel costs. In some towns along the way local communities donated support as well as signatures for their petition. According to Lee, the town of Clermont in Queensland raised $13,500 for the convoy, which was donated to the local service station for fuel.
One participant paid $4500 for the trip, bringing fuel for others. "How can he afford that?" I asked Lee. "He can’t!"
Whether you buy into the struggling farmer rhetoric or not, it’s hard to deny that the participants were sold up the river. A professional media and PR flack was hired to organise the media coverage for the day, wandering the lawns on her mobile. Why? I’d suggest it had something to do with the convoy organisers both having direct ties to the Coalition. Anita Donlon failed in her bid to be elected to the Victorian state seat of Bendigo West last year, and Mick Pattel from the National Road Freighters’ Association has recently been endorsed by the Queensland LNP. In a carbon tax debate characterised as an endless election campaign, this may well have been its purest expression. Even a member from the Sydney Mining Club came along, crying the poor mouth.
Moreover, the participants’ gripes were laid at the feet of the current government, when in reality the erosion of rural communities by economic rationalism reached its zenith under the Howard government, populated by people like Abbott, Warren Truss and Bronwyn Bishop. The privatisation of Telstra should be an obvious example, but the Howard decade saw banks closed, post offices shut and rural infrastructure rot without a carbon tax, Julia Gillard or a Greens Senate.
The Nationals, despite only polling 5.49 per cent at the last federal election, know this and have been playing the same game for years. In her recent Quarterly Essay, Judith Brett attributes their survival until now to a reaction against the growth in Indigenous native title claims and a contradictory alliance with mining now coming to fruition in the anti-CSG debate. With Warren Truss and Barnaby Joyce making regular appearances at anti-carbon rallies, climate scepticism should be added to the list of their uneasy alliances for political survival.
It would take a hard heart not to sympathise with communities affected by farmer suicide, drought and even the live cattle export fiasco. In fact, Brett notes, a 2009 ANU poll put rates of sympathy for farmers in the high 90 per cent range. So by hitching their wagon to the anti-carbon lobby the Nationals have sold out their own constituents yet again. Alan Jones’ conspiratorial claims that the AFP locked out truck drivers, Malcolm Roberts from the Galileo Movement ranting about the UN and Abbott’s relentless single-issue negativity risk eroding the goodwill of ordinary people — one of the few things the bush can still count on from the city.
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