The prime minister appeared to be echoing President Trump who, in July, used the phrase “vicious and totally crazed” to describe those boycotting Home Depot over the politics of the company’s co-founder.
The Australian leader is particularly opposed to secondary boycotts — the boycotting of one company over its business dealings with another firm. As Morrison put it in a radio interview last week: “This type of behaviour, secondary boycotting companies just going about their business, is not on.”
Others might respond: “It’s my money. I get to choose how to spend it.”
I’m with them.
In a free society, spending a dollar can be a way of voting for your values. You may choose to support renewable energy, or slavery-free cotton or a church-run enterprise. It’s up to you. You may also decide against depositing your money with a bank that, according to its polices, could pass your money on to a coal miner.
As Hugh de Kretser, from Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, put it: “From ending slavery to stopping apartheid, boycott campaigns have played a critical role in achieving many social advances that we now take for granted.”
In Australia, many activists have focused on the mining of thermal coal — in particular the planned Adani mine in Queensland. Environmentalists argue that Australia, an island particularly vulnerable to effects of climate change, should not be digging fresh coal fields. They have pressured Australian banks to not offer funding.
Morrison disagrees. He’s so keen on coal that he once brought a lump of the stuff into Parliament.
His resources minister, Matthew Canavan, is also a fan of coal. Back in 2017, when one Australian bank declined to provide finance for the Adani mine, Canavan proposed his own boycott — telling pro-mining consumers to close down their bank accounts.
It’s unclear whether Morrison would now consider such boycott promotion to be “indulgent and selfish.”
Certainly, the urge to protect free speech varies according to the person whose speech is being protected. The Morrison government is drafting legislation to protect religious groups, defending their right to express views that might otherwise fall foul of anti-discrimination legislation. This promise of freedom, though, is not being extended to all players.
In September, Morrison’s government brought in tough penalties for animal rights protesters who “invade” farms or abattoirs. Such trespassing was already illegal, but the new law also criminalizes “the action of publishing material, via a carriage service, with the intention of inciting trespass.”
Under Morrison’s watch, there have also been police raids on journalists from the national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp., in both cases trying to discover the identity of whistle-blowers who had embarrassed the government. As a result, the country’s major news organizations have launched a press freedom campaign — with all major newspapers blacking out their front pages to protest the mounting threat to free speech.
Despite all this, Morrison has boldly painted himself as a friend of liberty. Those who target businesses with boycotts, he said, are trying to “deny the liberties of Australians.” In the prime minister’s view, Adani and others should have the liberty to dig more coal. The problem: The rest of us might want a different liberty — the liberty to be free in both our speech and our spending.
Morrison still has not outlined how he might change the law, with some legal experts doubting that his ban on boycotts is even possible. If he tries to legislate, he might also end up in that most dangerous of positions: standing between Australians and the cash in their pockets.
It’s our money. We earned it. And last time I looked, there was nothing on the Australian banknote that said: “Must not be used in the cause of progress.”
The prime minister is right to decry those who would “deny the liberties of Australians.” His challenge is to make sure that doesn’t include himself.