Hewson's view: Democracy guarantees right to protest

It's on again: Thousands of Australian students gathered for climate change protests in November last year, defying calls by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to stay in school. Picture: shutterstock.com
It's on again: Thousands of Australian students gathered for climate change protests in November last year, defying calls by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to stay in school. Picture: shutterstock.com

The right to protest peacefully is fundamental to our liberal democracy. Our system of government is defined by the tolerance of dissenting minorities, and it is a right protected in our Constitution under the implied freedom of political communication.

Unfortunately, these basic facts can be ignored by governments sensitive to criticism, or visibly out of touch with mounting public opinion on important issues, or stuck trying to defend the indefensible positions and policies they have adopted.

This "intolerance" is most conspicuous, and indefensible, in the Morrison government's attitude to the student, and other, climate protests, and the shrill and ignorant criticisms of some of their "mates" in narrow sections of the media.

While, as a parent, I might prefer a greater concentration on school attendance and study, I will passionately defend the right of my children to protest, as effectively as they can, in support of something in which they passionately believe. Indeed, I want my children to be as independent as possible in both thought and action - it will be the passion and actions of our youth that determines our nation's future.

I want my children to be as independent as possible in both thought and action - it will be the passion and actions of our youth that determines our nation's future.

On an issue such as climate, where today's political leaders are irresponsibly stealing from future generations by failing to acknowledge the urgency of the actions necessary to ensure that Australia becomes a low carbon society by the middle of this century, our children have every right under our system of government to be heard. It is, after all, their future that is being compromised by our government's inaction.

Accepting the reality of the climate challenge, what are our youth to think when they hear of an annual dinner of the National Party last weekend, that not only failed to "Acknowledge Country" at the beginning of their proceedings, but went on to market "Start Adani" T-shirts, and to auction Morrison's "lump of coal"?

Ironically, it seems that the silent protest is strongly preferred by the Morrison government, with Morrison claiming to have been elected by the "Quiet Australians". It was convenient to define such a constituency as a "quick explanation" for his "miracle" win against Bill Shorten, whose success had been predicted by almost every poll since the previous election, against either Turnbull or Morrison.

The suggestion is that if asked, voters didn't really want to declare their intention to vote LNP. Similar "explanations" have been offered for Trump's win, and for the BREXIT vote. This all echoes, unfortunately, Nixon's win after the Kennedy/Johnson era that Nixon attributed to "the silent majority".

While it was "cute" of Morrison to claim the support of "Quiet Australians", he really can't push the assumption too far, and he would be most unwise to attempt to claim that in attacking the opposition he is reflecting their "values".

Sure, these Australians effectively came together to determine the result of that election, but obviously not as a unified and focused movement, with shared values. Rather they came together for a variety of reasons, of different intensities in different parts of our country, but including importantly a widespread dislike of, and lack of trust and belief in, Shorten, as distinct from enthusiasm for Morrison and his team.

So, for Morrison to move on and "assume" their support on a range of issues is not only presumptuous, but also carries with it particular risks for him and his government.

For example, he would have us believe that these quiet Australians support his scepticism on climate, and that they will excuse his lack of an effective energy policy and a climate action plan. He would rest his case on the strength of his performance in Queensland, and that the climate issue didn't determine the final outcome in many seats, ignoring that there was a very strong climate vote in many seats.

Well, I suggest that Morrison has lost the youth vote, and can't continue to take for granted the support of their parents and grandparents, even though they may have been "scared" in the course of the last election campaign by the prospect of some of Shorten's tax and superannuation proposals.

I suggest some of those assumed "Quiet Australians" won't stay quiet on a range of issues into the future.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.