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Coal hoax fails to dig deep without a martyr to the cause

Jeremy Sammut | The Age | 15 January 2013
It used to be joked that if you gave them the chance, martyrs would climb up on to the cross and yell for the man with the nails to hurry up.

He might look like Jesus with his long hair and wispy beard, but notorious anti-coal protester Jonathan Moylan belongs to the new class of martyrs, whose first instinct is to lawyer-up and try to beat the rap.

Moylan, a former student politician and current member of the radical environmental group Front Line Action on Coal, became a cause celebre in some quarters last week after issuing a fake ANZ press release, the contents of which precipitated a temporary plunge in the value of Whitehaven Coal on the Australian Securities Exchange.

Greens leader Christine Milne was quick to praise Moylan's antics as ''part of a long and proud history of civil disobedience, potentially breaking the law, to highlight something wrong''.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is now investigating after it raided Moylan's camp near Narrabri in northern New South Wales, where he is protesting against Whitehaven's new Maules Creek mine in Leard State Forest. The proper authorities will determine if any laws have been broken.

But if criminal charges are laid, we are sure to see the Greens and their fellow travellers on the left launch a Julian Assange-style outcry against the persecution of an innocent, well-meaning activist.

Already there have been complaints about ASIC seizing Moylan's phone and computer, as if this so-called breach of his rights is just one step short of consignment to the gulag for trying to do something to prevent climate change.

Typifying the kind of support offered on social media, some commentators praised the ''elegant hoax'' orchestrated by this ''hero'', and lamented the ''utterly immoral'' effort to criminalise dissent designed to avert environmental catastrophe.

As with the global campaign for the leader of WikiLeaks to escape trial in the United States for publishing classified intelligence documents stolen from the Pentagon, these efforts to evade the legal consequences of illegal behaviour profoundly misunderstand the principle of civil disobedience.

Any anarchist, vandal or malcontent can disobey the law. What makes civil disobedience morally and politically powerful is the willingness to pay the penalty for an act of conscience protesting unfair or immoral government policies. By demonstrating the courage of one's conviction, the aim is to sway opinion and convince governments to rectify the injustice that motivated the self-sacrifice of liberty.

This was the principle of civil disobedience at the core of Gandhi's campaign of passive resistance against British rule in India. The Mahatma ordered his followers to submit to arrest and obey all subsequent orders from the authorities. He also practised what he preached and, when arrested by the British, asked to receive the highest penalty under the law.

If Gandhi had fled the country to evade imprisonment, this would have diminished the moral force of his anti-colonial movement, and it is unlikely he would have become an international figure and rallying point for Indian independence.

After abolitionist John Brown led the raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, the event which catalysed the start of the American Civil War, he welcomed his execution for attempting to provoke an insurrection against slavery. He knew that enduring a martyr's death with dignity and courage would set an example to his fellow citizens of how deep should be their commitment to eradicating slavery. He got his wish, and became a hero and inspiration to the anti-slavery cause.

A complete contrast are the modern agitators and their supporters who want a get-out-of-jail-free card for acting illegally for the self-proclaimed greater good. The idea that so long as you believe your cause is worthy your deeds should be excused is an example of the narcissistic sense of entitlement that blights so much of contemporary culture.

To truly belong to the ''long and proud history of civil disobedience'', Assange and his like should display the courage of their convictions and willingly surrender to lawful authority. Like Gandhi and Brown, maybe Assange would do greater service to his cause (whatever that is) banged up in a US penitentiary instead of hiding in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

Moylan struck the right note when he told the ABC that he was more concerned about the environment than any consequences for himself. But he also told the media he had called his lawyers and did not plan on speaking to ASIC investigators.

If climate change really is the greatest moral challenge of our generation, he should welcome the opportunity to do time for climate change and generate even more publicity for taking action on the environment.

Dr Jeremy Sammut is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.