Saturday, January 7, 2012

Protest magnet Ferguson calls on the spies

Important update: Come to next Thursday's protest (12/1) at Martin Ferguson's Preston electorate office.


Media revelations that resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson has called on the spies to monitor environmental campaigners and urged stiffer penalties for protests should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked on those campaigns and protests in the hope of a safer climate.

What may surprise the federal Batman MP's constituents, however, is the range of peaceful democratic action Ferguson considers a threat.

The minister's rhetoric is full of dire talk about "energy security", disruption to "critical infrastructure" and the prevention and deterrence of "unlawful activity", but the overwhelming majority of the many protests Ferguson attracts are entirely lawful, peaceful, and - inconveniently for him - devastatingly coherent in their critique of his passion for uranium and emissions-intensive fossil fuels.

Ferguson may like to paint activists as potential terrorists, but where is his evidence to support that smear? How many acts of actual criminal sabotage by environment campaigners have really taken place, and how many has his wasteful, anti-democratic enthusiasm for spying prevented? Isn't it really more about winning the public relations war on behalf of the minerals and resources lobby?

The extent of his distaste for the protests of civil society may not be fully known by his local constituents, but they are increasingly connecting Ferguson with his federal role undermining our climate security and preserving business-as-usual exploitation of fossil and uranium "resources" that need to be left - safely sequestered - in the ground.

These connections are as often forged by small-scale protests in his electorate as they are by large-scale protests at coal-fired power stations such as Hazelwood. And, judging by his past performances, they're the ones that really spoil the minister's day.

"... I believe that the right to peacefully demonstrate is an essential part of freedom of speech in a democratic society..."

That's Ferguson in a 9 September 2009 letter-box message to Preston constituents after protesters at his opening of an environmental refurbishment of a local park pointed to the stark contrast between worthy local green initiatives and Ferguson's climate-heating exploits.

The letter-box effort followed a string of letters to local newspapers from climate campaigners pointing to this inconvenient truth. This was also the letter in which Ferguson falsely accused me of being a "Greens activist".

Sounding a more ominous note, however, was his meeting with myself and other climate campaigners in his electorate office on 9 April 2010. The result of a rare, last-minute invitation, that meeting has been recounted in Crikey and in more detail on this blog, but it was an unguarded comment by Ferguson that pointed to the kinds of activities that have landed him in hot water in today's media coverage.

It wasn't his rather grumpy remark to me that "I've read your blog. You're not worth talking to", after I began on what he deemed a "cross-examination" on the energy and climate issues we had come to discuss. Instead, it was his response to my happy claim of a substantial readership.

"We know how many hits your blog gets," Ferguson replied.

It was this statement that hinted at the pervasive monitoring that has now been revealed in today's important public interest reports by Philip Dorling in The Age.

While most activists would be used to seeing a range of government departments, including police, in the reports of server traffic to their websites, they and the public are not nearly as aware as they should be of the extent of what can only be called spying, and of the sinister mismatch between this expensive and fruitless activity and the democratic rights of citizens to protest and seek change in the public interest.

Contrast with this the modest capacity of civil society campaigners, groups and watchdogs to track and shine light on the closed-door fossil fuel and uranium lobbying that wears out the carpets in ministerial offices.

The threat of such hidden, unaccountable activity is real and it's global. That's why protesters rightly dog Ferguson - they want you and your children to be safe.

I hope this message gets through to the minister. One thing is certain - it's sure to be monitored.

Amendment: The date of my meeting with Martin Ferguson at his electorate office has been corrected from the original version. The meeting took place on Friday 9 April 2010.

Comments welcome.


  1. I agree with all you've said. Ferguson is a captive of, and in fact part of, the mining lobby, which in turn is only interested in the current year's balance sheet, and has no interest in human right or the environment we leave for future generations.

    One need only look at the contrasting situations of Broken Hill, blighted by lead poisoning with every breeze that disturbs the desert air, and that of the blue-chip stock and brand that used to bear that sad town's name, BHP.

    Rip it out of the ground, take the money and run, and leave the mess for someone else to clean up. It has always been the method of the mining industry, and Ferguson is their latest patsy.

  2. Bravo, Darren! Unlike that turncoat, Ferguson, i have never read your blog before, but i find it very enlightening... I am appalled and angered by Ferguson's anti-democratic antics, paid for by us. I stopped voting Labor years ago because of their compromised position and bad policies - this revelation re MF just reinforces that decision.

  3. Thank you, ozleft and Anonymous. It is disappointing - both about the mining industry and what Martin Ferguson shows about Labor. He's more concerned about representing his "carbon constituents" than his real constituents.

    While I hold PM Gillard and Labor responsible, I actually consider Ferguson a member of a notional Carbon Party, which has members drawn from both sides. On resources and climate, Ferguson isn't much different from Tony Abbott, I'd say.

    There's a real duplicity going on in Australian politics on climate at the moment. We have the Gillard government claiming action on climate with a carbon price (a good, but meagre start), but at the same planning to drastically expand coal, threatening to swamp our climate measures with emissions.

    If you Google David Spratt and Guy Pearse, you'll find some good recent stuff on this.

    The message that I hope really gets across at Thursday's protest (4.30pm, Thursday 12 January at Ferguson's Preston electoral office) is that we don't want State or Federal Governments engaging in covert and anti-democratic spying to counter essentially lawful, public interest campaigns and community groups - climate and environment groups being the current example.

    Thanks again for your positive comments!

    Cheers, Darren

  4. While this is a disgraceful waste of public money, it's not too different from what used to happen to the anti-Vietnam protesters back in the day - the various state Special Branches, ASIO, and the federal coppers (to a lesser extent) used to devote an enormous amount of time to spying on us.

  5. I think I'd pretty much agree with that, David. I suppose things have simply evolved to take advantage of the expanding technology that makes such anti-democratic spying increasingly possible.

    On the flip-side, of course, are the benefits of collaboration the same technology offers civil society organisations working to hold governments to account in the public interest.

    One particularly worrying thing is the actions and measures Ferguson cannot deny pursuing quite clearly work against the public interest, as they frustrate the public interest aims of civil society - all, as you point out, with public funds.

    You might be interested in this morning's post, Strange freedoms of information, where I discuss this contrast further.

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. I read your letter in the Age and thought I would check out you and the FOI itself (which is hard to find).

    Has anyone read the FOI documents? Phillip Dorling tends to slant these things in his own way. His wikileaks reporting contained a few 'imperfections'- as highlighted by the Oz and Crikey (strange bedfellows).

    The actual FOI is on the Department site and seemed a little more innocuous than as was reported ( After all, we should not be concerned with safeguaring utilities like power or water from disruption??? And the stuff only talks about "unlawful activity" which it says is different to peaceful protest etc.

    I don't think what is described in the documents amounts to a security state. And I don't think it has undermined any expression of people's views. They just don't want to stop the lights going off.

    Reading your blog, you don't like Marn much. Fair enough, but it obviously motivates your arguments and outrage- certainly from a quick reading of it anyway.



  7. Thanks for your comment, Sonny. To take your points roughly in order:

    I think the history of the broadening powers of spying and surveillance by the State has often been one of seemingly "innocuous" changes (refer to "Wikileaks amendments" to legislation governing ASIO for a not-so-incremental change).

    I'll leave it to Philip Dorling to address your criticisms of his reporting, but is there anything you dispute in his account of the facts beyond vague suggestions of "slant"?

    Are you saying, for example, that there was no need to employ freedom of information to access the public interest material he uncovered? Are you saying that Martin Ferguson has not pushed for broader surveillance of protest activity and harsher penalties for some activities? Are you saying that a private intelligence firm, NOSIC, has not been engaged to gather information on public interest protest groups - information that is being used for the benefit of private interests with huge impacts on our climate?

    Quit Coal's Shaun Murray has written an excellent article that demolishes the idea that all Martin is trying to do is prevent massive disruption of our electricity supply etc. It's well worth a read, and I commend you to it. Climate protest groups have no problem with energy security, and no shortage of ideas to achieve it. They just don't want a non-solution that fatally compromises the security of our climate.

    You may not think you're living in a "security state", but one thing I'd say is that you really wouldn't know, would you? Certainly people in Australia express their views with relative freedom compared with other countries, but that does not mean vested interests aren't working against that, or to render the effects of free speech and protest ineffective.

    An important point to bear in mind is that it's not only the revelations of the Dorling reports that protesters have to go on. The kind of disproportionate and wasteful security response to demonstrations against Ferguson, and the many stories of surveillance protesters have shared, point to a less benign interpretation of Government actions than you suggest.

    Finally, the argument that I am opposing Martin because I don't like him is a weak one often employed for purely political motives. I bear no animosity towards Martin, but I do believe his policies and decisions are fundamentally damaging to Australia. Now it seems he is pushing to curtail the rights to public interest protest by the many others who believe the same thing.


Comments are most welcome on any of the posts at Northcote Independent. I encourage feedback - positive or negative. Feel free to disagree, but remember that posts are moderated to ensure they are on the topic and in the spirit of open debate, as outlined in my editorial policy.