Speaking Truth To Power In A Post-Truth World


Alex Vickery-Howe tracks the disturbing trend of dishonest politicians falsely equating peaceful protest with acts of terror.

Sometimes I wonder if we’re living in a free country.

How’s that for an opener? Are you spitting up cornflakes yet?

But I do.

Let me take you back to Year 11 Legal Studies at Glenunga High. Picture a Mop Top and you’ve pretty much captured me as a teenager: a rake in an ill-fitting uniform, with a messy crown of curls, somehow smug despite a lack of compelling evidence for why that should be a logical state of being.

My teacher, stern but brilliant, told me and my fellow gardening implements about the right to peaceful protest. He framed it not just as something a citizen could do, but as something many citizens must do if our democracy is to remain strong.

It was one of a handful of lessons that penetrated my supremely self-assured adolescent mind and stayed with me into my less certain, much heftier adulthood. We do indeed have the right to protest. Sometimes we have a duty.

Contemporary politics is complicated by a disregard for the truth, now coupled with the rise of AI and deep fake technology that can make us literally doubt our own eyes and ears.

No one is fact checking. Our leaders lie with impunity. Putin and the Ukraine. Johnson and Covid. Trump and… pretty much everything.

I watched Hamilton for the first time the other night and came away thinking two things. 1) Maybe I should call myself ‘Alexander’ again. 2)  “Wow, they built this amazing nation after the revolutionary war, and now the demented idiot from The Apprentice is going to tear it all down. Great work, America.” (It’s a brilliant piece of writing and a glorious show, nonetheless… I guess everyone else already knew that?)

It’s hardly bold or original to point out that we’re saturated in a post-truth soup: an acid bath of sloganeering; a bottomless cup of conspiracy crap; a steamy concoction of competitive ego that drowns out factual discourse as it simultaneously corrodes our sense of objective reality and our will to stand up. At the risk of emulating that other Alexander a little too earnestly, I’m done with accepting the status quo. Liars are unfit for political office.

I don’t refer to people who lie about their personal lives – I never cared about the Clinton scandal – but people who lie about weapons of mass destruction and murder children to preserve that lie; people who lie about a deadly virus and the lingering damage not yet reckoned with; people who lie to protect their financial interests; to cling to power; to push others down; to pretend that they are the victims….

These people should inspire protest.

Do we really believe Australia is immune? Morrison lied to his own ministers. Even the one who was unlucky enough to be his lockdown roommate had no idea his portfolio had been pilfered from under his nose. Is this a country with a healthy level of public accountability?

Put the cornflakes down. I think it’s worth a conversation.

The extent of oppressive government overreach in our nation is illustrated best by the crackdown against environmental and animal rights protestors. That smug rake that used to be me believed he lived in an enlightened part of the world. I mean, we were the country that invented Babe for heaven’s sake! The idea that any Australian government would seriously propose that people who stand up for animal welfare deserve to be jailed for 12 months would’ve been unthinkable to that kid in Glenunga High.

I’ve often said it’s an illusion that progress moves forward in a linear way. I actually think the 1990s had a lot going for them in terms of progressive politics, and it was a good time to grow up, to the extent that the past two decades have started to feel reductive and disappointing. By the end of the ‘90s, the only reference to ‘President Trump’ was a joke on The Simpsons. I’d love to go back to that chapter of history.

In 2019, the Liberal-National Coalition put forward the insane notion that people who expose the horrors of factory farms – and they are horrible – or people who film animal cruelty at rodeos, or who protest pet shops, or stage rallies against live exports, or take on the conceited negligence of climate deniers like Barnaby Joyce and Morrison himself, should be regarded as ‘terrorists.’

Yes, that’s what they said…


People who commit acts of terror.

At the time, Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie accused such people of being ‘self-satisfied’ and ‘extreme’, which is a bold call from someone who belongs to a transparently extremist party guided more by religious fanaticism and powerful lobbyists than by evidence, logic, pragmatism and compassion.

Nationals Senator and Minister for Sport, Bridget McKenzie. (IMAGE: CNBP, Flickr)

Yes, compassion can be pragmatic. Protesting to highlight catastrophic climate change is pragmatic, if continuing to breathe is on one’s list of priorities. Protesting against the live export ‘industry’ is pragmatic (New Zealand proved years ago that there is a more humane alternative that is safer and better for the local economy).

Earlier this month, three members of Extinction Rebellion were charged for a protest in Melbourne that disrupted traffic. This follows the widely reported arrest and imprisonment of Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco in 2022 under state anti-protest laws in New South Wales. One by one our states – five of which are now run by Labor – are falling into this dangerous trend of vilifying people who choose to exercise their democratic rights.

This is the lie that gives rise to all others.

The major parties are equating people who protest – annoyingly, perhaps, but peacefully – about things that actually matter, with religious militants, incel guerrillas and Trumpian lunatics who are responsible for genuine terrorist events. It’s like pretending the inhabitants of FernGully are the same as the cast of The Suicide Squad.

Speaking for myself, I don’t want to see people who draw attention to cruelty, injustice and negligence being locked behind bars. I’d much prefer to see those perpetuating cruelty, injustice and negligence taking up that real estate. Is Violet Coco the real problem here? Why throw the book at the conscientious citizen who saw Australia burning and decided to speak out? Surely that book should be aimed at the prime minister who holidayed in Hawaii with his fellow extremists and smirked at our suffering while his country went up in flames?

I don’t understand a world where Violet Coco is a ‘terrorist’ and Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero. Putting compassion aside, the dearth of logic makes my brain hurt.

Deanna ‘Violet’ Coco pictured being arrested during a climate action protest in Melbourne in 2021. (IMAGE: Julian Meehan)

David Morris, the CEO of the Environmental Defenders Office and a legal expert, has been a consistent critic of any laws targeting protestors: “Peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democratic societies. It gives those without power a vital opportunity to have their voices heard and to advocate for positive change.”

Some of these laws have been successfully challenged in New South Wales with Justice Michael Walton branding them unconstitutional. According to Justice Walton, they have a “chilling effect on political communication via protests and public assemblies.”

Which brings me to Tasmania. The secretive state.

A memorable case went all the way to the High Court of Australia, which ruled that the ABC could broadcast protest footage of an appalling possum meat production company in South Launceston (how does such a thing even exist?), which gave some hope to the animal rights movement and some sense of restored logic to those of us who understand how democracies work.

Unfortunately, the Tasmanian Premier (still clinging to the job) clearly cannot grasp democracy as a concept….

The Juice Media, a company known for producing hilarious and quirky ‘Honest Government Ads’, recently felt the wrath of a thin-skinned state government unwilling to have their numerous absurd and damaging policies placed under a satirical microscope during an election.

Narrated by Ellen Burbidge and her eerily disembodied voice, the recent comedy skit draws attention to the Rockliff Liberal government’s costly stadium tantrums, their abusive youth detention centres, their rising homeless population, their allowance of salmon farms that ‘impact’ (i.e. destroy) the local ecology with little economic justification, their struggling hospitals, their toxic spills, and their logging horror show that runs at a loss (come on, Jeremy, what are you doing? Even as a supervillain you suck. You’re not even profitable. Lex Luthor would be ashamed.)

Now, these skits are called ‘Honest Government Ads’, but that’s the conceit… they are written to be ironic. The Electoral Commission missed the joke entirely when they wrote the following to the content creators:

“The Electoral Commissioner is of the view that this video is likely an advertisement and therefore requests either Mr Rockliffe’s [sic]photo is removed from it, or that the video is taken down as soon as possible, to ensure compliance with the legislation.”

An alternate version of the skit was subsequently posted by the group’s founder, Giordano Nanni, after receiving this notice. The alternative was a fine of up to $58,500 or up to 12 months in jail.

For a joke.

For a factually correct joke.

I should state that I do donate to the ‘Honest Government Ads’, simply because they’re hilarious and because Triangle is an actual hero. My interest, however, isn’t so much about defending a group of comedians I like, but have never met, and it’s not even about Premier Rockliff’s dubious track record and very, very shaky prospect of striking a deal with Jacqui Lambie… hilarious though that will be to watch.

My interest is about living in a country where satire and protest, our fine Australian traditions of larrikinism and ‘sticking it to the man’, have somehow been reinterpreted as serious criminal matters. The implication – indeed, the outright declaration – that holding politicians to account is an act of terrorism in 2024 should stir us out of our apathy.

In this soup of lies, perhaps the most poisonous falsehood of all is that we’re not allowed to speak up for ourselves and the issues we care about.

The Coalition would like to silence political dissent. That is not democracy.

See… I learned at least one thing at high school.

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, social commentator, rambling podcaster and emerging novelist. His work spans political satire, environmental polemic, dark comedy and fantasy fiction. He holds a PhD from Flinders University, where he is a senior lecturer in creative writing.