DEMOCRACY & DOMINION: PROTEST IN A TIME OF PANDEMIC

Today is the anniversary of the release of the Dominion Documentary (2018) and of the protest actions that occurred in 2019, which saw hundreds of concerned citizens across Australia come together and engage in acts of peaceful civil disobedience in opposition to the social, industrial and political exploitation of non-human animals.

Physical protest this year has become impossible due to the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. And now more than ever it is imperative that we remain vigilant and aware of the measures enacted by the government that are restricting both social movement and our civil liberties.

In Tasmania we have already seen several incidents whereby individuals charged with theft or driving offences have also been charged with the additional offence of failing to comply with the direction of the Director of Public Health, which carries a fine of up to $16 800 or up to 6 months imprisonment, literally for being outside of their homes '’without good reason.’’

Whilst some may welcome these individuals being charged under the new rules, the fact remains that we have to consider what these extraordinary police powers (the enforcement of which is being assisted by Australian army personnel in our streets) actually mean for the rights of the community; especially under the current circumstances which have seen the suspension of democratic processes through the shutdown of Parliament and sole leadership granted to Peter Gutwein and the Tasmanian Liberals. And even more so in the context of the draconian anti-protest laws revived by the Tasmanian Liberals, which passed the House of Assembly in November 2019 (thanks to Madeline Ogilvie’s deciding vote), and are set to be voted on by the Legislative Council should Parliament be resumed. These anti-protest laws mandate fines of up to $10 000 for individuals or $100 000 for corporations that disrupt workplaces and businesses though any form of protest, with up to 18 months jail for a first offence and up to four years imprisonment for a second.

As a direct result of the current restrictions on social movement, it is impossible to engage in any and all physical acts of protest. Merely holding a sign outside a facility or travelling to place a flower in the fence of a slaughterhouse could see the activist charged with failing to comply with the directives laid down by this anti-protest government.

Perhaps you think rightly so; social distancing is a current necessity to slow the rate of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions. However, what this means is that animal exploitation industries are now operating without any scrutiny whatsoever from the broader community. Some are struggling in this trying economic climate; Tasmania Quality Meats have lost all Middle Eastern contracts and have been forced to stand down 44 casual employees. But most are operating at their usual capacity; JBS Longford have committed to continuing slaughtering throughout the pandemic. But not so much as a slaughterhouse vigil can be undertaken now; no matter how small, how peaceful, or what bio-safety measures are followed.

The stories of the animals slaughtered within those walls go completely unheard.

It’s not just the slaughterhouses that are operating with impunity. Forest protests and blockades have been completely shut down across the state. What was prior to the pandemic an act of trespass subject to fines and good behaviour bonds has now become a jailable offence, purely for the fact of being outside one’s primary residence. As a result activists have been forced to vacate Tasmania’s forests; and today is the day that 365 000 hectares of native and old growth forests become available for logging in addition it the 800 000 hectares of state forests already being actively logged by Sustainable Timbers Tasmania under the auspices of the Tasmanian Liberal government.

As concerned citizens we find ourselves in the unique predicament of being aware of the need to engage in social distancing measures in order to restrict the spread of SARS-CoV-2, whilst simultaneously recognising that our democratic rights are being violated to the benefit of immoral and unsustainable industries. And we recognise that the current restrictions of social movement may be utilised to set a dangerous precedent in light of the anti-protest laws, which are broadly supported by the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the Forestry Industry Association of Tasmania.

With the current climate of fear regarding the economic impacts of the pandemic on both industrial and personal levels, as well as increasing calls from the public for even tighter restrictions on social movement, the Tasmanian Liberals may be able to manufacture greater social licence for their anti-protest laws if and when they reinstate Parliament.

For now we must effectively utilise social media and online content in order to engage the broader public with social justice messaging. Today participants in the 2019 Dominion anniversary actions have been encouraged to post a reflection on that day, what they did and why they were there. But we should also utilise this time to prepare ourselves for an increasingly hostile landscape if social restrictions are lifted and we find ourselves able to protest once more.

collective liberationist, anti-speciesist theorist, and author living on mumirimina country, in lutruwita (“tasmania”).