On 28 January, Red Flag published Louise O'Shea's article "Yes, we need to protest during the bushfire crisis". The article included criticisms of Environment Victoria. Here, we published a response from the CEO of Environment Victoria, Jono La Nauze, along with further comments from Louise O'Shea.
Response to "Yes, we need to protest during the bushfire crisis"
Jono La Nauze, CEO of Environment Victoria
In the aftermath of the Black Saturday bushfires a number of extractive industries and right wing ideologues ran a concerted disinformation campaign to blame the fires on environmentalists and a supposed lack of fuel reduction burns. I was one of many who pushed back and for my efforts was singled out by Miranda Devine in an opinion piece that selectively misquoted me and then called for me to be lynched and strung up from a lamppost.
Weeks earlier I had been arrested for stopping work on Labor’s infamous north-south pipeline. The pipeline was – in our view – a false solution to Melbourne’s water woes. Unprecedented climate-fuelled drought, the logging of our catchments and a failure to switch Melbourne’s growing population to recycled water were conspiring to leave us at risk of running out of water. Rather than confront these systemic issues, however, Labor planned a massive pipeline so Melbourne could suck water from another stressed and overused catchment, the Goulburn.
Five of us were arrested that day in full knowledge that we faced draconian penalties under new laws passed specifically to stop activists interfering with Labor’s pet projects. We decided the risk was worth it, to demonstrate solidarity between city and country, environmentalist and farmer. Where Labor’s policies threatened to divide we saw an a need to build new alliances – ones that we would need even more in future as climate impacts and injustices materialised in our own backyard.
A decade later we’re living through another hellish bushfire season, again batting off an organised misinformation campaign designed to prop up destructive industries and distract from the real underlying causes of this climate catastrophe. And again we’re reaching out to those on frontlines to form new relationships and build new power, while mobilising with those who have been fighting for climate justice a long time already.
So it’s peculiar in this moment to find myself yet again misquoted, not by the right wing press but here in the pages of Red Flag, and apparently in the name of climate justice.
Leading up to the 10 January ‘Sack ScoMo’ rallies organised by Uni Students for Climate Justice, Victoria Police and senior members of the government – including the Premier – tried using the power of their position to bully organisers into cancelling the rally. It was anti-democratic, it was divisive, and it was appalling. As many pointed out, they did not call for any other major public events to be cancelled because of the fires, they singled out a climate protest. And as history now shows, there was no reduction in emergency service capacity where it was needed in the fire zone.
At the same time, I and many the climate activists were concerned the rally had been outmanoeuvred. We were picking up signs that the government’s propaganda was cutting through with the very people in fire affected areas we were trying to support. Long term climate activists were calling our office from the fire zone pleading with us to get the protest date shifted because of how the debate was playing out in their community. For sure it wasn’t a unanimous view but it was genuinely held and widespread. We were worried that if rural activists who had spent many years working for climate justice were concerned, there were plenty of others on the front line who would be willing to offer the shock-jocks all the ammunition they needed to undermine the protest and divert attention away from the vital message.
Is that important? I think so. Unlike, say, industrial action which is an exercise in economic power, a mass rally of this kind is largely about the power of persuasion. The aim is to show the world (and your targets in particular) that your cause is right and popular. Like any collective action it’s also an opportunity to activate and build your base. But the point is, the story people tell about your rally isn’t just incidental, it’s fundamental.
A number of us reached out to Uni Students for Climate Justice to explain why we felt the protest could backfire in this regard. We completely agreed that the government’s coercive behaviour needed to be challenged but felt there could be more innovative ways to do that. In the circumstances we felt the best way to seize back control of the story was to do something unexpected – shift the date out of respect for the request coming from the bushfire front line, while calling on people to instead use their Friday evening flooding the airwaves and inboxes of their MPs with both disgust at the government’s propaganda and expectation that they step up and deliver climate justice.
Unlike what Louise O’Shea falsely claims in her article, there were no demands (as any experienced activist knows, the notion that anyone has the power to ‘demand’ another organisation stop protesting is not credible and in twenty years I’ve never known anyone to try). Nor were there threats of publicly opposing the rally. We explained our case and agreed to disagree.
Knowing I would be facing multiple radio and newspaper interviews that day on the very subject of climate and bushfires, I prepared some lines in case I was asked about the protest. The last thing I wanted was to distract even further from the message by stirring a controversy about the tactic itself. But out of respect for the long-serving members who had called in from fire zones asking us not to participate, and out of a desire to try and neutralise an attack, I planned to say the following: while we would not be participating out of respect for our members on the frontline who had asked us not to, we also fully understood why people were angry at Scott Morrison’s failure to protect his citizens from climate damage.
And out of an excess of caution – I didn’t want anyone to be caught by surprise, even by such innocuous lines – I told Uni Students for Climate Justice that if I found myself unable to avoid the question that is how I would respond. Far from a threat, it was an attempt to be open and accountable.
The interviews came and went, and thankfully I wasn’t asked the question. Much more importantly, the rally – which had a strong attendance despite the rain – didn’t attract the scale or nature of hostile coverage that we were worried about. I couldn’t be more relieved in the knowledge that we got it wrong.
What I and many of my climate colleagues were trying to do in our discussions with Uni Students for Climate Justice that day was have a robust debate about strategy. The intention was to try and help make sure the event succeeded and didn’t backfire, which is something worth considering with public events at which the mainstream media will be present. Through bringing different information to the table and contesting ideas we make our strategies better – it’s a tried and true approach. And by disagreeing respectfully we build the trusting relationships we so badly need if we are to succeed in the battles ahead.
This trust is vitally important – many hundreds of groups make up the movement for climate justice, each with different strategies and memberships, and we need to be able to share ideas without fear that trust will be breached. That’s why I’m deeply concerned Louise’s article published private correspondence without even seeking a right of reply. Aside from being a breach of journalistic ethics, this sort of behaviour erodes trust and makes it harder for organisations in the climate movement to co-ordinate on the vital work of building power and fighting for justice.
The day of the rally has passed and the judgements we all made should certainly be scrutinised but with the intention of learning and making our movement stronger, not to score points or tear down our allies.
Ultimately, I commend every person who turned up on January 10 in the pouring rain. The rally was a success. And I’m also proud of the longstanding climate activists who, though it pained them, called our office to say please don’t, not today, because they were worried about the fires so close to their homes and the effect on the cause they had worked on for so long. Looking ahead, it’s critical that we all show each other respect and empathy and build bonds of solidarity across the different sections of our movement. Because climate change is like no other threat we have ever fought and it is going to take all of us to succeed.
Response to Jono La Nauze
I was pleased to read Jono La Nauze’s reply to my article “Yes, we need to protest during the bushfire crisis” and his acknowledgement that going ahead with the protest was the right thing to do. Hopefully, this experience puts paid to the idea that the way to respond to bullying from governments and the police is not to capitulate to their anti-democratic demands, but to defy them.
In retrospect, it is clear that the motivations of the government and police were to intimidate rally organisers into abandoning the action, not because of anything to do with the firefighting effort, but because the action would lead to an intensification of the anger against the Morrison government and the further politicisation of the fire crisis. No doubt the state Labor government was concerned about the precedent this would set for other governments in bed with the fossil fuel industry, as Labor governments everywhere are, including in Victoria. Bushfire victims were shamefully invoked as cover for these attacks. It was disappointing to see Environment Victoria drawn into this agenda, but encouraging to hear that conclusions are being drawn that will make such attacks less effective next time.
As Jono argues, collaboration between groups and individuals in the climate movement is an important means to strengthen the fight for climate justice. But collaboration is only possible and meaningful where there is common purpose. Central to that common purpose must be an understanding of the sort of action that is needed to bring the climate criminals to heel. Small, albeit heroic, actions are not going to cut it when we are up against the power of the fossil fuel companies and the bipartisan commitment to the industry within the political class. Nor is lobbying. Nor is polite protest at a place and time amenable to those being protested against. What is needed is mass, ongoing action in every workplace, university campus and neighbourhood. We need to deepen and spread our collective understanding of the climate crisis and how it might be stopped. And we need thousands more people to become active, day in day out, as climate justice activists.
To achieve this, climate activists must be prepared to take a lead. We can’t allow ourselves to be thrown off course by government spin or because some people oppose what we’re doing. If people affected by bushfires aren’t sure about rallying, we need to win them over, not abandon the fight. We must be able to make a convincing case about what is required to save the planet and minimise further extreme weather events like those we have experienced this summer, especially to those currently or likely to be affected. Unlike most political movements, the climate justice movement enjoys widespread support even before it’s really taken off. When more people start to take action, like we saw in response to the fires, it has a snowball effect – emboldening and motivating others and forcing the issue to the centre of public debate.
So let’s collaborate to better mobilise this power, stand up to governments and the big corporations that back them, and to challenge a system that vampire-like sucks fossil fuels from the earth to keep its cold heart beating.