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Pepper Spray – Another Day Another SAlt-led Protest (National Day of Action for Climate Change)

Updated: May 1

By Lara McKirdy



Pepper Spray is a Peppercorn series that highlights injustice, criminal law, protests and civil disobedience relevant to ANU students via Peppercorn’s Facebook page and biannual magazine.


I attended the annual ‘National Day of Action for Climate Change’ on Friday 17 March 2023. This year’s rally centres around the Labor Government’s current emission reduction goals. Particularly of interest is the Government’s new Safeguard Mechanism, which applies to facilities emitting more than one hundred thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.[1] Labor’s new and improved Safeguard Mechanism has been polished off since its Coalition-era controversy and represents a shining promise for change in the war against environmental degradation. Let me give you a bit of an insight into what went down and what comes next.


What happened?

The National Union of Students (NUS) and the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) groups held the rally in Kambri with an attendance just shy of fifty people. The National Day of Action protest was the second significant one on campus this year to be run by the infamous SAlt student society, following the International Women’s Day protest three weeks earlier.

The National Day of Action is an annual occasion where students around the country rally for urgent government action to prevent climate change. Or at least that’s what the rally was meant to be about. Instead, a number of irrelevant political messages like the recent AUKUS deal slipped into the mix, which we will get to in a jiffy.


My favourite part of the rally was the radicalisation attempts by not one but two members of socialist groups. I know many people wonder why student activism fails to accurately represent the voices of students at the ANU: anyone who attends a political rally on a particular issue will witness the rally turn into a comment about capitalism/socialism, rather than address the issues that people attended to support. The SAlt’s hijacking and copy/pasting of worn-out messages in each of their protests rather than having a targeted and intellectual treatment of the issues with substantive speakers reflects on the lack of coordinated action by other student groups, or students being put off on campus activism after enduring the SAlt experience. This is a real chicken or the egg situation, but I have to be honest: you won’t see me organising a rally, so maybe SAlty protests are the only physical options on the menu.


I was lucky enough to be badgered by a prominent figure within ANU SAlt who was determined to recruit me to attend various other SAlt-led rallies. Despite being a stranger to me, he was persistent in uncovering my political orientation as if drawing blood from a rock. I repeated numerous times that I was uncomfortable with sharing my political beliefs. It is in poor character for one to abuse their social standing within their community in an attempt to glean personal information from someone and make them feel uncomfortable in an environment that should be focused on collective action over shared concerns. After my experience at the National Day of Action, I would recommend exercising caution in attending these SAlty events.


What’s actually going on?

Returning to the Safeguard Mechanism, this scheme requires approximately 200 of Australia’s largest climate polluters to reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions by 4.9% per year until 2030. The overarching goal of the scheme is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2030. The Mechanism is designed to hold emitters responsible for not exceeding baseline net emissions as determined by the relevant Regulator.[2] This scheme represents only one third of the government’s proposed path to net zero.


Outrage over the Safeguard Mechanism from the Greens, the NUS and certain activist groups comes from the scheme’s significant flaw in allowing facilities to use 100% of offsets to meet their reduction targets, without actually reducing their emissions at all.

Senator Hanson-Young is particularly frustrated with this scheme when, during the most recent Senate Estimates, she questioned no more than 15 high-level public servants who were unable to provide her the exact number of facilities that planned to use 100% offsets to meet their reduction targets.[3] The lack of information surrounding this figure is particularly concerning and suggests a somewhat blasé attitude toward the effectiveness of this scheme on the part of the government.


To provide a brief history of the Safeguard Mechanism, this scheme was a 2016 Coalition brainchild that initially imposed a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases that big polluters could emit. However, because the cap was set “so high” and allowed so much “headroom” that emissions increased by seven million tonnes the following year.[4] The Albanese Government, with its 43% goal, reengineered the scheme to reward polluters with safeguard mechanism credits (SMCs) when polluters lower their emission below the baseline. These SMCs function as carbon credits so that when other facilities exceed their baseline obligations, they can buy SMCs or Coalition-era Australian carbon credit units (ACCUs), or alternatively pay a $275 fine per tonne of excess emissions.[5]


Interestingly, the carbon credit approach is contrary to economists’ preferred economy-wide carbon price, as they believe such an approach would be more effective not only for reducing emissions but also reducing the costs that go into reducing emissions. A similar approach was adopted by the Gillard minority government, but was repealed after a short period.

What’s it all about?

Returning to the claims made at the rally, SAlt contended that Tanya Plibersek greenlighted the contentious Western Australian Scarborough gas project in May 2022.[6] Upon further reading, this is a simplification. Madeleine King, Minister for Resources, announced the government’s go-ahead for Woodside’s $16.5 million Scarborough gas project the moment she was sworn in, thereby getting the jump on Plibersek.[7] The deeper context of this is Plibersek’s reported friction with right-faction King and also Chris Bowen, Minister for Climate Change, within cabinet due to King’s and Bowen’s alleged disregard for public demand for climate change management and preference to appease largest donors.[8] The combination of the atrocious treatment of outspoken women in Parliament and Labor’s inability to iron out factional frictions and decide on a more comprehensive approach will mean that our own Environment Minister will continue to be constrained in performing fundamental functions within her portfolio.


Secondly, the “rally” took a turn for the worse with a topical shift from environmentalism to the AUKUS agreement. SAlt claimed that the ANU had funded 300 scholarships to train ANU students to man nuclear submarines in preparation for “the war with China.” If you think this claim is a little far-fetched, you are correct. In an address to the Submarine Institute of Australia Conference, there is a notable absence of any such scholarship deal made between the Department of Defence and the ANU. Brian Schmidt (our resident Vice-Chancellor and Nobel-Laureate-in-Chief) discusses recruiting future students to the ANU’s coveted nuclear physics department to prepare them for careers in Australia’s growing STEM industry.[9] The concern around the gap in this industry is both the low rates of students who study high-level mathematics, but also the low rates of women who pursue STEM studies at a tertiary level.


Just to play devil’s advocate concerning the “war with China” rhetoric at the moment, it seems to me that this particular address by Brian Schmidt has possibly been warped into expressing an alternative agenda along the lines of supporting “the war with China”. I think that looking at the relevant evidence for what it is and not what it might be trying to be is always best practice. While I couldn’t find any specific information on funding the next generation of ADF personnel, it seems that Brian Schmidt is acting within the scope of his role in promoting the study of nuclear physics at the ANU. Pretty standard Vice-Chancellor behaviour, rather than a buttering up of AUKUS to get a few more bucks…


What I took away from this event

I hope to see that 2023 is both a return to normal and a year for change. The climate of activism on campus can be made more inclusive and effective by simplifying the political messages being conveyed at the events. As shown at the National Day of Action rally, the addition of questionable and irrelevant claims obfuscated the main political message. While many ANU students avoid protests (probably to not harm their future career prospects in the Public Service), the overall austere culture of activism in Canberra, as seen in the Women’s March at Parliament House in 2021, suggests otherwise. I hope that during my remaining time at ANU, a more representative group (*ahem* ANUSA *ahem*) takes student protests out the hands of SAlt and demonstrably restores student activism in line with its purpose: to express a want for change together for those without a voice alone.


Footnotes

[1] DCCEEW, “Safeguard Mechanism,” DCCEEW, 2023, https://www.dcceew.gov.au/climate-change/emissions-reporting/national-greenhouse-energy-reporting-scheme/safeguard-mechanism#:~:text=The%20Safeguard%20Mechanism%20applies%20to,baseline%20determined%20by%20the%20Regulator, 4.

[2] Mike Seccombe, “The Polluting Flaw in the Safeguard Mechanism,” The Saturday Paper (The Saturday Paper, March 14, 2023), https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2023/03/04/the-polluting-flaw-the-safeguard-mechanism#hrd, 1.

[3] DCCEEW, “Safeguard Mechanism,” DCCEEW, 2023, https://www.dcceew.gov.au/climate-change/emissions-reporting/national-greenhouse-energy-reporting-scheme/safeguard-mechanism#:~:text=The%20Safeguard%20Mechanism%20applies%20to,baseline%20determined%20by%20the%20Regulator, 4.

[4] Mike Seccombe, “The Polluting Flaw in the Safeguard Mechanism,” The Saturday Paper (The Saturday Paper, March 14, 2023), https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2023/03/04/the-polluting-flaw-the-safeguard-mechanism#hrd, 3.

[5] Mike Seccombe, “The Polluting Flaw in the Safeguard Mechanism,” The Saturday Paper (The Saturday Paper, March 14, 2023), https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2023/03/04/the-polluting-flaw-the-safeguard-mechanism#hrd, 2.

[6] Bob Brown, “How Tanya Plibersek Can Become a Great Environment Minister,” The Saturday Paper (The Saturday Paper, March 20, 2023), https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2023/03/18/how-tanya-plibersek-can-become-great-environment-minister, 1.

[7] Chloe Hooper, “Can Tanya Plibersek Save the Environment?,” The Saturday Paper (The Saturday Paper, September 5, 2022), https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/podcast/can-tanya-plibersek-save-the-environment, 2.

[8] Bob Brown, “How Tanya Plibersek Can Become a Great Environment Minister,” The Saturday Paper (The Saturday Paper, March 20, 2023), https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2023/03/18/how-tanya-plibersek-can-become-great-environment-minister, 2.

[9] Brian Schmidt, “Building Australia's AUKUS-Ready Nuclear Workforce,” ANU (The Australian National University, February 8, 2023), https://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/building-australias-aukus-ready-nuclear-workforce, 3.

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