Following Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cancellation of a visit to Deakin University, I wrote this article for ABC – The Drum on 21 May 2014:
There was a time in my feckless, badly dressed, late 90s youth that I was pretty keen to be a member of the Socialist Alliance. I was reaching out for somewhere to belong, and, with a government that supported neither my rights nor my views, angry leftie students seemed a damn good place to start.
As the news broke today that the Prime Minister was cancelling a trip to Deakin University for fear of the safety of innocent bystanders, I empathised with the student protesters he was avoiding, all dressed up with no place to go.
The ‘Howard years’, as we like to call them now in shuddering reminiscence, were a great time for student protest. Between VSU; babies thrown overboard; the Intervention; his refusal to apologise for, well, anything; and the most caricature-worthy eyebrows in Australian history, there was no shortage of material for chants, signs and impassioned student newspaper op-eds.
Without social media, organising protests and communicating our message may have been harder. But, without social media distracting us, we all bothered to attend protests once they’d been scheduled. As a student at a small, rural university, our opportunities to riot were limited, but we hosted meetings, discussion groups, political theatre performances in pubs, marches down the relatively car-free main street, and a glorious 80-day sit-in protest outside the Vice Chancellor’s office. The latter was complete with tents, performances and a makeshift kitchen. It’s nice to remember the halcyon days of my youth as fiery political action, but it could be argued that we were looking for “an excuse for a camping trip” rather than the “excuse for a riot” Abbott has claimed Deakin University students are after.
The left got slack during the Rudd/Gillard reign. Kevin07 t-shirts made their way to the back of the cupboard and we all congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Sure, the government wasn’t perfect (especially if you were an asylum seeker) but they were our lesser of two evils, so we hid indoors, keeping quiet in the hope that this was the worst it was going to get. Now that we were able to rely on vague awareness-raising Facebook statuses or hashtags to make us feel politically engaged, protest petered out, save for near weekly equal marriage marches. The older generation bemoaned a disengaged youth and accused young people of ‘slacktivism’, and we all got angry about that for a week then went back to watching Game of Thrones.
And so it was that after the last election, we were a messy bunch, unable to work out how to respond to a harsh new world. Facebook events for more equal marriage protests came and went as we flailed about trying to remember how to walk and shout in time. Indeed, it’s noise pollution, not physical violence, we should be afraid of; Australian protesters really aren’t great at chanting. If you ask me, we should spend a little less time working out which shoe to throw, and a little more on rhythm, harmony and understanding that you don’t need to screech into a microphone.
Jokes aside, many of us expected things to proceed much as they did back in Howard’s time. A well-received first budget, years of ever worsening policy and unheard protests, leading finally to a tipping point when this government’s version of ‘Work Choices’ came along and rallied everyone together. Right?
The Government gifted us a punishing budget, and national student protests are planned across the country this week, mere days after, oh look, more national protests on the weekend. No amount of patronising sound bites can disguise the mood in Australian politics. Much like Shakira’s hips, the polls don’t lie.
The claim that students are rioting is, if anything, an offense to anyone who has ever participated in an actual riot. The Daily Telegraph posted a picture of an Angry Young Man™ and claimed that the weekend’s protests were violent. In reality, most participants in the rallies were senior citizens, babies wearing ‘Activist in Training’ onesies, and families strolling down the street holding carefully alliterated, pun-tastic signs they’d crafted as a Saturday morning bonding activity. A small collection of red-flag-wielding Socialist Alliance members, playing Rage Against the Machine out of an Otto bin, threatened to – god forbid – sit down in the road, but that was about it. The chants we are hearing are directed at policy – No Cuts, No Fees, No Corporate Universities – not at tearing down democracy.
The Prime Minister is right to be afraid, not of screeching students or misspelled signage, but of the next election. Those of us who took to the streets crying ‘Resistance!’ in the 90s grew up and got organised. You may hear us gently mocking the Socialist Alliance as we sit around drinking craft beers and eating pickles in another Sydney pop up bar, but we’re still angry, we’re attending protests, and we will organise against this budget.