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The spark that lights up Australia


When asked to explore the potential for revolution in Australia, I sat down and laughed. It will only happen when the beer runs dry. We are a cautious, inward-looking nation in many ways, preoccupied with contact sports, gambling, barbecues and praising the troops. Our convict forbears were brutally treated by the British when dumped on this inauspicious coastline in 1787, in order to build a penal colony. Today there are few hard feelings and scant support for replacing the monarchy with a republic. Life is pretty easy in the land down under.

This is a huge continent, offering copious pleasures, often for free, with access to endless beaches, coral reefs, wilderness, national parks. On the whole, Aussies are laid back and fair minded and still retain a dash of antiauthoritarianism from the convict era, happy to “take the piss” out of each other and be reasonably tolerant of incoming settlers … up to a point. “She’ll be right mate,” is a common phrase, a variation on “don’t worry, be happy.” While there is much to like about this country, there is also something dumb, trite and scary about the way we view the world and our place in it.

Politicians on both sides of the house, apart from the Greens, subscribe to the official timeworn narrative, West is Best, convinced that we and our allies abide by international law, hold the moral high ground and are favored by the Almighty. This subliminal moth-eaten mantra feeds into public consciousness, even as US drones pulverize extended families, CIA goons murder at will and torture is rife. Over the years, our Ministers of Defence have provided troops for almost every stupid heartless war America undertakes.

As part of a grand celebration of the US-Australia alliance on its 60th anniversary, our newly minted Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, addressed a Joint Meeting of Congress in Washington, where she assured the audience “you have a true friend down under” and pledged continuing support for the war on terror. Choking back tears, she told Americans that theirs was the greatest nation on Earth: “You can do anything” she said repeatedly, as the audience responded with a standing ovation, “you can do anything.” She was right in a way, as a Melbourne cartoonist reminded us with three chilling images of their achievements: Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq.

This is the same Julia Gillard who announced that WikiLeaks was a threat to the world and that Julian Assange, an Australian citizen, had broken the law. What law? None in his own country, as it turns out, but she was trying to placate the Pentagon. No matter who wins elections, our leaders are slaves to the ANZUS Treaty, a military alliance that binds us to cooperate with the US on defense in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere. Sitting snugly in the vast red desert of Western Australia is Pine Gap, a military base built on the traditional land of the indigenous Arrernte people. It is one of largest and most sophisticated satellite ground stations in the world. Its 26 antennas suck information from the sky and distribute it to US commanders in the field, where it is used to coordinate air strikes. Australians are forbidden to approach the base, and that includes members of Parliament. During the 2003 invasion phase of Baghdad, Pine Gap initiated 50 strikes against the Iraqi leadership. While none were successful, according to analyst Richard Tanter, all resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths. In four such strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch, 42 civilians were killed and not a single Iraqi soldier was touched. Overall, the Pine Gap strikes produced 650 civilian corpses – all this while the Australian media and its star commentators were waxing lyrical about the Pentagon’s “precision bombing.”

Last year WikiLeaks released a classified US military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of a dozen people in Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff. Shot from an Apache helicopter gun-sight, the video depicts the slaying of a wounded Reuters employee and his rescuers, as well as the murder of two young children. As the helicopter approached its prey, it is likely that Pine Gap’s space-based signals intelligence intercepts played a part in the carnage. This base hosts the largest CIA facility outside America, so it is reasonable to assume that crimes against humanity, including the kidnapping of terror suspects and their transport to torture zones, have been aided by this secret installation on Australian soil. Such issues are rarely discussed in Parliament or in the mainstream media or even at backyard barbecues, where the chatter is more about sport or the latest creations onMasterChef, than about our complicity with dirty deeds. Exquisite food is created down under, but in our public discourse, there’s not enough food for thought.

It wasn’t always like this. From the early days of settlement, right up to the 1970s and through the 1980s, when Green activism hit its peak, Australian citizens repeatedly defied authorities and challenged obnoxious decisions. However, the only successful armed takeover of an Australian government was the Rum Rebellion of 1808, which was instigated by the bad guys – the New South Wales Corps – who netted a fortune from the distribution of rum. Their adversary was the Governor of NSW, William Bligh, formerly famous as Captain Bligh of the Bounty. He wanted to end the “Rum Corps” booze monopoly and all hell broke loose. Bligh was arrested under his bed and the rum continued to flow, as it still does today.

The only other armed rebellion in our history is the Eureka Stockade of 1854, which resulted in 30 deaths. This was the unhappy climax of a spirited campaign of civil disobedience during the Victorian gold rush, where the miners demanded an end to the Government’s exorbitant license fees, proclaiming “taxation without representation is tyranny.” When miners resolved to secede from the United Kingdom, tempers flared and fatheads prevailed. Heavily armed soldiers and police descended on the miner’s rickety stockade and the rest is history. A bloodbath. As the facts slowly emerged, the public was outraged and the tide turned against the authorities. Police were vilified, the bad cops put out to grass. The 13 miners charged with treason were all acquitted. A commission of enquiry produced numerous reforms, and all were acted upon. In the following year, the Ballarat miners had eight representatives in the Victorian Government. To this day, many regard the Eureka Rebellion as the birth of democracy in Australia. Late into the 1950s, university student songbooks featured still rip-roaring ballads of the event.

It is a Sunday Morning,
The miners’s camp is still;
Two hundred flashing redcoats
Come marching up the hill.
Come marching up the gully,
With muskets firing low;
And diggers wake from dreaming
To hear the bugle blow.

The wounded and the dying
Lie silent in the sun
But change will not be halted
By any redcoat’s gun
There’s not a flag in Europe
More rousing to the will
Than the flag of stars that flutters
Above Eureka’s Hill.

As the 19th century unfolded and our cities expanded, immigrants kept arriving from far and wide, many imbued with enlightenment ideals and stirred by the goals of the French Revolution. Some had fought in defense of the 1871 Paris commune, which aimed to create a model republic based on principles of social justice. This rich cultural phalanx of former convicts, bushrangers, communards, Trade Unionists, socialists, pamphleteers, explorers, Irish nationalists and fervent democrats were determined to prevent replicating the bloody minded cruelties and rigid class divisions of Britain. Numerous street battles erupted, Aboriginal warriors fought frontier police, shearers went on strike for months and ambushed trains of strikebreakers – with the aim of advancing an egalitarian agenda and subduing the meddling of police, who sided with the ruling class.

Over the years, radicalism ebbed and flowed, with many a brawl, glorious debates, seditious magazines and several mutinies in the army, navy and air force (most of them covered up and deleted from official histories). Later, fired up by the postwar baby boomers, radicalism returned with a vengeance, spreading across Europe, USA, Australia and elsewhere in all its myriad hues, from pop to pot to protest, to psychedelia, sit-downs and screwing around. Relishing our outrageousness, we skipped the light fandango as ceilings flew away, but when I glimpsed the footage of fresh-faced Egyptian kids standing their ground in Tahrir Square, the generals prevaricating, snipers on the roof, it made the 60s look like tiddlywinks.

When I used Google to check Australia’s activism rating, the first link that appeared seemed promising: Welcome to Revolution. This turned out to be a “brand dedicated to the ongoing development and success of the Australian Hairdressing Industry” which perhaps indicates the state of our cultural priorities. But in the gap between a French guillotine and an Australian haircut, there is, actually, an unfolding space for a new kind revolution, one that’s still gathering steam. It’s been brewing for ages. There are no borders. It is an amalgam of science, consciousness, rebellion, hope and despair. What is it? The long awaited resurgence of tough love climate change activism, no holds barred. Today, endless conferences dull the brain, politicians tie themselves in knots, boffins are enmeshed in a web of details. GetUp and, Greenpeace, Avaaz, TreeHugger, Sea Shepherd and all the rest are on the case, running rings around the deniers, but humanity is being left behind by the rapid acceleration of climate change, and boondoggled by the sleight of hand from Big Polluters; not to mention the determination of nation states to pump up GDP at all costs. Surely it’s time for a fully fledged, born-again cultural revolution-evolution with the goal of waking up the stragglers, supporting the paradigm shift and rescuing the future. Do we have the time? Activists, long aware of a catastrophic threat to the world’s ecosystem and thus to all humans, often confess to harboring split states of awareness. On the one hand they endeavor to be positive and useful, as they wrestle with extraordinary changes, even as the data get darker and the ice caps melt. When pressed, many of these stalwarts admit to collapsing in despair at the failure of political leaders to move beyond platitudes and bullshit. With frightening facts at their fingertips, these longtime campaigners look ahead to likely developments by 2050, astonished at the intimations of carnage, the denuded humans, the vanished species, the dying Earth. How can we go on, they ask themselves, knowing what we know? In the end they snap out of their despair, because there’s still a fighting chance of achieving planetary repair and saving the human race from appalling suffering and decimation. We can expect, and we can be part of, a new wave of activism. This could happen suddenly, like in Tunisia and Egypt.

When I returned to Australia in 1979, I was dazzled by events in my homeland. Along with a fleet of cars, a bus and five paddy wagons, a hundred cops had descended on Terania Creek, an obscure and magnificent basin of virgin rainforest northwest of Lismore, NSW. Following an inconclusive skirmish, police were now determined to assist the bulldozer crew in shoving through a logging road. And suddenly, “out of nowhere came the hippies,” recalls activist John Seed, who later set up rain forest information centers across the world. “Take your bulldozers from under our noses” sang the activists, “Hands off our greenery, fuck your machinery.” Protesters came for the day and ended up staying a month. This was the first time in Australia that direct action was used in the defense of a rainforest, and it worked. The State Government stopped the logging. Now part of the Nightcap National Park, “Protestors Falls” remains a hot tourist attraction.

Meanwhile, the campaign in Tasmania to prevent the construction of a dam on the serene Franklin River attracted 20,000 supporters. Activists sabotaged machinery and occupied construction sites. Nearly 500 people were imprisoned for breaking the terms of their bail. In the end, the dam plan was axed. The battle for the Franklin contributed to the collapse of the Federal Government, created a new political party – the Greens – and projected environmental issues into the mainstream. In short, a famous victory.

At that time it was hard to keep track of all the actions aimed at protecting forests, wildlife, coral reefs – you name it. Young protesters spent months living on platforms built in the tops of old growth trees in order to foil the conversion of the treets into woodchips. I first met my brother-in-law soon after he and others had chained themselves to underground roots to stop a road being rammed through Queensland’s Daintree rainforest. Some eco-protests succeeded, others petered out. Eventually, even activists acquire families, a mortgage and a day job, and they end up helping the kids with their homework, in the hope they become biologists, ecologists and scientists, so they too can cherish and rescue what’s left of the natural world.

Like it or not, wild climate change is upon us, so droughts, fires, floods and food shortages are part of the scenery. Rehousing climate change refugees will be another challenge, and their increasing numbers will destabilize settled communities. Today’s mainstream politicians, including those with the best intentions, face losing battles. As oil peaks and aquifers collapse, voters will block their ears. We want more, not less, they’ll demand. More GDP, more circuses, more everything. Even more wars if that boosts jobs, lifestyle, profits and circuses. Only a tiny few worry about the fate of humans, and they carry a huge psychic load. How can we wake up the rest?

As we have seen, activism and massive demonstrations are capable of jolting governments. Apart from walking the talk and minimizing our individual carbon footprints, it’s time to summon up the Blitz spirit, which once achieved miracles. The next stage of eco activism approaches, and it will involve massive concerted acts of campaigning beyond borders, beyond ideologies, beyond politics. Each one of us will find our lives are transformed. This is a revolution of everyday life, a revolution of restoration, regeneration and reimagining the future. The stakes could not be higher.

Richard Neville is a lapsed bushwalker, author, futurist.

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