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Morrison’s darkest speech yet

Nov 12, 2019 • 15m03s

Scott Morrison’s speech to the Queensland Resources Council has been called a defining moment in his leadership. Mike Seccombe on what it says about his “ordinary bloke” mask.

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Morrison’s darkest speech yet

119 • Nov 12, 2019

Morrison’s darkest speech yet

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am.

Recently, Scott Morrison described his plans for a ban on environmental groups lobbying businesses. The speech he gave has been called a defining moment in his prime ministership. Mike Seccombe on why it’s so important and what it says about Morrison’s claims to being an “ordinary bloke.”

[Theme music ends]

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Nothing more clearly defines, I think, a Liberal Nationals coalition government than our strong full-throated support for traditional industries like mining… how good is mining for Australia?”

[Sound of applause]

ELIZABETH:

Mike, the week before last, week Scott Morrison gave a speech that you’ve described as “defining” for the Prime Minister. What did he say?

MIKE:

He spoke to the yearly lunch, annual lunch of the Queensland Resources Council, which is a group largely made up of fossil fuel interests and the various companies that service them in one way or another. And it was a stunning speech and for all the wrong reasons.

ELIZABETH:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

The language was just exceedingly strong. He told his audience, and I'll quote him a bit here, “a new breed of radical activism is on the march, apocalyptic in tone. It brooks no compromise, all or nothing. Alternative views not permitted.” And he went on to talk about a city based activist to a sneering at working people in the regions and intent on destroying their livelihoods.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The scale of condescension we’ve seen could hardly have been higher, but I’m pleased to confirm that as the recent federal election demonstrated, the majority of Australians understand and value the importance of the resources sector.”

MIKE:

He called this, quote, absolutist activism and anarchism that was manifested in various, you know, ways; disruptive street protests and acts of trespass and vandalism.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The right to protest does not mean there is an unlimited license to disrupt people’s lives and disrespect your fellow Australians.”

MIKE:

And then where it got really interesting and pointy was that he said, what he found even more insidious - his word - was an escalating trend of environmental groups to target businesses they didn't like with boycotts.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Some of Australia's largest businesses are now refusing to provide banking, insurance and consulting services to an increasing number of firms who just support…”

MIKE:

So in other words, he was suggesting that green lobbyists had somehow managed to bend the arms of bankers and insurance people and what have you. He called what the environmentalists were doing, secondary boycotts. And he told his audience that it was not something his government intends to allow to go unchecked.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“Together with the Attorney General, Christian Porter, we are working to identify serious mechanisms that can successfully outlaw these indulgent and selfish practices that threaten to livelihood of fellow Australians.”

MIKE:

He directed his threats not only at those protesters who chained themselves to mining equipment or engage in other acts of civil disobedience, for which legal sanctions exist. Essentially, what he was doing was threatening something quite different and much bigger, which was to make it illegal to simply exercise consumer power through public advocacy. So it was a pretty scary speech.

ELIZABETH:

But what would that even look like? I mean, what is the secondary boycott and what would a mechanism that attempted to control that even really look like?

MIKE:

The legal definition of a secondary boycott is under Section 45D of the Competition and Consumer Act, and it defines a secondary boycott as conduct that prevents the supply of goods or services to a person causing substantial loss or damage to a business. And the legislation, I might add, includes specific exemptions for consumer or environmental boycotts as it currently stands. And these secondary boycott laws go back decades, to the days of the Fraser government, and its desire to stop unions from blockading businesses. You know, a waterside worker refusing to unload goods off the dock is probably the best example of a secondary boycott because they may be targeting one particular corporate entity, but along the way they're damaging the other, which is the stevedoring company for which they work. So essentially, a secondary boycott is when one sector is being pressured to assist in the boycott of another and suffering a loss as the result, rather than the primary target being boycotted directly.

ELIZABETH:

And in the changes that Morrison is proposing, who is he thinking of? Who is he targeting?

MIKE:

I must say, he was pretty vague on that. But he mentioned businesses that supply goods and services to the mining sector. So it would appear that if you went and protested outside, you know, a mining equipment company that was supplying goods and services to Adani, that would be deemed to be a secondary boycott and would be outlawed. So those are a couple of potential targets.

A couple of others could include groups that organised themselves around divestment, that lobby and pressure and report to people like super funds and others to take money out of fossil fuels or out of companies that profit from offshore detention. We've seen quite a lot of that.

And Christian Porter subsequently also made mention of people who fund litigation against mining companies. So if you're a litigation funder, who's funding a legal action of which the government disapproves, they could potentially go after you. Morrison, in his speech, even alluded to activist shareholders. So it would seem that maybe, I'm just speculating here, maybe if you're an anti-coal activist who buys a few shares in a company so you can go along to the annual general meeting and advocate for your cause, you could be in trouble. So it's been left vague, I suggest deliberately, but it seems like a very dark authoritarian thought bubble.

Then there are also other groups like Sleeping Giants, which focus on pressuring advertisers to pull their spending away from certain corporate entities they don't like, particularly media entities. Sleeping Giants were the ones who were very successful in encouraging their followers to pressure advertisers to pull ads from Alan Jones Show and they've been doing the same with Sky News.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Mike, the Coalition's proposing legislation to stop groups lobbying for divestment from, say, mining companies, other corporates. Does that lobbying actually amount to a secondary boycott?

MIKE:

I talked to Professor Graham Orr about this, and he's an expert in the law of politics at the University of Queensland. And he says it depends on whether the threat of a boycott is directed at a primary or secondary target. Sleeping Giants, for example, would be a good one because as he says, in a sense, it wasn't Alan Jones and his network that they were targeting in their campaign. They were trying to put pressure on an intermediary, which he called the meat in the sandwich, which in this case was the advertisers. So that is potentially a secondary boycott, but it's a very hard line to draw. I mean, I wonder, for example, about George Christensen, who's a Nationals MP who called for a boycott of Ben and Jerry's ice cream because it had spoken in opposition to the Adani coal mine in Queensland. So, you know, one wonders if such a reactive boycott can be considered to be a secondary boycott.

ELIZABETH:

Just a little segue, Mike, when we were Googling around to double check that, he recommended that people give up Chunky Monkey Ben and Jerry's for Bulla, made in Australia.

MIKE:

I'm impressed at your mastery of the detail.

ELIZABETH:

It's my special area of interest. So Mike, through your reporting, what kind of view did you form about how possible it would actually be to legislate in this area?

MIKE:

Well I mean, people can always write legislation. Whether the legislation works or not is another matter. I spoke to Kate Galloway, who's an expert in property and consumer law at Bond University. And she said basically protest does not prevent trade or commerce. We all have a right to call on other people not to spend their money with businesses of which we disapprove. To quote her, she said Christian Porter is a smart guy, pretty switched on lawyer, but it's really difficult to believe that there is a viable means for regulating this kind of behaviour.

Graham Orr, who I’ve already mentioned, he agreed, he said it's one thing to say it's an offence to try and incite others to commit a clear wrong, like invading property or trespassing, things that are actually against the law. But it's quite another to go after people just for encouraging others to think about social values when they make commercial decisions.

The other interesting thing about this is, is that the government has tried to do this before and failed.

Back in 2013, under Tony Abbott, the government commissioned a review of competition policy to be headed by Ian Harper. And as part of that, they wanted an examination of whether environmental protest could be classified as secondary boycotts. And when the report came out, Harper found not one example that could be categorised as a secondary boycott. He characterised what was going on as public advocacy.

Subsequent to reading what he had to say in the review, I contacted him. He's now the dean of the Melbourne Business School and he sent me an email in reply in which he essentially reiterated his conclusion and said something I think quite interesting. And I'll quote it: “An outright ban on secondary boycotts could set the Competition Act in tension with common law rights to protest and perhaps contravene the broader public interest in doing so”. So I think that was pretty strong.

The other fact, of course, about this is that the legislation would very likely be challenged on constitutional grounds and end up in the high court as a potential breach of the implied right of political communication. So bottom line is, it's going to be a very difficult ask for Christian Porter to find something that can avoid all the various legal hurdles that have been pointed out here.

ELIZABETH:

So what is Morrison driving out with this speech? I mean, his government knows, it seems, that it can't do what it's promising, that its own review has already found to be not possible. What do you make of the speech that he just gave?

MIKE:

I see it as an elaboration of the mantra that he repeats endlessly in the Parliament. Whose side are you on? Morrison's political style is to divide people. He constantly speaks in sort of us and them terms. And that intent was absolutely crystal clear in this speech. I mean, the rhetoric was belligerent, the tone was authoritarian. The content, as we've already mentioned, was pretty insubstantial. And beyond that, it was utterly unimaginative. I mean, there is a carbon-constrained world coming and we have to be adapting to it. And he was digging in very much behind the old economy in this situation and made it absolutely clear how wedded he and his government are to fossil fuels and how determined they are to silence their opponents, to make us, in Morrison's own words, quiet Australians. He wants us to be quiet Australians.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The great myth that still resides in certain quarters is of Australia’s mining as the past, not the future. As somehow not sufficiently sophisticated or complex enough for modern economic sensibilities that you’ll find in the goats cheese circle of some parts of our capital cities. This is complete economic fiction. But worse, it’s a dangerous fiction.”

MIKE:

I'm not the only one seeing it that way, I might add. I spoke to a number of people who did possibly most cogently, the national director of GetUp!, Paul Oosting, who saw it as a defining speech for Morrison. He said it showed very clearly just how populist he is, how authoritarian, how intent he is on pitting cities against regions, workers against workers, and how clear his intention to take away free speech and democratic rights in his efforts to divide the country.

And I have to say, I think he's right. I think it was a defining speech. I think it's where, you know, the sort of daggy dad football fan, an ordinary bloke mask came off Scott Morrison and we saw the authoritarian face behind it.

When Morrison won the leadership, some commentators saw it as a more moderate outcome than if Peter Dutton had won. And I'm not so sure now that there's that much of a difference, except that Morrison knows how to smile. They both have the same views on climate. They both have the same views on policing, on rights and liberties, including media freedoms, whistleblowers, you name it. They both present a very, very hard right authoritarian view to the world that brooks no dissent. And this speech should go down as one to be remembered when we're assessing Morrison in the future.

ELIZABETH:

Mike, thank you so much.

MIKE:

Okay. Cheers, mate.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Australia’s east coast is bracing for worsening bushfires today, especially Greater Sydney, and the Hunter and Illawarra-Shoalhaven regions, where it’s forecast to be catastrophic. Over 300 schools and TAFES across NSW will be closed, and it’s estimated that almost a million hectares of land have already burned. NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a week-long state of emergency amid quote - ‘ the most devastating bushfires ever seen.’

And a decision on whether cardinal George Pell can appeal his child sexual abuse conviction in the High Court will be made this week. If an appeal is refused by the court, Pell will have no other legal avenues available to him. If he is granted an appeal, the matter could be heard within months. Last year, he received a six year sentence, with a minimum of three years and eight months in jail.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

[Theme music ends]

Recently, Scott Morrison described his plans for a ban on environmental groups lobbying businesses. The speech he gave has been called a defining moment in his prime ministership. Mike Seccombe on why this is important and what it says about Morrison’s “ordinary bloke” mask.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Activism and secondary boycotts in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

This episode was produced in part by Elle Marsh, features and field producer, in a position supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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119: Morrison’s darkest speech yet