They doth protest too much

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The right to protest is vital to democracy. If the people truly govern, they should be allowed to express their dissent, and blow off steam. It’s a fundamentally healthy thing. Sure, some protests are silly and wrong, and leave me thinking that the participants should probably slink home in shame until they can write new chants that don’t involve the words “Hey hey, ho ho”, or in fact anything invented by the Seven Dwarves. But we should all feel uncomfortable when governments tell us we shouldn’t protest.

So if you asked me whether people should be allowed to hold a rally because Dick Cheney was visiting, I’d say they absolutely should. I’d go further, in fact, and say that there are few people in the free world I’d rather see welcomed with howls of protest. But while I believe the right to protest should, in broad terms, be sacrosanct, in no manual of democratic theory have I ever seen a philosopher defend the inalienable right to protest during peak hour.

And that’s why I’m somewhat sympathetic to the police’s decision to restrict the anti-Cheney protests yesterday afternoon. Yeah, the US Vice-President is a duplicitous worm who’s masterminded a war few of us wanted. My dislike for him is such that I’d even go so far as to reverse my earlier stance and affirm that “Hey hey, ho ho, Dick Cheney has gotta go” – a view affirmed wholeheartedly by American voters in recent opinion polls.

But why must that point, as worthy as it is, only be advocated during times of maximum commuter congestion? Infuriating the public with unnecessary delays while they’re trying to get home to their kids isn’t exactly going to win new supporters for the cause. So why is it necessary to inconvenience half of Sydney to make your point?

Sure, I know that to most protesters, faceless commuters are mere cogs in the fascist capitalist machine, and are there to be Raged Against. But please. I would have thought that any anti-Cheney organiser in possession of at least a few brain cells that hadn’t been addled by Green Left Weekly editorials might have timed their anti-Cheney rally for after the guy had actually arrived in the country.

But probably, as with so many things these days, WorkChoices is to blame. You can’t just drop everything and head out for a pleasant Friday afternoon rally these days. So after work on Thursday was probably the best time. And why Town Hall, seat of a city council that had precisely nothing to do with this visit? While the activists don’t like Cheney or the military-industrial complex he so nefariously represents, they weren’t about to wait around for a few hours until his motorcade showed up, or get sidetracked down to the Rocks. Sure, fight the power; but only if it’s at a convenient time, and on the way home.

Speaking of better places and times, though, I have to confess myself baffled about why Cheney’s here now. Was John Howard too polite to ask him not to come? Of course he wouldn’t have stood up to the Americans, why I am even asking? But surely the Prime Minister, who is already struggling in the polls over Iraq, needs this thank-you mission like a hole in the head? We saw him fly off the deep end to attack Barack Obama over Iraq last week, so it’s obviously a sore point just at the moment.

I think it’s fair to say that most Australians don’t particularly care to be thanked for Iraq, because we don’t want to be still there. And if we did want thanks from someone for our ceaseless acquiescence, we certainly wouldn’t want it from the Dr Evil of American politics. A man so bitterly unpopular that even Halliburton probably won’t want him back after he’s finally done in Washington.

The other thing I’ve read is that the Vice-President will be trying to sell President Bush’s troop increase to the Australian public and their leaders – especially now that we’ve made a tiny increase to our own tiny detachment. How on earth will he build that support, though? Cheney’s never been the go-to PR guy. If you need someone to hide out in an undisclosed location in case Al Qaeda takes out the White House and the war’s dopey frontman, Cheney’s your man. But talking up the war? It’d have sounded more convincing coming from Donald Rumseld, and that’s saying something.

It’s a real shame that Dick Cheney’s whole Australian tour isn’t restricted to undisclosed locations, actually. If he was conducting his meetings somewhere underground near Pine Gap, not only would we not have to put up with his malignant mug on the news, but the protesters would be too busy chasing his motorcade through the desert to annoy us all during the commute home. It’d really kill two birds with one stone. And we all know how much Dick Cheney loves to kill birds.

Dominic Knight

Photo: Lisa Wiltse