By Bonnie Cassen
Some say true heroes are hard to find but that’s only if you aren’t looking in the right places. For me they are everywhere, I see them every day, and right here in our local regions too. Where better to take the story of heroes than to Parliament House in Canberra during budget week. But be warned, the heroes are not our government leaders if that’s what you were thinking.
In case you missed it we had a Budget
The Budget has been in the news, but not with the usual rigour afforded to its unveiling ceremonial to-do. It sat there pinned between sex scandals and Covid, war with China, a lack of seasonal workers and Australians stuck in India. There is indeed a lot going on.
Let’s face it. We already knew a lot of what was going to be in the budget. Gas investment, billions for fossil fuels and tax breaks for the big end of town. A promise to fix the broken aged care system. Tokenistic money towards women, mostly funding services owned by the buddies, and universities expected they would be left out in the cold although perhaps not the cuts that eventuated.
In the detail the predictions came about. It was as Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek called it, a “Morrison keeper” budget. All bells and whistles with little substance or as many say smoke and mirrors; it’s all about looking good while keeping the mining mates with the big pockets happy right before an election.
If you saw Koshie’s 90 second budget round up, you would be forgiven for thinking we were living in fairy land. More jobs, tax savings, people will be better off, able to spend more, enjoy themselves and post-Covid is looking pretty good after all. Even the ABC focused a tad too much on the optimism of no belt tightening and found more positives than negatives in the budget.
And all the talk about low emissions technologies, capturing $643.4 million over four years, translates into finding ways to allow fossil fuels to continue to emit greenhouse gasses, disguised as ‘blue’ and ‘clean’ energy.
I often see our country’s political direction as like a scene from a Simpsons TV episode. It fits somewhere between special recipes for the safe eating of one-eyed nuclear-infused fish, and a sociopath eccentric billionaire rubbing his hands greedily together. It involves a couch and a television, and the family are sitting there watching us.
We of course are in la-la-land happily consuming and living joyful lives while the world around us dies. There are bizarre plots by evil characters hell-bent on their own selfish wants and demands, power and money driving insatiable lust for glory and glorification. On the couch, the Simpson family, characterised as dumbed-down idiot citizens, hoodwinked by a manipulating, elite ruling class, roll their eyes at us. Our superiority blindly binding any sensibility, as a nation, we have left. Unfortunately is it not just a cartoon plot.
Climate the big loser
Instead of a strong recovery budget we are left with short term spending, big dollars that deal with political problems of the government's own making such as what happened with aged care. Morrison when treasurer cut $1.7 billion from a sector already at crisis point. He was warned at the time it would be catastrophic for the system.
The aged-care sector say the Government needs to commit to all the Royal Commission recommendations which the $17.7 billion pledged over four years won’t cover. Carer training, registered nurse hours and available qualified staff have been left out with significant spending going to top heavy regulatory bodies.
The housing crisis will also continue, nothing offered to match Labor’s rather sensible budget response, perhaps election promise, of $10 billion for social housing which would at least put a good dent in the problem as well as create jobs. Unsurprisingly more money has been allocated to private schools than public schools. Many allocations in the aged care, women’s and disability sectors are boosts to existing programs that were due to expire and no significant additional services to fill delivery gaps. Overall not enough.
But climate action was the big loser in the budget, with no real action at all and plenty of backward steps. A budget with $127.8 billion in additional spending supposedly to get the country out of the pandemic hole and most of that huge chunk went directly towards coal and gas.
An opportunity to make significant investment in renewable infrastructure was wasted on a gas led recovery and other fossil fuel projects. A gas generator at Port Kembla, $10 billion on roads. While admittedly road safety is important, it is a bit disproportional to the lack of funding for sustainable energy sources that without we can’t divert a climate emergency which will benefit many more lives than one or two roads.
Normally there may have been a rally – a protest outside Parliament House on the lawn. And there was, of sorts. But protests and petitions haven’t really got traction on a lot of issues: climate, aboriginal sovereignty, human rights.
This budget is different. It is meant to be a recovery budget. It uses taxpayer money and commits to projects that will leave Australia with a deficit for the year of $213.7 billion and push us closer to that that $1 trillion national debt we are edging towards. So much spending and not a single billion bringing us closer to our Paris climate obligations. Extinction Rebellion uses the term ‘climate criminals’ which is a very descriptive term. I also like ‘rogue nation’ which is equally eloquent.
Who are Extinction Rebellion, aren’t you curious?
Far from conspiracists these are well informed activists that have researched the science of climate breakdown, understand the emergency situation and are dumbfounded that so little is being done in response.
To many, Extinction Rebellion are extremists, disrupters, rebels; but that’s only partly true. A large number are first-time activists. Many are grandparents. Overwhelmingly they are intelligent and passionate and work hard to provide a public service in an area few dare to engage in. For such staunch rebels they stick strongly to their principle of non-violence and peace, preferring to know their rights and state their cause and reasoning.
Many Extinction members went to Canberra prepared to be arrested, prepared to make a stand. Lesley travelled from the Southern Highlands for that purpose.
The truth is that Extinction rebels are heroes. True heroes. Ordinary people who have the courage to stand up for what is true and right at whatever the cost. In 2021 when climate breakdown is all around us and the science is crystal clear it becomes impossible for some not to act.
On budget day perhaps 40 extraordinary individuals put the ‘climate criminals’ under the microscope. Individuals that know something has to be done and that there is only one way to do such things – through strong, peaceful, non-violent civil disobedience. Direct actions – a bit like the Suffragettes, only non-violent, although 120 years ago violence was probably necessary.
This is their story. One that began on budget day morning, early, way before first light struck and continued until quite late the following night, then lingered into the new dawn and the day that followed. It is not a story that ends either, because we are told, this is only the beginning.
The Canberra blockades
Extinction Rebellion members are rightly frustrated. They realise that our political system is broken. They can clearly see the damage political donations create for democracy with politicians, political parties and governments acting for lobbyists rather than the people who elect them.
The revolving door perpetuates the problem with politicians, government department heads and key advisers ping-ponging back and forth from government to interest group and often back again.
Not just in Australia, but globally we have a huge problem with media refusing to tell the truth. They underwhelm us on the climate crisis. Although a large part of the problem is Murdoch and News Corp’s strong-hold on the media in this country and their pro-fossil fuel, anti-renewables stance.
One of the arguments I heard straight from the mouth of One Nations’ Senator Malcolm Roberts was that climate activists should stop scaring people and scaring children. In other words pretend nothing is happening and life is rosy and peachy good.
The group believes the Canberra blockade to be a proportionate response while the government continues to invest in ecologically destructive industries. While $51 billion extra dollars will be spent on expanding fossil fuels, less than $2 billion are allocated to climate change, most of which is designed to prolong the life of polluting industries such as carbon capture and storage.
This year's budget has yet more money for fossil fuels and 'infrastructure' and virtually nothing to protect the planet we live on from imminent catastrophe. The Extinction Rebellion message is that the budget is a death sentence for existence as we know it. That time has run out. That the group will do whatever it takes to influence the conversation to achieve political and legislated change.
How to do that, to get the attention of the Government, to get the Prime Minister and the Parliament to declare a climate and ecological emergency and take the strongest possible emergency action while there is time? Watch and learn.
Blockade day one - the fancy Comcar fleet
It was early on Tuesday when 35 Extinction Rebellion activists took control of the Comcar depot in Fyshwick where politicians’ personal drivers park parliamentary vehicles each evening after finishing work for the day.
The group blockaded four entrances, preventing the cars from taking politicians into Parliament House for over three hours and forcing many to take taxis. Four protesters, who attached themselves with chains or glue, were eventually removed by the police search and rescue squad. One was taken to the Canberra police station. Another eight had their details taken and may be charged on summons.
There were many rebels locked on that morning, to gates and to a car. Jane and Leslie and Sergeio. Sam glued onto a rail. Others were standing in solidarity, large banners blaring the words “Tell the Truth” and “Business as Usual = Death”. Mary, a 19-year-old youth ambassador stood at the front wielding a flag.
Eventually the police team arrived to cut the chains, to unglue the stuck, disperse the crowd. One arrest was made - Sergeio. Hours of preparation, live streaming, statements, declarations made, demands repeated, corruptions re-exposed. Police patient, protestors firm, calm, peaceful.
I met Sergeio the next day after he had been arrested, fined and released. He is young, 21, idealistic yes but full of conviction for what is right and just, and prepared to put his body on the line. Like many of the group his beliefs are so strong that he chooses activism as his career. Unpaid activism.
Blockade day two – Parliament House
Wednesday morning was cold and frosty yet Extinction Rebellion troops were out in force, blockading roads to Parliament House and using creative ways to get their message across at the media conference on the lawn outside parliament. What message? That the budget was a climate emergency disaster.
The plan was to blockade four key road entrances to Parliament House, with three trucks and two large cement barrels to do the job. Before dawn two trucks successfully moved into position and remained blocking traffic for the next six to seven hours until they were finally removed by police.
One truck was intercepted by police before moving into position, the driver taken into custody.
Disrupting the media conference on the lawns of Parliament House
The traditional post-budget media conference on the people’s lawn outside Parliament House was already underway by 7 am although no sign of either Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. Appearances noticeably made by opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Independent MP Zali Steggall, The Greens Senators Sarah Hansen-Young and Jordan Steele-John, ABC’s Laura Tingle.
Eavesdropping into the well organised media circus, I was able to confirm the building consensus that this was a dangerous, show pony budget, serving a very small minority of wealthy lobbyists, mates and little more. Well that was one view. There was plenty of enthusiastic support for the Budget too, Senator Malcolm Roberts was one such voice.
Singing loudly and beautifully over the top of the political voices, one of the rebels, Sam, made a plea for sense and stability. Sam was far outside her comfort zone but had come from the Illawarra prepared to force the government to act on science and not the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Glued on once again, this time carefully positioned between the cameras and the Parliament House backdrop.
In her 40’s and legally blind, understandably Sam felt quite vulnerable as she stood proudly singing, loudly. Knowing that action is so vitally urgent and so little is being done, like others she was driven to act.
There was a lot of action on the lawn that morning with banners and placards also positioned behind key cameras, climate facts and figures loudly broadcast from megaphones, Red Rebels, Sybil Disobedients, and puppets Malcolm and Scomo.
Australian Youth Climate Coalition held a vigil the previous evening around the time the budget announcements were made to symbolise the mourning for the planet. Well aware of the $10.3 billion in subsidies LNP granted to fossil fuels in the last budget, the group was prepared for the worse.
There were many Extinction rebels on the lawn that morning. Each with their own unique story, all with the same strong sense of conviction. People who know the problems, the issues, the bleak looking future and occasionally the backlash.
The climate and ecological emergency misinformation campaign has to date been highly aggressive and largely successful - if Malcolm Turnbull’s sacking from the top job taught us anything it was the power of the mining dollar and who really runs our country.
Danny also travelled from the Illawarra to take part in the Canberra activities. Not prepared to sit by idly while ecosystems collapse, is fully committed to citizen action.
The Kings Avenue truck blockade
Sitting atop the hired truck, parked, seemingly oddly, across nearly half the road, Anthea speaks through a megaphone, amplifying words of climate truths, of government and industry lies and of devastating environmental breakdown. Passing traffic, forced to slow to snail-pace and crawl past the barricade truck, will hopefully hear a truth or two, driving on a little better informed, at least, about why they were held up, the cause of the traffic jam.
A mother of two boys, Anthea is a first-time activist moved by the danger all our children face in the future. She now works part time, downscaling her lifestyle to make time for her unpaid activism work.
Anthea talks on, her voice hoarse with overuse. “The biggest problem is what the governments are doing. The governments are hand in hand with the fossil fuel companies that are funding our extinction. They really are sending us into climate collapse, climate and ecological collapse.”
Over and over the messages are repeated, those who need to hear slowly crawling past in the snaking traffic. “The Amazon rainforest is no longer a carbon sink everyone, it is actually emitting carbon dioxide now. We don't have enough carbon sinks in the world anymore for the levels we are emitting.”
On the truck with Anthea are Violet Coco and Mary Christie, a climate youth ambassador, equally committed and with their own messages to share. Young women with real reasons to protest, advocacy vital for progress and change; to avert the disaster science predicts so clearly. Words forming in minds just like yours yet with voice still soft, unclear, unspoken.
Unafraid, unabashed courageous words, truth by any means, hard to hear, harder to fathom, near impossible to comprehend. However as these gentle and fervent women speak let the truth sink in.
Before I leave the Kings Avenue blockade an incident occurs.
The original plan had been to block the entire street in Kings Avenue – but things don’t always evolve as expected. As it played out the police had been alerted, and were running towards them fast, the truck still only partly across the road, the keys needed to be secured fast.
Beside a few tensions that went with these early unfoldings, the police were responding mostly with pleasantry and a calm authority. Timothy Neville was one of the Extinction Rebellion police liaison people I spoke to earlier that morning unravelling the concept of disruption and arrest.
In Kings Avenue police directed traffic allowing alternate flow in both directions, buses coming dangerously close to the trio perched on the trucks top. At some point a plan was hatched to move the truck slightly, to block the road just a little bit more. The handbrake eased, a bit of a push. All done.
Then as the ‘workers’ walked calmly across the road out of nowhere a police officer appeared, reinforcements homed in, and in the confusion a scuffle and a trip, ultimately a member was pinned to the ground before he could speak. It was a far cry from the no-arrest stance taken so far, and not by any stretch of the imagination provoked and something that could easily have been calmly discussed.
The Barrel blockade in Federation Mall
In Federation Mall three men, Wes, Karlo and Nick, had locked onto cement barrels and had successfully blockaded the road. Banners were erected provided signage and shade during the hours they occupied the site.
All three said protesting and the discomfort of sitting on the road attached to a concrete barrel was nothing if it raised awareness of the absence of emergency measures in the federal budget. In their opinion what is radical is the government’s continuing investment in ecologically destructive industries and failure to act on the climate and ecological emergency we now face.
Like more than a dozen other Extinction Rebellion members, they are risking arrest in an effort to push the government to act responsibly and in its people’s best interest. Amongst them was Nick who was a CSIRO scientist and adjunct professor before turning his efforts to activism. What use he says are more reports when governments ignore the science, instead pandering to their industry supporters.
Wes is a member of his local RFS, joining after living through the Black Summer fires. The irony is that his RFS work is valued by the community whereas his Extinction Rebellion work gets quite the opposite reaction. People see it as ‘fringe’ or ‘radical’. Fighting fires is radical.
The analogy that we are heading for a cliff, and the Government is hitting the accelerator when they should be slamming on the brakes, is not lost on this group. With only a very short time to turn things around, most Extinction members I spoke to were actually terrified for the future, not just theirs but for all of humanity and all the other species on Earth.
The Commonwealth Avenue ramp blockade
On the Commonwealth Avenue ramp to Parliament House I chat with Mel and Andy, two vital members of the crew organising and supporting the blockade site. I had seen this blockade as I approached Parliament House much earlier in the morning, having to take the alternate route around the back way. Disrupted but extremely pleased by their actions.
On the top of the blockade truck were other members of the rebel group.
One of them was Jess who had driven down last night from Newcastle. A social worker and mother of two, she said “I am doing this for my two little boys. I cannot do nothing, because I love my children and want them to have a future.” These were common sentiments heard repeatedly throughout the day.
Ross Brown, a 64 year-old artist and father of two was also up there. He said he was excited and honoured to be actually doing something about the climate emergency. “We’re at a crucial point in history,” he said. “The scientific community is warning us of dire consequences unless we take the strongest possible action in the next few years. We can’t gamble our future for the sake of profits for the fossil fuel industry.”
While high up on a ramp, regular toots from supporters far outnumbered the occasional shout for them to go home. Livestreams to social media regularly explained their presence, their occupation, the very obvious solutions and the perhaps less understood reasons for the Government’s continued inaction.
The Federal Government is spending less than ever on taking care of the environment while they continue to lavish money on the fossil fuel industry, supporting the expansion of gas, propping up coal and ignoring the dire warnings of climate scientists. Australia is not only lagging behind most other countries on climate action but they are also lagging behind business and the community.
Extinction Rebellion asks us all to consider who exactly our governments represent, if not the majority of people who want urgent climate action? Why are they protecting vested interests ahead of public safety and the very lives of future generations? The group believes that when our government fails to protect us, and will not listen to the scientists, we have no alternative but to use mass civil disobedience.
The blockade sends the strong message that Extinction rebels will not sit idly by “watching them destroy our only home for the profit of the few.”
Blockade roundup and arrests
The three successful blockades continued until special police teams arrived on the sites to cut off, remove, move on and arrest those involved. Over the two days ten arrests were made and the main goals of disruption and awareness were well realised.
Following the two-day blockade of Parliament House, six brave rebels faced the ACT Magistrate's Court on the Thursday morning, charged with unreasonable obstruction of a roadway. Three entered guilty pleas, and now face hefty fines. Two have accepted bail to appear in court in June.
One rebel, however, has refused to accept the criminality of her actions, instead asking the court to recognise the criminality of the Federal Government in continuing to invest in planet-killing fossil fuels. Violet remains in remand within the ACT Prison System until she is brought before a judge in June. She is undertaking a hunger strike, vowing to refuse food until the government declares a climate and ecological emergency.
Violet went to Canberra prepared to be arrested. "The climate emergency will bring us food shortages and war,” she said. “We must change the trajectory we are on or face a dying planet. I refuse to be a bystander. I have taken this action because I am hoping it will sound the alarm about how serious the situation is. We have an absolute moral duty to rebel against a government that is killing us.”
In the court she told Magistrate Glenn Theakston that she didn’t wish to apply for bail. She said, “I’d just like for the court to recognise the criminality of the Australian government for investing in fossil fuels, which is the death of our future.”
On Wednesday, two other protesters, John Wurcher and Ross Brown, pleaded guilty and were fined $600 and $400 and respectively. Another man, Eric Herbert was arrested on Tuesday at another Extinction Rebellion protest before being released and arrested again on Wednesday for the Parliament House protest.
He pleaded guilty and asked for a non-conviction order, pointing to his motivation to disrupt politicians to get their attention on this important issue. He said “I feel honoured to be guilty of that.” Mr Hubert was convicted and fined $600 on a background of protest-related convictions.
Anthea Falkiner and Jessica Ledgewood did not enter pleas and were bailed on condition they were not to go near Parliament House, with both cases next due in court in June.
Later on Thursday concerned grandmother Lesley glued on to the front door of Parliament House and was later taken into custody. Lesley too has refused bail and is waiting to face the magistrate.
“The budget-as-usual yesterday was a disaster for life on earth,” Leslie said. “I'm taking this action out of fear of the future for my grandson, and for all children everywhere. I feel a deep responsibility to act now, as a member of the generation that helped cause this nightmare. Knowing what we know, anything short of radical action against our current destructive system amounts to complicity with that system.”
Not over; it’s only the beginning
The budget hasn’t been retracted and Federal Parliament hasn’t yet declared an emergency, although at this point 101 councils have signed up across the country. A Global Climate strike takes place this coming Friday, 21st May and is another way to show your support for strong action on climate protection.
Extinction Rebellion won’t be disappearing, unlike our precious forests, endangered species, and marine ecosystems which struggle every day to survive. Some may see the Extinction rebels as extremists, some may fear the truth in the messaging they put forward; but a steadily growing number of people see them in their true light, as heroes of our times.
Numbers need to swell for political change to occur; governments and industries on cushy wickets rarely give up without a good fight. While the government continues to refuse the demands of reason, the peaceful non-violent fight will continue.
People need to rise like the water Our futures on the line I hear the voices of our children Singing climate justice now
At the time of publishing Violet and Leslie remain in custody and Violet continues her hunger strike. Visit the XR Australia Facebook page to keep up to date on Violet and Leslie or donate to assist the ‘XR arrestee and jail support’ fund.