Like It Or Not ScoMo, Protest Made Australia What It Is Today
In 1960, my father and other Melbourne University students arranged an unauthorised street protest.
The police told them they couldn’t march outside the campus. They refused, and walked onto the streets anyway.
Michael Leigh and his friends were protesting the White Australia policy, which was used to restrict non-Europeans from moving to Australia. The spark for the protest had been the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, where 69 civilians, including 10 children, had been killed. The Labor opposition called on the Menzies Government to pass a censure motion against the South African government. Robert Menzies, who had praised the White Australia policy for helping Australia avoid "the kind of problem they have in South Africa", refused to censor the Apartheid regime.
Apartheid and the White Australia policy are long dead, but it’s easy to forget that they were once popular. The protesters were ahead of their time.
Yet this lesson seems lost on Prime Minister Morrison, who has moved from praising the quiet Australians to looking for ways to keep Australia silenced. Voters, it seems, should be seen but not heard. From police raids on journalists to ignoring Freedom of Information laws, the Coalition has sought to stifle civil society and intimidate independent media. It’s a strange kind of ‘Liberal’ who stifles the democratic right to protest, and won’t let consumers and shareholders be free to choose.
Recently, the Morrison Government signalled a crackdown on protesters, people that his Victorian state colleague had labelled “ferals”. This followed Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton calling for protesters to be subject to mandatory sentences and have their welfare payments cut.
In trying to characterise protesters as extremists, conservatives are hoping that people will forget the way that past protests have shaped Australia for the better. In 1970, 200,000 people protested Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The protests, which were the largest ever seen at that time, helped end the war.
In 1978, the first Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras sought to reform laws and tackle homophobia. Police blocked the parade, and arrested 53 marchers, some of whom were badly beaten in their cells.
Public protest helped save the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne in the 1970s, Centennial Park in Sydney from multiple development threats, and public protest tried to save the Bellevue Hotel in Brisbane in 1979. In 2000, a quarter of a million Sydneysiders streamed across the Harbour Bridge in a walk for reconciliation. The event helped build momentum for the apology to the stolen generations in 2007.
Admittedly, conservatives have been on the wrong side of history in many of these issues. But even they should reluctantly acknowledge that the protesters were right, and that the nation is better for having ended the White Australia Policy, brought troops home from Vietnam, decriminalised homosexuality, conserved our public parks, and apologised to the Stolen Generations.
At a state and territory level, there is an appreciation for the value of peaceful protest. The ACT, along with Victoria and Queensland, has recognised and protected protest rights. When I joined the climate strike recently, I was marching alongside Labor politicians who knew the value of such actions.
Oddly, Coalition politicians seem to recognise the value of protest overseas. On a recent holiday, one Liberal backbencher posted selfies from the Hong Kong demonstrations. Perhaps he forgot having called for the water cannons to be turned on to protesters in his own city.
Among the most concerned about the crackdown on protest activity are Australian charities. Since 2013, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government has fought hard to stifle charities. They’re happy for charities to plant trees and serve soup, but bridle any time non-profits are heard discussing climate change and entrenched poverty. The best kind of charity, according to the Coalition, is a silent charity.
Charities work every day with Australians from every geographic, socio-economic and ideological point on the compass. When they speak, it’s from that knowledge base -- from expertise, research, human conversations and first-hand experience. We need advocates from the community sector to share their expertise. Charity leaders shouldn’t have to worry that speaking out might lead to reprisals from the federal government.
A government that isn’t scared of the people would be looking for ways to encourage public involvement in democracy. Regulation of protest activity should be concerned first and foremost with protecting the community’s right to be heard, and with making sure Australians can get involved in political expression -- whether as individuals, small groups, large groups or movements. The greater the number of people who have a voice in the political decisions that set our path as a nation, the less likely we are to take a wrong turn. When dissidents are silenced, there’s a risk we will wake up one day and discover that Australia has taken a wrong turn.
The Coalition should not be afraid of Australians taking part in democracy. Indeed, they should welcome the collective wisdom that comes from community conversations around aged care, climate change, wage theft and reconciliation.
True leadership in a democracy isn’t just about emboldening your supporters and shushing your opponents -- it’s about understanding that none of us has a monopoly on wisdom. The genius of democracy is that the more voices are heard, the more likely we are to avoid mistakes. Peaceful protest and charitable advocacy aren’t optional extras -- they’re fundamental to a strong democracy.