Disruptive Protest Action

Protest action first began to occur in the late 1960’s when the Hydro Electric Commission proposed a scheme that would flood Lake Pedder, in Tasmania’s south west.  Although that scheme went ahead, the Hydro’s following proposal, to put a dam on the Lower Gordon River below the Franklin River, initiated a wave of disruptive protest that eventually led to the abandonment of the project, and the coming-of-age of direct action activity.

Encouraged by this success, the protest movement turned its attention to another land-use conflict, forestry.  Once it was to ‘save” specific areas of land, such as Jackey’s Marsh or Farmhouse Creek.  Over the intervening years, the demands have increased, and successive protest action has become very sophisticated.  Protest action has not only disrupted forest operations and processing plants, but has targeted banks and overseas customers, threatening boycotts, and those institutions have bowed to these demands. Such action and response has brought about a significant reduction in the area available for timber harvesting, sent businesses to the wall, disrupted rural communities, and put many people out of work. The social consequences in many rural communities have been horrendous.

Some protest action has also been taken against eco-tourism proposals, and those developments have not progressed.

Perhaps eco-based consumer boycotts of this nature could be justified where there is irrefutable evidence of resource use causing significant environmental damage. However, inciting consumer boycotts by deliberately promulgating misinformation to manufacture an unwarranted imperative for change constitutes a form of extortion.

The protest groups have received much media coverage, but little analysis of their position.  This in part is a result of misleading information that has been promulgated by these groups (eg use of plantation timber) and a conservation language that covers complicated matters with simple but meaningless generalisations (eg “wild forests”, “high conservation value”, “sustainability”, “social licence”, “intergenerational equity”, etc).

The modus operandi for these groups, to disrupt economic activity, has in the past been directed to issues associated with nature conservation, but recently, this focus has moved to another plane with the attacks on the proposal by Gunns to build a pulpmill using plantation timber, and on Ta Ann because it is Malaysian owned.  Nature conservation and pollution controls have become but an excuse for such activity, which has moved into a realm of not wanting developments of this scale to be considered at all.

Activists have also generated suspicion and doubt in the credibility of government by inferring corrupt action and a government conspiracy to cover up and to disseminate false information.  An easy call to make, and any defence by government is seen to be a perpetuation of the conspiracy.

Malthusian views of economic disaster, destruction of habitat, climate catastrophe, resource depletion and other disastrous predictions such as poverty, hunger and disease dominate the media.  Such emotional expressions of doom create a sense of pessimism and hopelessness.

And pessimism is irrepressible.  Pessimism justifies activism.  The more one can preach doom and gloom, the more one can justify activism.  Activism has become a business, and the activism business demands action.  Protest action.

The public has tended to shy away from engagement or involvement in such confrontation and has generally acquiesced to these demands.  “The protestors have a point”. “They have nothing personal to gain”. “Their motives are pure”. “They must be right”.  Politicians also have tended to accept such information without challenge and have allowed these arguments to gain traction.

A more recent approach to this issue has been the advent of the carbon sequestration debate, which has created the opportunity for a new type of protest argument and is best exemplified by the argument that we should be paid for doing nothing.  This is a form of rent-seeeking.  “We are the custodians of the forests – pay us!”

Politically, the protestors have been regarded as above criticism, because their aim, supposedly "saving the planet", is regarded as being of a higher moral plane than the usual, “grubby” political fare. The reverse is actually true.  The reality is that they are happy to sacrifice the well-being of the population on the altar of pointless environmentalism. As has been evidenced in the forest sector, the industry has been cut by over 50%, employment has suffered, a skill base has been lost, communities are being destroyed and the human suffering has been immense. 

And for what purpose?  As a recent editorial opined:  “certain people have …economic views informed by a neo-Arcadian fantasy of phasing out resource-based activity in favour of untried and untested technologies, which … leaves battlers paying to satisfy an eco-vanity.”

A high price indeed.  Arguments of intergenerational fairness fall flat when the existing generation suffers for no good purpose.

From a policy point of view, there are two separate avenues one could follow.  The first is to accept that resource utilisation will no longer be a part of the economy of the State, and look for other areas of activity.  This is in reality the politics of appeasement (remember Chamberlain in 1938), and the boundaries of this argument will soon move to land management and water catchment issues with a much wider brief, including mining and agriculture.

The alternative is to argue that resources are a part of the mix, and work to establish a system of management and competitive sustainable advantage with them.  This is a more difficult road to follow, and those who advocate it will tend to be pilloried by those who demand no activity at all.

This is the vital issue to be confronted surrounding such protest action, which is the targeting of individuals and firms and organisations that do not agree with the views of the protesters.  It is essentially anarchy, and is similar in its style to mob rule.