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The Convoy of No Credibility: the Tea Party comes to Australia

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This week's poorly attended – but massively Murdoch media-hyped ‘Convoy of No Confidence’ was nothing more than a stunt by a right-wing astroturf (false grassroots) global warming denialist organisation. Eye-opening exposé by Ramon Glazov.

(This story was originally published in US journal eXiled Online on August 18, 2011 and has been republished with the author’s permission.)

 

PERTH, AUSTRALIA – After two years of preparation, Australian Teabaggers are finally out in force and they look positively gruesome over here, though they’ll look familiar to American readers. Climate-denying factory farmers? Check. Friends of convicted child-killers? Got em. A Pinochet-style fascist who wants to “inflict maximum pain” on the Australian economy by causing artificial famines? Yes, Sir! – ¡VIVA EL GENERALISSIMO!

As I write, these mercenary orcs are massing in Canberra (our national capital), holding rallies against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s carbon tax. A few ‘bagger-squads have already arrived; the rest are trucking across the country as part of a “Convoy of No Confidence,” expected to reach Parliament on Monday.

And the Murdoch press (remember, Rupert got his start here) hasn’t spared a moment trying to canonize them as regular folks. Earlier this week, The Australian ran a front-page story claiming these Teabaggers were just ordinary Australians, “an amalgam of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who are mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Nowhere in the article does the word “libertarian” occur. Murdoch really expects us to believe the Convoy’s just a bunch of random people, united by a

“…burning conviction that politicians of all persuasions have lost touch” with their constituents’ “real-life needs.”

The Australian printed another blowjob yesterday, this one about the Teabaggers already gathering outside Parliament House. It claimed:

“…[T]he rally was without much of the political extremism that turned a similar demonstration earlier in the year into a political headache for [Opposition Leader] Tony Abbott.”


Oh, really? Then why was it attended by a disgraced white-supremacist demagogue like Pauline Hanson? As I wrote last year, Hanson once did jail time for electoral fraud, during which she befriended morbidly obese psychopath Valmae Beck. Once freed, she gave an interview to Woman’s Day magazine, claiming Beck was “so sorry” for abducting and killing a 12-year-old half-Maori schoolgirl. And Beck herself thought Hanson was “a very nice lady.” Normal people would edge away if you told them you were endorsed by a child-murdering hippopotamus cow, but our Teabaggers aren’t normal people.

 

Nevertheless, the Murdoch paper’s article keeps playing down the presence of “extremists” at the rally, right to the very last paragraph:

“Susan Colvin, a 60-year-old small business owner from Sydney’s northern beaches, denied yesterday’s protest was a gathering of extremists. ‘Everyone here is a decent respectful, middle-ground person and we just want the government we voted for.’”


One very small problem: Susan Colvin voted AGAINST the current government. A quick Google search reveals she’s a card-carrying member of the Liberal Party – not just a supporter, but an actual paying member of the Party’s Pittwater Branch. There are even photos of her schmoozing with Federal MP Bronwyn Bishop! So what’s she doing pretending to be a disillusioned Labor voter…a heartbroken former Social-Dem…a jilted True Believer? It’s the ol’ Astroturf tactic so popular with Teabaggers. I bet that lying sleazeball spent Election Day 2010 standing near some primary school and doling out “How To Vote Liberal” cards.

 

And as I googled more names, I noticed two very suspicious things. First, nearly all of the protesters interviewed by The Australian – including Colvin – were members of a tiny he “Just Grounds Community” whose motto is: “Real People – facing the forgotten issues with friendship and a little fun.” The earliest threads on the forum went back to August 2009, years before Prime Minister Gillard announced her carbon tax. 2009 is also when several key organizers of the Teabagger Convoy (Mick Pattel, Janet Thompson) became members. This makes the Murdoch version of events – that they represent regular people spontaneously disillusioned with 2011 politics and policies – seem very dodgy indeed; if the Convoy was really a spontaneous rag-tag gathering of “butchers, bakers and candlestick makers” who felt mutually threatened by Gillard’s carbon tax, then why were these people already colluding two years earlier?

Here’s a better question: if it wasn’t the carbon tax that brought these people together, then what was it? The answer is global warming denial! That’s what half the Just Grounds threads were about from the moment the ong before Gillard even became PM, the message board was already full of links to articles on “climate skepticism” and rants against the Copenhagen Treaty. This includes threads started by future Convoy leaders: Janet Thompson devotes an October 2009 thread to Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), praising him for “speaking out against [anthropogenic global warming].”

Now for the second thing I noticed. Most of the threads started by Convoy organizers were suspiciously vacant. Pretty much the only people posting comments were – you guessed it – the Convoy leaders themselves. Some threads read less like message boards and more like two-person email exchanges. It was one of the most monotonous forums I’d ever seen: the same tiny group posting about the same topics for two years straight. This puzzled me. Where were all the foot soldiers?

It got weirder when I saw the most recent threads: the ones with instructions on how to join your local Convoy. There are a total of 11 routes to Canberra, each one departing from different cities in Australia. You’d expect these threads to be full of god-speeds, count-me-ins and dumb itinerary questions, but there are hardly any. Convoy #5 only has 26 replies, authored by eleven people. Convoy #6 has 27 replies – almost all of them written by the same two organizers!

The same bloody names kept appearing, too: Cate Stuart, Julene Haack, Matt Thompson, Janet Thompson, Anna Hetherington-Grego. It didn’t matter if you were reading the thread for Convoy #6 (Perth) or Convoy #10 (New South Wales) or Convoy #5 (Brisbane). The organizers always spent more time communicating with Convoy leaders in other states than with the angry locals who were supposedly lining up to join their protest.

That’s because a typical Teabagger spectacle consists of a small nucleus of professional Astroturfers and a large nebula of weirdoes and mutants who’ve just rocked up. Some of the mutants are there to proselytize; they hope they can convince other mutants that Lady Gaga is an Illuminati puppet or that Lyndon LaRouche predicted the GFC. Other mutants appear because joining a mob helps their self-esteem. But miracle of miracles, the muties are never the ones who get interviewed, especially not by News Corp reporters. In fact, they’re really little more than film extras — their job is to stand in the background while the Astroturfers take questions and make the corporate libertarian viewpoint seem more widespread.

So, whether you call them “organizers” or “Convoy leaders,” it’s the Astroturfers who form the permanent backbone of the Tea Party movement here. Muties are mostly short-term hangers-on, which explains their scarcity on the Just Grounds site.

Yet it’s the Convoy leaders who have the truly scary opinions. Take Kevin Michael “Mick” Pattel, who heads the National Road Freight Association, the libertarian trucker group supposedly responsible for the Convoy idea. In one thread, Pattel gives the following suggestion for how libertards can topple the Labor government they hate so much:

“I do however believe that we have to inflict maximum pain across the entire country, not localise it in Canberra, I’m also against public confrontation, the ideal way to do this is to withdraw Product, Produce and Services, within three days the Government will have no choice but to cave in, and as you say we need to be unified.”


You heard right. Not only is Pattel in favour of starting a coup against a democratically-elected government, but he has no problem with creating artificial famines and starving Australians until they submit to Teabagger rule. Still think these Convoy leaders are a bunch of “decent, respectful middle-grounders” without any extremist beliefs?

 

Pattel’s “maximum pain” talk is eerily close to Nixon’s language when he ordered the CIA to make Chile’s economy “scream,” after the left-wing President Salvador Allende was elected. And it mightn’t be such a coincidence, since Australian libertarians have a sordid history when it comes to supporting Pinochet’s government. Last March, a thread appeared on Just Grounds titled “R.I.P. Ron Kitching.” Who was this Ron Kitching that those Teabaggers decided to mourn? He was a prominent West Australian libertarian who co-authored a pamphlet, in 1994, titled Gold ‘n Dollars: the Chile-Kalgoorlie Connection. Here are a few samples of Australia’s first libertarians fawning all over his hero Augusto Pinochet [emphasis added]:

“The authoritarian Pinochet administration was condemned and slandered practically all over the world by a press biassed [sic] not against authoritarian Government, but against a free enterprise oriented administration, which took over from the corrupt Marxist regime. However Pinochet, against all of the combined pressure of the Western press as well as all of the pressure that Moscow and its satellites could exert, stood resolutely alone against the intellectually discredited and bankrupt ideology of socialism and its agents.

“The previous administration was the culmination of the destruction brought about by the rivalry between special interest groups, intent on privilege. It was the personification, the ultimate and inevitable result of several generations of struggle between special interest groups, for the reigns of power with which to grant even more privilege to this or that interest. It is easy to recognise the same destructive struggle which is currently taking place in Australia.

[…]

“To sum up, without Pinochet and his dedicated team of patriots both military and civil, Chile would not now be the most desirable place it is to live and work.”


This is one of the clearest illustrations of how Teabagger libertarians view the society around them — as something just itching to be overthrown with a coup, and replaced with a brutal authoritarian capitalism. It doesn’t matter if the government to be overthrown was democratically-elected: if it refuses to commit suicide through privatization, then it should be toppled. It’s doubtful Teabaggers even care about the carbon tax except as an excuse to destroy the government. As soon as Gillard scraps that, they’ll only find another reason.

 

And these Teabaggers are masters of self-victimization. Matt and Janet Thompson – the American couple in charge of Convoy #6 – used to run a factory farm near Narrogin, a town east of Perth. Though only licensed to keep 6,000 cattle, they seemed to have been squashing nearly 10,000 into their feedlot until Narrogin locals complained about the smell.

When the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) pushed them to do something about it, they cried persecution. Janet claimed the feedlot complaints were a government plot to bankrupt her husband because he refused to believe in man-made global warming. Or report greenhouse gas emissions coming from his factory farm. Or admit ammonia was a serious pollutant.

Matt’s view of the situation was equal parts paranoid and self-important:

“A high level DEC official told us that they eventually got Al Capone on tax evasion, implying that they would get us someday.”


Much as the Thompsons styled themselves as a pair of poor farmers battling government tyranny, they soon picked up some powerful friends. First there was Jo Nova, a washed-up children’s science show presenter who found a new career as a global warming denier. Her pamphlet, The Sceptics Handbook, is distributed by your friends at the Koch-funded Heartland Institute. Nova’s fortunes soared after a fellow Heartland Institute foundation-parasite and climate-change denialist, Anthony Watts, began blogging about the Thompsons’ dispute with the government. In 2010, they got the attention of Cory Bernardi, a conservative politician and climate sceptic, who made a speech on their behalf in the Australian Senate. The Thompsons were also invited to give talks at the Mannkal Foundation (whose Executive Director, mining magnate Ron Manners, co-authored the pro-Pinochet book I quoted earlier).

 

* * *
Well, I was curious to see the Thompsons campaigning, so I went to the launch of Convoy #6, the “Orange Team”.

People who wanted to participate were supposed to decorate their vehicles with orange balloons and streamers, then drive to the carpark of Belmont Race Course, which is about 3km from the Perth CBD. I took a taxi there before dawn and waited nearly an hour before the first car showed up – a green ute, no decorations.

Two guys in their 30s got out: the first, a beefy type wearing a racing jacket; the other, a thin, ginger-haired fellow with glasses. At first they suggested they were friends of Janet Thompson, but they retracted the claim shortly after. They were also evasive about how they’d heard about the protest and why they’d come. It became apparent that they weren’t regular libertards but rather part of some eclectic conspiracy-theory subculture. Didn’t take long before the ginger-haired guy started ranting about boat people, “gooks” and immigration quotas, which he claimed was all part of a wider conspiracy to dismantle Australia’s constitutional monarchy. The reason so many Asians were being allowed into the country was so they’d vote to turn Australia into a republic, which, to Ginger, meant that “all our rights, rights we never even fucking knew about, would go down the drain”. Australian republicanism was a scheme by some shadowy organization to establish a World Government – Ginger went on about the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Rothschild dynasty…

I asked if he really thought someone was trying to form a World Government.

“What do you think the carbon tax is for?”

He had a box in his car full of CDs he’d burnt, with “KNOW YOUR RIGHTS UNDER THE COMMON LAW AND THE AUSTRALIAN CONSTITUTION – SAVE AUSTRALIA! – PROTECT YOUR PROPERTY” written over the discs in laundry marker. Inside the CD case, he’d folded pieces of badly printed A4 paper claiming: “The Commonwealth Govt no longer exists – we are now a registered company on the US securities.” I received a free copy.

I suspected Ginger-guy had been lurking around political events all his life. He likely knew he was a single-issue freak and that single-issue freaks get marginalized at these sorts of gatherings, which is why he was fantastically aggressive: I spotted him slipping into at least five conversations and finding ways to steer the topic towards Australia’s constitutional monarchy (an issue no one’s really cared about since 1999). And he’d stand quite close to the action, or carefully angle himself near important people so he’d almost look right-hand-mannish. When I asked him how he’d discovered “all this constitution stuff,” he took offense and said he’d been politically active since the age of 19, writing letters to MPs and the like.

One question people kept asking each other was: “You going all the way, or are you just for support?” Almost everyone I saw had only turned up “for support”. That is, they planned to ride with Convoy #6 for a few miles, then turn around and go to work, like any other day. Out of the vehicles in the carpark, there weren’t many likely choices for a journey across Australia: three or four huge trucks, plus the Thompsons’ camper van. I was surprised when one truck driver told me he was just there “for support” like everyone else. Another driver told me his boss – an Eastern-Stater named Noel Porter, who owned a haulage company – was paying him to make the journey to Canberra. The majority of the vehicles, though, were sedans and hatchbacks. A lot of people had turned up because they’d heard about the Convoy launch on the radio; I counted a few blue-collar senior citizens, including an old British racist with a droopy bulldog face who complained that Como (a riverside suburb) was filling up with lazy “darkies” and Perth was making all the same mistakes Britain had.

Perth Now, one of Murdoch’s news sites, had sent a team to cover the launch. I also overheard a reporter giving a very odd interview to an oldish man with port wine stains on his face and a mint-green sweater. The guy with the port wine stains claimed he was against Gillard, not due to any actual policy, but because of high-minded, abstract reasons involving trust and honesty and her ability to keep promises. I was instantly suspicious: who’d turn against a politician just for failing to live up to an ideal? No one I know. The guy went on about how the Convoy of No Confidence wasn’t about political parties but some general feeling of alienation. Just another Susan Colvin, probably.

Before the launch ceremony began, I also managed to speak to Barry Corke, the Convoy’s appointed documentary maker. I’d noticed Corke was a member of the Just Grounds site and assumed he was out there to make Astroturf propaganda, but one thing left me curious: why had these Teabaggers hired a guy who’d previously worked at Ningaloo Reef (which, according to Google, he had)? I’d always associated Ningaloo with Greens voters, nature lovers, environmentally-conscious people in general. What would a Teabagger be doing making films there?

Corke was vague about what he’d done, but it was some kind of anti-UNESCO campaign. He complained that too much land there had been World Heritage listed and he’d banded together with “local townspeople”. I’m assuming to make anti-environmentalist propaganda. He said that together they’d managed to reduce the size of the listed area and “save” numerous cattle stations from destruction. I’m guessing he was in the pocket of some beef producer.

The Thompsons had invited two representatives, one from the mining industry, the other from agriculture, to hold out a giant orange ribbon that would then be driven through by the largest truck in the carpark. It was a massive thing with lots of placards tacked to one side and the motto “Adventure B4 Dementia” painted on the roof above the driver’s seat. We formed a circle in front of the camper van and Janet Thompson gave a speech about how the two industry representatives symbolized the diversity of the Convoy movement: city and country, mining and farming, asbestos and MRSA. Jo Nova was standing nearby, holding a toddler and making climate-denial chit-chat. Someone joked about New Zealand and Nova claimed that the Kiwis owed trillions in debt to Russia because of the Kyoto Protocol. The speech petered off.

Matt the Texan, Janet the Okie and their four children posed for a photo, that creepy way Red State politicians do. Then we went to a wide, round section of carpark and watched the “Adventure B4 Dementia” truck break the ribbon. The smaller trucks followed it, and soon the whole Convoy was moving in circles and getting ready to ride out onto the highway. Two cops on bikes formed a motorcade behind it.

I doubt there would’ve been many vehicles left after the realer people had driven back to work, but you don’t need their kind of “support” once the journalists have gotten their story. Drop the extras; cut and run. It’s Teabagging strategy, from hemisphere to hemisphere.

(Ramon Glazov lives and writes in Perth, Western Australia. Email him at “ramonglazov at gmail dot com”.)

 

 
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