What Does Democracy Look Like?

Thursday, 25 September, 2014

I was supposed to meet up with a friend for coffee. Unfortunately, she had to cancel at the last minute because, guess what, she’d been arrested.

A bit of context: on Wednesday 23 July, protesters from student groups including Socialist Alternative (SA) and Students for Palestine staged a demonstration at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. After chaining themselves to desks inside the Department, they burnt an Australian and Israeli flag. About ten protesters were arrested on charges of criminal damage and theft.

That’s one of the good things about being involved in student activism—your life is never boring.

Proposed changes to higher education have reinvigorated student activism in past months. For the first time in years, protests and rallies are making headlines, as each National Day of Action sees more people in attendance. The SA, infamous on campus for their constant vigil in front of the Baillieu Library and the attack on Sophie Mirabella in May, has often been seen as championing the left-wing agenda.

SA has made its vocal views on the budget abundantly clear on campus. “It’s a cabal of liberal fuckwits basically wanting to make themselves richer by impoverishing the rest of us,” Emma Dook, GSA Wom*n’s Officer and card-carrying member of the SA, tells Farrago.

Speaking about the incident where a group of SA students interrupted a lecture by Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella, Emma emphasises that the SA were not the ones who instigated any violence. “There’s nothing violent about going into a lecture with a megaphone. If you saw any violence there it was all on the side of security, who displayed pretty horrific tactics against us to shut us up.”

Emma sees protests like the Sophie Mirabella incident as a way of tapping into pre-existing mass sentiment against the budget. “It’s a way to relate to the real anger that exists out there and it’s been right to do these things. It’s really raised the profile of the education campaign and gotten it into the media.” And the media has not responded to student activism unfavourably. “I think there have been all sorts of articles about the resurgence of student political activism. By and large, if you look at the polls, people support them,” Emma explains.

While media attention is vital in raising awareness, Emma stresses that the media is a capitalist institution controlled by those who support the system. Student need to engage it on their own terms, which is why loud, disruptive actions like the Q&A protest, are important. “[The Q&A protest] showed our ability to use their forums for our purposes and not to stick within their framework of polite screened questions that are acceptable to people like Pyne and Hockey.”

Though the SA remain unconcerned about bad press, other student activists disagree. Citing the example of one NDA, where fifteen or so students out of many thousands charged at police, UMSU Wom*n’s Officer Stephanie Kilpatrick explains the tendency of the media to focus on sensational actions which do not represent all student activists. “That certainly wasn’t useful; that diluted and changed our message,” Kilpatrick explains. “There was some fair media coverage but there was a lot more media coverage that was very unfair because of those fifteen students.”

UMSU Education (Public) Officer Ella Fabry expresses similar views. “Militancy is very good for getting the media’s attention and for showing that ‘this group of people is angry, I wonder why’,” she explains. “But if you only do that then you run the risk of just being seen as ridiculous crazy students who don’t actually have a message to sell.” Although Ella doesn’t support violent protests, she sees a place for extreme action in student activism. “Something like non-violet direct action, say occupying a building or taking over the university, does have its place.”

Ella highlights the importance of taking into account multiple types of action when planning campaigns. While loud, public protests are important in getting media attention and publicising an issue, they only engage a section of the student population and cannot exist on their own. An effective campaign requires a number of small actions with a variety of aims to work together. “You can’t just get on the street and have a rally and not do anything that engages a different type of student. There’s no point in that existing on its own,” Ella says. “If you stage a small peaceful protest you might engage students but they’re not actually going to care if they don’t already know about the issue. And the most effective way of getting the issue out there is by larger, aggressive protesting.”

Something else to pay attention to when planning campaigns is accessibility. Rallies are not the most accessible form of activism. Students with differing physical or mental abilities may find it difficult to be in spaces with loud chanting and cheering or have mobility issues, while those who have carer responsibilities or inflexible job schedules may not be able to prioritise rallies over other commitments.

Although Queer Officer Dot Meng doesn’t attend rallies, they still engage in other forms of activism. “A lot of people think rallies are the only way of doing activism but I have a lot of belief in grassroots and community-building things.” They cite community gardens and reading/discussion groups as actions which may not target specific issues but still raise awareness about social justice issues. “If the budget gets passed there’s nothing you can do about it, but at least there’s a community of people you can fall back on.” That’s not to say that rallies aren’t important, but rather that all forms of activism are. “I think they sometimes get put into a hierarchy of what’s more important but to me you really need all of them to form some type of change,” Dot explains.

On the topic of the ordinary apolitical student who’s just annoyed that rallies cause tram delays, Ella admits the impossibility of satisfying all students, especially when the aim of a rally is to be disruptive. However, she remains optimistic about the ability of the education campaign to continue to engage students. Speaking about the Parmas for Palmer campaign, she says, “I think a lot of students want to be disengaged with what’s happening because they see rallies as not solution-based. That’s why we’re running the Palmer campaign, to get to students who are generally politically disengaged by saying, ‘Well, we’re presenting this problem to you, you know what the problem is, now here’s a solution and all you need is to get on board.”

And what’s important to remember is that student activism has been successful in the past. France’s May 1968 movement was spearheaded by student occupation protests, before spreading to factories with strikes involving tens of millions of workers. In Australia, student protests were vital in ending the Vietnam War. Even closer to home, the mid-‘90s saw students gather en-mass in response to the threat of fee increases, achieving great success. They occupied buildings in several universities such as the University of Queensland, where the vice-chancellor was literally prevented from passing deregulating measures when he was barred from his office.

Fast forward to the present, in which the education campaign run by the National Union of Students has been vital in raising awareness about the budget. The rallies, read-ins and other campaigns run by students nationwide have had a visible effect. A survey recently conducted by the National Tertiary Education Union showed that 70 per cent of people now oppose fee deregulation. Only recently, Clive Palmer publicly proclaimed support for students, promising to block the legislation from passing through the Senate. Now, it’s just a matter of keeping the pressure up to make sure he keeps his word.