Between 15 and 17 March an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets nationwide in a series of organised protest marches to give voice to their discontent with the current Abbott administration. There was a smorgasbord of issues represented at the protests, from refugee rights and environmental issues to health, welfare and education. The one sentiment that everyone seemed to share was an utter disgust with Abbott and the policies of the LNP.
In one respect, the marches were extraordinary. They attracted numbers out on to the streets that we haven’t seen since the protests against the Iraq war in 2004. The Melbourne march alone boasted somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 people. Also significant was the way in which the protests were organised. None of the usual suspects were involved, either as instigators or as the main organisers of the events. Despite some suspicions that the marches were an ALP or Greens front, this was a genuine grassroots movement: ordinary citizens coming together and organising a political action to express their dissatisfaction with government policies.
Yet on another level, there were points at which the entire affair was a little lacklustre. It sometimes felt like we were all going through the motions but very few had the conviction that we were actually going to change anything or have a genuine political influence. The march itself was the same as any number of marches that people like myself go to every other weekend. We meet at the State Library, cruise down Swanston street (on the road or footpath depending on the numbers), the optional sit-in on the corner of Bourke and Swanston, followed by some chanting and speeches outside of Parliament. I imagine that some of those who turned up for the first time couldn’t help but ask themselves what good they had achieved with their trip into the city that day.
Commentators on both the Left and the Right have dismissed the march as either pointless or unable to provide a credible alternative. But this would be to underestimate the genie that has been let out of the bottle. The Right ignores these marches at their peril. A 100,000 person turn-out is already twice the membership of the Liberal party, which could translate to an army of door-knockers and leafletters come election day. Abbott is not looking great in the polls and if someone slightly less woeful than Bill Shorten were to assume the Labor leadership, things could change very quickly.
But nor is the protest as it has currently played out either a ‘new form of activism’, as Van Badham has argued, or even a particularly desirable version of what we have been doing for decades. It would be difficult to argue against the fact that the protest was a positive development for progressive Australia, but much more would need to be done for it to constitute a dangerous threat to the government. Abbott certainly played the fool in suggesting that he was somehow unaware that the protests were taking place, but he does not yet need to respond. Presently, he seems to be gesturing me towards Gandhi’s over-quoted phrase, ‘first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win’. Between Abbott and the Murdoch press, phases one and two have already been completed. Historically, the problem has been that although we occasionally get to phase three, phase four is rarely ever achieved.
But what are the lessons from March? The truth lies somewhere in between the current responses of despondency and jubilation. There are some things that worked really well. In fact, the organisers deserve a huge pat on the back for their outstanding efforts. But there is a lot that could be done better next time and other things that we have learnt from the process. I have suggested three main points that could be said for and against the march.
1. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things
It wasn’t just ‘professional protesters’ who organised this march. It was instigated by folk who had never before organised such a thing and was attended by an incredibly broad cross-section of society. It was the first time I have ever seen the ‘hipster left’ at a political event, and combined with the teachers, nurses, social workers, students, unionists, parents, and other professions, it made quite a diverse crowd. People no longer need institutions or organisations as forms of political legitimacy. We now know that protests will be able to pop up any time and in any place. The field is broadening and it is likely to be continually invaded by more first-time players and new political actors. If there is sufficient demand from sectors of the community, social media provides an incredibly easy-to-negotiate platform from which to build enormous political presence on the ground with minimal organisational skills.
2. Ripe for the picketing
A key reason for the success of the march and the large crowds in attendance was the sheer number of unpopular government actions across a wide range of issues. Abbott had kicked a number of hornets’ nests during his first few months in office and although he is currently confident that these are people he can afford to lose (or had already lost in the first place), the numbers may begin to add up. Abbott was never popular, and as a fighter and a highly antagonistic debater, he is an easy man to hate. Future political actions should be conscious of time-sensitive issues and attempt to capitalise in the days and weeks following unpopular government decisions.
3. The importance of mass mobilisation
This protest proved the on-going importance and power of getting people out on to the streets as a political show of force. There was an incredible feeling of empowerment within certain parts of the crowd. The feeling of taking part in something bigger than yourself, of clarifying and expressing political views, and of seeing the solidarity between different groups in action was a great experience. In a world of clicktivism, slacktivism and other a-political ‘isms’, it was empowering to see people on the streets marching for what they believed. This wasn’t simply an empty gesture or a wrong-headed or misguided expression of anger, it was a group of people who were justifiably angry with their government who united to have their voices heard.
Nonetheless, to be an effective tool for social change we need to clarify a number of important elements of the protest. After the experience of Occupy, it is unclear why such an enormous event could have taken place without those with knowledge and experience offering more guidance and support to the organisers. The event lacked an adequate articulation of a political position and appeared naive in its attempts to brand itself as a ‘non-partisan’ affair. If you’re against the government then you have taken sides. It may not be Labor’s, but you are certainly not the apolitical entity that you claim to be.
There are at least three things to be taken from the outcomes of the march.
1. Marches should be connected with longer-term campaigns
The biggest problem on the day was that we were witness to one of the largest expressions of dissent in recent memory, followed by everyone returning to their daily lives with no prospects for how they could continue their involvement in organised opposition. Aside from the already-organised civic groups, there was a distinct lack of ‘where to from here?’ questions being asked. Organisers need to find ways to funnel people in attendance into larger pressure groups and institutions working in different areas. There are a number of ways people could have been encouraged to participate more. One option would have been to hold more extensive meetings preceding the event, which would have opened up the organising efforts to a broader range of people with different backgrounds and experiences. This way, more individuals and groups would have felt a greater ownership of and involvement in the march. Another important addition could have been to create a number of discussion and action groups that would meet following the march in Treasury Gardens in which people could organise themselves into their particular areas of interest and plan future action.
2. Mediating institutions need to intervene between individuals and the mass
It is easy to get lost in a mass of people. While some went with their friends and others attended with organisations, a protest is not an environment in which everyone would feel comfortable attending alone. It is important to have larger organisations and institutions at marches within which individuals can find a place. The feeling of one’s isolation in a sea of people would only add to a sentiment of powerlessness and the inevitability of government policies. Encouraging the mass to break up into smaller collectivities and units allows people to engage with others at the protest and organise more effectively. These institutions have a role to play before, during and after the event. I am not arguing that people should be driven into different groups like cattle, but rather, that we need to start organising ourselves into smaller affinity groups. This also provides for greater possibilities of achieving the first objective of sustaining longer-term campaigns.
3. Organisers must think more strategically about the methods and goals of the march
A number of people with whom I spoke at the event thought that there was a lack of a clear political position from the event organisers. In their quest to remain non-partisan and to keep the march as broad as possible, there was no talk about which key principles or strategic goals were important or what kind of politics was being offered. Although on one level enunciating clear positions appears to limit potential involvement in a march, it actually serves to strengthen and unify those present and allows for the beginning of a continuing dialogue around shared goals and strategies. Yes, we know we are all angry, but what are we doing about it, and what kind of vision do we have for a future progressive Australia that isn’t simply ‘fuck Abbott’?
Tactics was another problem on the day. A march through the city is an effective way of mobilising groups and in having one’s voice heard, but it isn’t a targeted strike against a political opponent. Marches are only effective when used as one tactic as part of a broader strategy. One of the interesting developments that occurred in social movement studies in the 1970s was the realisation that deeply unpopular governments could remain in power for a long time so long as they held on to key positions of strategic power within the regime. What proved pivotal in the downfall of hated governments was not the degree to which their political enemies loathed them but whether an opposition group was effectively organised to challenge key sources of power and legitimacy. A continuing campaign would be best served in thinking carefully about who they went after and why. One of the reasons there has been such a stir caused by the boycott of the Sydney Biennale is because of how effective the strategy has been, at least in the short term, in achieving the goals of the artists. Successful political actions tend to be concise, well thought through and targeted attacks that go straight for a strategic goal.
What I hope more than anything else is that this protest will be the first in a new wave of activism that will breathe fresh life into a disillusioned Left and provide the basis for a broader campaign against Abbott’s neoliberal policies. There is a lot to think about and even more planning to be done in the weeks and months to follow. It will take a serious effort to reverse the current trends and rethink what a progressive Australia could look like in an increasingly neoliberal world.
This article was first published at The History of the Present.