Extremists do nothing but push people from their cause

In early 2021, I copped some flak (probably justified) from environmental group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Australia for calling something a vegan burger on TV, meaning there was nothing in it. It was a joke, maybe not my best.

PETA very kindly sent a vegan burger to my electorate office. Unfortunately, they didn’t tell me it was coming and my staff found a sad, cold of bag of food at the door some time later.

The moral of this story, when it comes to making a point, communication counts and without it you achieve nothing.

And no one likes a cold burger.

I watched with appalled interest last week when climate protest group Blockade Australia put Sydney to a standstill at peak hour on Monday morning, interfering with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people trying to get to work, emergencies or family.

I have nothing against a protest. It is a critical part of civil society, but I can’t figure out why making a whole city angry while they are on their way to work helps climate change.

Led, in the media anyway, by a young woman from Lismore who chained herself to a car steering wheel with a bike lock at the entrance to the Sydney Harbour Bridge Tunnel, rather than elevating climate change, the group were labelled extremists.

There was nothing heroic about Blockade Australia’s protest. It proved that extremism is on the rise everywhere — not just in America and not just on the right.

During the recent Federal Election, I spent a lot of time on the pre-polling voting booths in my electorate.

Pre-polling booths are a strange phenomenon and are a hotbed of political opinions — right wing, left wing, chicken wing or extreme wing.

For the most part candidates try to get on, but what I encountered this time were young blow-ins spruiking the Victorian Socialist Party itching for a fight.

The far-left socialists were so arrogant and so convinced of the purity and morality of their views that unless voters agreed with them they would put you down and denigrate you.

It backfired. For every vote they won, they were losing four others.

When are we going to settle for persuading not shouting? In a pluralist democracy you need to bring people with you.

Our society has changed. There is no doubt the advent of social media has helped to create strain, with communications silos encouraged online that can breed echo chambers incubating extreme views.

However, events overseas have also given people the green light to behave badly.

I am sick of the extremists and I deplore intolerance.

The vast majority of Aussies are content being left of centre or right of centre.

It the 10 per cent in the wings that are emboldened and loud. They are the precursor for worse.

When did we arrive at a place where it no longer matters to persuade other people of our views? Instead, you are allowed to just cancel the other point of view.

Central to our successful democracy is the principle that good people can hold different positions and that doesn’t make them bad, alien or un-Australian.

It’s when we don’t stand up to extremism that horrors, like the Christchurch mosque attack, or anti-democratic acts of violence like the January 6 riots in the US or Putin not respecting the democratic order, can occur.

I was shocked by the January 6 riots, with reports emerging from the hearings in the US this week looking as though the event was fuelled by political manipulation being used to reward extremism.

Ever since I first joined the ALP at 17, I have been a moderate. I believe to my core the national interest should always trump partisanship.

The psychology of the extremists is that they think they are genuinely morally superior crusaders, like the Blockade Australia crowd.

But they can’t accept people may hold a different view.

They reject the need to persuade other people who disagree with them.

The message that has come out of the latest blockade is they are intolerant and counterproductive.

We want action on climate change. I implore people to come to the table and talk before causing harm, no matter whether you think it’s worth it or not.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 6 July 2022.