The latest manifestation of the bizarre anti-carbon tax "rallies" was held in Sydney today, attracting a somewhat motley crew of angry pensioners and various fringe right wing groups to listen to a gaggle of hate radio jocks and Senator Eric Abetz fulminating against climate science and the government's proposed carbon tax. The SMH has a report on the astro-turf groups organising the rally - Rally movers and shakers surf the astroturf of US-style politics.
It was the ''Ju-liar'' line that grabbed the attention for Alan Jones's recent interview with the Prime Minister. But more noteworthy was the prerecorded call he played her.
''Brad'' systematically hammered out a list of anti-government hot-button issues - ''the pink batts, the school halls, the bloody internet thing and now this''. He'd been up since 3am, he said, ''trying to earn money for these clowns to pee it up against the wall''.
Brad's gift for the soundbite raised the question: are we going the way of the US in the way we do politics?
Wednesday's events in Canberra suggest so: a street protest over an issue that's more about adverse effect on big business than little people. It was organised by an outfit with opaque links to conservative political interests. It was spruiked by a radio network that's long been the local answer to the Fox News Channel in the US. On the day, it saw many of the nation's highest-standing political hawks firing up the masses from the rostrum. And there in support were reps from even the most esoteric elements of the right.
The Consumers and Taxpayers Association was just two weeks old when its ''No Carbon Tax'' rally hit the nation's capital. The association describes itself on its website as ''a group of everyday working Australians who believe in democracy and good government for consumers and taxpayers'', none of whom identify themselves on the site. There is more than a whiff in there of that rising phenomenon of our time, the art-cum-science known as astroturfing. The term refers to fake grassroots movements - organised, big-dollar lobbying masquerading as street-level activism. It is not new, but it is finding increasing popularity and sophistication with growth in communications bandwidth.
The British journalist, George Monbiot, has found organisations calling for tenders on ''persona management'' systems, designed to flood online discussion sites with comments of predetermined slant from fake Joe Publics. They can even roll out complete identities across Facebook and other prospective validation media.
Astroturfing practitioners necessarily operate from the shadows. But they have found themselves uncomfortably spotlit for their role in the US Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is synonymous with grassroots mobilisation against Obama administration policies, especially the ''threat'' of universal health cover, and the temporary bailout of selected corporations and banks to reduce the fallout of the global financial crisis.
Last year's Astro Turf Wars was the Melbourne filmmaker Taki Oldham's expose of the movement's puppeteers. The stirrings of Atlanta's Tea Party Patriots in 2009 were genuine grassroots. But as Tea Party groups flickered to life across the US, big-brand right-wing organisations such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity stepped in with bellows and fuel - cash, infrastructure, media training and mascots, including the Republican wunderfrau Sarah Palin and the Fox jock Glenn Beck.
Identifying astroturf is not very hard. First, as Oldham points out, there is the incongruity between who is doing the protesting and what is at stake. Tea Party rallies see the poor and middle class shout the defence of a health cover system that demands their money or their lives. They demand the right of the rich to make more money and pay less tax at whatever social cost, and condemn climate science in defence of oil billionaires.
Monbiot has found notable spikes in online abuse and disruption around ''issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance''.
Oldham's film traces a path through Americans for Prosperity to the Koch family, owners of America's largest private energy concern and one of the country's big air polluters.
Australia has not seen astroturfing on the grand scale of the US. In 2004 Westfield paid a $3.5 million settlement arising out of litigation over political strategist Ken Hooper's fake ''North Strathfield Residents' Action Group'' decrying the development of the old Arnotts factory in Homebush by a competitor. And last year the Alliance of Australian Retailers, convened to protest against plain cigarette packaging, was revealed as a front for the tobacco giant Philip Morris.
The activist group GetUp! has drawn fire for being less than forthcoming with on-demand details of the unions helping finance it. The Opposition's leader in the Senate, Eric Abetz, a supporter of Wednesday's rally, described GetUp! as a ''repugnant'' organisation ''which pretends to educate young people about policy issues while taking advantage of their political inexperience''. But what's missing from GetUp! is the ulterior motive, the misalignment between means and ends. Where is the equivalent of poor people baying for rich peoples' rights at their own manifest expense? In the US, the poor and downtrodden can be corralled into welfare-bashing for reasons best explained by John Steinbeck: ''The poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.''
I went along to the alternative "pro carbon tax" rally organised by GetUp to see how many people could be coaxed into supporting a tax (admittedly the rhetoric at the rally was a lot better than the moron level fare served up by the astro-turfers - who need to recycle year old news to keep the fires burning - with the speakers talking about taxing pollution rather than income, which is how the carbon tax should be viewed). They seemed to do pretty well - Belmore Park was full, and GetUp's Simon Sheikh estimated there were 8000 people at the "pro" rally versus 2000 people at the "anti" rally, in spite of the skeptics rally being heavily promoted in the conservative media - Thousands demonstrate for and against carbon tax.
A short distance away in Belmore Park, thousands more people gathered to call for action on climate change: including putting a price on pollution and investing in renewable energy.
The Hyde Park demonstration mirrored in size and tone a rally held in Canberra recently. Organisers were hoping for 5000 people to turn up to today's event although it remains unclear what the exact head count was. ...
At the Belmore Park event organised by GetUp, the social action group's national director Simon Sheikh encouraged protesters by saying: "We are closer than ever to the future that we demand. "We are the last line of defence for Mother Nature," he said.
Despite leaked government papers revealing a carbon tax could set households back over $800, the message from protesters was that it was money worth spending to secure the future for upcoming generations. Many signs read "Carbon price, our kids are worth it".
"We must achieve a price on pollution and substantially invest in renewable energy," Mr Sheikh said. The Hyde Park rally left him unperturbed. "I literally can't see the back of this crowd," he shouted from the stage. "Eight thousand people can fit into this park and it is absolutely full."