Australia: beautiful one day, police state the next

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I was dis­gust­ed to learn this morn­ing that Syd­ney had joined Mel­bourne in being one of the very few cities around the world to evict the Occu­py pro­test­ers. I’m glad at least that I got a chance to speak at yes­ter­day’s ral­ly, before the police action at 5am this morn­ing.

I had hoped that Syd­ney would dis­play more sense than Mel­bourne had, but unfor­tu­nate­ly I was wrong. Aus­tralians are often quick to crit­i­cize Amer­i­can soci­ety, but at times like these one has to respect the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence:

We hold these truths to be self-evi­dent, that all men are cre­at­ed equal, that they are endowed by their Cre­ator with cer­tain unalien­able Rights, that among these are Life, Lib­er­ty and the pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness.

That to secure these rights, Gov­ern­ments are insti­tut­ed among Men, deriv­ing their just pow­ers from the con­sent of the gov­erned,

That when­ev­er any Form of Gov­ern­ment becomes destruc­tive of these ends, it is the Right of the Peo­ple to alter or to abol­ish it, and to insti­tute new Gov­ern­ment, lay­ing its foun­da­tion on such prin­ci­ples and orga­niz­ing its pow­ers in such form, as to them shall seem most like­ly to effect their Safe­ty and Hap­pi­ness.

Pru­dence, indeed, will dic­tate that Gov­ern­ments long estab­lished should not be changed for light and tran­sient caus­es; and accord­ing­ly all expe­ri­ence hath shewn, that mankind are more dis­posed to suf­fer, while evils are suf­fer­able, than to right them­selves by abol­ish­ing the forms to which they are accus­tomed.

But when a long train of abus­es and usurpa­tions, pur­su­ing invari­ably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despo­tism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Gov­ern­ment, and to pro­vide new Guards for their future secu­ri­ty.

There is there­fore a sense of the right to dis­sent ingrained into Amer­i­can soci­ety. That right does­n’t exist in Aus­tralia; it’s instead a priv­i­lege that can eas­i­ly be with­drawn if the police decide to enforce ordi­nances that they can also decide to ignore.

And a with­draw­al of a priv­i­lege it clear­ly was. The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald gave the fol­low­ing report of the police state­ment to the court hear­ing:

Police said they had used their dis­cre­tion to allow Occu­py Syd­ney pro­test­ers to camp in Mar­tin Place for a week but told organ­is­ers that Sat­ur­day would be the last day the protest was tol­er­at­ed. (SMH “Occu­py Syd­ney pro­test­ers front court”, 23rd Octo­ber 2011)

In one sense, this is a return to form for Aus­tralian society–just as is our incar­cer­a­tion of refugees with­out tri­al, and the detain­ing of illit­er­ate Indone­sian peas­ants as “peo­ple smug­glers”. We like to por­tray Aus­tralia as the “she’ll be right mate” state, the land of the fair go, empha­siz­ing both the coop­er­a­tive nature of sur­vival in a harsh land, and the lar­rikin spir­it embod­ied in Croc­o­dile Dundee. But that’s only one side of the Aus­tralian social char­ac­ter. We were also estab­lished as a penal colony, turn­ing a con­ti­nent into a jail and dis­pos­sess­ing its inhab­i­tants in the process.

This dialec­tic in the Aus­tralian char­ac­ter was brought home to me very vivid­ly and com­i­cal­ly when as a young man I found myself sched­uled to meet the famous actor, wit and human­i­tar­i­an Peter Usti­nov. My employ­ers had arranged to bring him to the coun­try on a speak­ing tour, but had­n’t sent any­one to col­lect him from the air­port; instead, he had to get a taxi him­self and come to my office. I thought this deci­sion was insane, and said so: sure­ly we should meet him at the air­port and accom­pa­ny him to his hotel? But I could­n’t per­suade my boss, so I knew that at some stage one morn­ing the most famous per­son I’d yet met would walk into my office, and I spent the morn­ing con­sid­er­ing how I would greet this famous per­son when he arrived.

When he did, I said:

What on earth hap­pened?!

He had sim­ply strode into my office, and col­lapsed into a chair in appar­ent shock. He replied:

Ive just had the worst taxi dri­ve of my life!

My opin­ion that it was ridicu­lous to ask him to get a taxi him­self was con­firmed. I imag­ined that he’d copped a reck­less dri­ver who’d sped dan­ger­ous­ly along the nar­row street that was then the main route from Kings­ford Smith Air­port to the city. I repeat­ed “What hap­pened?”, and Usti­nov elab­o­rat­ed:

As soon as I sat in the cab, the dri­ver took one look at me in the rear vision mir­ror, saw that I was white, thought that since I was white I’d have the same opin­ions as him, and launched into the most vile racist dia­tribe I’ve ever heard. He said how he had flats in the sub­urbs that he rent­ed out to “Wogs”, and how he’d hap­pi­ly smash their TV sets when he came to col­lect the rent, and oth­er­wise ter­rorise them.

Then he took anoth­er look in the rear vision mir­ror, and saw that I was appalled. His whole demeanor changed, and he sud­den­ly snarled:

(Usti­nov put on a rough Aus­tralian drawl and said)

I sup­pose you don’t give a fuck what I think. I sup­pose you think all us Aus­tralians are descend­ed from fuck­ing con­victs.”

What did you say?”, I asked. Usti­nov replied:

I said “On the con­trary, my dear man, I’m con­vinced you’re descend­ed from one of the warders”.

That’s been my men­tal pic­ture of Aus­tralian soci­ety ever since: a soci­ety with its con­vict-derived rebels–many of whom were polit­i­cal pris­on­ers from strug­gles in Eng­land and Ireland–and its warder-derived enforcers of the sta­tus quo.

Clear­ly a warder-descen­dant made the deci­sion to evict the pro­test­ers this morn­ing. It’s time he (or she) was over-ruled. Almost 2000 cities around the world are allow­ing protests like this to con­tin­ue, and we should join those cities in accept­ing civ­il dis­sent. The Occu­py Wall Street move­ment isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly going to lead to a rever­sal of the pow­er of the finance sec­tor over soci­ety, but it is the begin­ning of that shift in pow­er. Aus­tralia may also be a long way from expe­ri­enc­ing the degree of eco­nom­ic pain that is moti­vat­ing sim­i­lar occu­pa­tions over­seas, but there is no guar­an­tee that we won’t feel that degree of pain in the future. The police should have the good sense to exer­cise their dis­cre­tion to allow the protest to re-form. If they don’t, they risk a far more hot-head­ed protest devel­op­ing in the future.

This isn’t a crit­i­cism of the police who car­ried out the order to clear the pro­test­ers last night–though I’m sure some of them would have been warder-descen­dants too, most are like­ly to have been decent peo­ple forced to enact an inde­cent order. I had a friend­ly exchange with a cou­ple of Police Res­cue cops at a Sub­way out­let on Oxford Street just after I left the protest yes­ter­day, and I apol­o­gised for those in the protest who were call­ing for a march in a move that was clear­ly aimed at inflam­ing ten­sion with the police (the pro­pos­al to march was turned down by the meet­ing, using its hyper-demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ing pro­ce­dure). Both police were hap­py to let that ani­mos­i­ty be seen as the behav­ior of a few hot­heads, to be laughed off over a beer after­wards.

I’d like to be able to regard the police action sim­i­lar­ly. Let’s have some maturity–some respect for the right to dis­sent at a time when soci­ety needs dissent–from the Aus­tralian police. We need to out­grow the men­tal­i­ty of warders.

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About Steve Keen

I am Professor of Economics and Head of Economics, History and Politics at Kingston University London, and a long time critic of conventional economic thought. As well as attacking mainstream thought in Debunking Economics, I am also developing an alternative dynamic approach to economic modelling. The key issue I am tackling here is the prospect for a debt-deflation on the back of the enormous private debts accumulated globally, and our very low rate of inflation.