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Protest in Australia

by Frank Stilwell on April 10, 2017

I do crossword puzzles in the daily newspaper. One of the clues (9 across, I recall) in yesterday’s ‘quick’ puzzle was ‘relating to government’. ‘Political’ was the required answer. At first sight, that sounds reasonable. But there is a lot more to politics than the business of government, isn’t there? Some politics is anti-government. Other politics is about community activism, pressuring governments ‘from outside’ to initiate particular reforms or to reverse socially unacceptable policies. Some very lively politics also takes place within a wide array of activist NGOs, trade unions and educational institutions too. Politics and government intersect, of course, but they are not synonymous.

Social scientists concerned to understand how societal changes occur need to be consider these broader dimensions of politics. So do social activists, of course. The state certainly has to be in the mix, but a state-centric view of social change cannot suffice. This is a particularly important point for political economists. The conventional view of the state as the principal avenue through which public policy occurs need to be supplemented with analysis of how the state operates in relation to broader societal pressures. Class-based analysis of the state is a good start. A broader view of the state as concurrently capitalist, democratic and bureaucratic gets us further along the way. Another aspect requiring attention is protest activity.

Protest activities come in many forms. There are demonstrations on the streets – that most visible form of protest. But behind the scenes are also the countless hours put in by the organisers of those demos, as anyone with personal involvement in these processes would know. In modern society the avenues of protest are widened by information technologies, including online petitions (‘clicktivism’) and the use of social media. But there’s still nothing quite so dramatic as the street demo.

We now have a marvellous new book depicting the Australian experience of protest activities. It is Clive Hamilton’s What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia, published by the National Library of Australia. It focusses on the visible faces of public protest, particularly in the last half century. And what faces they are, usually determined, often smiling but sometimes deeply anguished. One magnificent photo, showing three young women clutching a barricade (and each other) while participating in a blockade of a woodchip mill, speaks volumes. Yes, Hamilton’s book is, first and foremost, a picture book, with the photos supplemented by personal commentary on the nature, significance and effects of the protests. This gives it immediate visual appeal (no ‘latte-sipping socialist’s coffee table should be without one) while also inviting deeper reflections.

The range of protest activities consider in the book is appropriately broad. Different sections deal with the anti-war movement (particularly opposing Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam), anti-racism and indigenous rights, gay liberation, and environmental struggles (including the urban-based Green Bans movement as well as rural struggles against native-forest logging and the damming of wild rivers). On all these issues and more, there is a wealth of fine pictures and astute observations. The struggles of the labour movement get much less attention, other than when they deal with social and environmental issues beyond the more conventional concerns with workers’ wages and conditions. The omission of the notorious waterfront dispute of the 1990s is rather surprising though because, like the Green Bans of two decades earlier, it was a dispute in which the combination of determined union action and community activism turned the tide.

Towards the end of the book, a rather ‘catch-all-else’ section is headed ’Justice for All’. There may be a little irony in that title since, among some other worthy causes, the section includes a couple of pages on ‘the revolt of the billionaires’. This recounts the public protests organised by addressed by mining company bosses such as Gina Rinehart when they tried (successfully) to de-rail the Rudd Government’s proposed tax on their super-profits. ‘Social justice for whom?’ you may well ask…

It is pleasing to see that the Political Economy dispute at the University of Sydney also gets a few pages. This would have been a marvellous surprise, had the author not alerted me to his intentions when he contacted me to get some good photos of student demos! The ones selected for the book come from the 1970s and 1980s when the student movement to establish the ‘alternative economics’ program at the University was at its strongest. They include a picture of  a young Anthony Albanese, along with other political economy student activists, protesting atop the University’s clock tower. Clive Hamilton himself had been an active figure in that movement a few years earlier and appears (unnamed) in a couple of the photos.

Perhaps that would be an appropriate note on which to end this introductory review, because it signals the recurrent connection between the personal and the political. Putting yourself physically on the line in public protests is usually a deeply personal decision, sometimes involving quite a deep tussle over conviction and courage, but it links into broader societal and political processes of change.

Political economic questions remain of course. Are protest movements fundamental drivers of change or are they more like fleas on the body politic? The immediate demands of protesters are often, indeed usually, not immediately achieved (think of the massive demos of people opposed to Australia’s involvement in the war on Iraq, for example). However, there are important longer-term dynamics that also need to be considered. Struggles opposing apartheid and movements for gay rights and for environmental protection have contributed, probably irreversibly, to the long march for a fairer and more sustainable society. Sociologists and political scientists have made important contributions to understanding these processes and it is important for political economists to be engaged too. Scholarship about the role of protests in social change is particularly interesting, because, to a considerable extent, it involves participant observation – in other words, direct engagement and involvement in the protests themselves. It is a field in which the familiar adage ‘the personal is the political’ has particular resonance.

Frank Stilwell
Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, co-ordinating editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE), and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.
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  • Peter Galvin
    April 11, 2017 at 1:50 am

    Clive’s book left me slightly underwhelmed because as I looked for photos containing my good self I was sadly disappointed. How could this be? After all I was a Legend-in-my-own-Lunchtime. Otherwise a truly splendid book from a student’s point of view. I would have liked more from the industrial struggles of the time especially the gaoling of Clarrie O’Shea, the construction unions fights for over award pay, site safety and improved workers comp, and the many maritime and waterfront confrontations. The role of different organisations in this history might have been interesting like the various communist parties, SDS, SYA, WSA, AAM, VMC and all the other acronyms that made up such a colourful pastiche of the times.

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