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The sublime futility of marching in the streets to protest unwinnable issues

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Wednesday, 1 October 2003

When I attended Melbourne University in the mid-1970s my family teased me about going to such a hotbed of revolutionary activity - that is, any University campus of the time. They told me I would become a Trotskyite and wear a red cap.

It was not to be. The Vietnam War came to its long-delayed close during my undistinguished academic career at Melbourne, and the great days of student activism passed. There was a final flurry, which was something to do with child-care facilities on campus, but I was off sick that day. In any case, political activity was something they did over in the Arts Faculty. I was in Science. I never bought a red cap.

In retrospect, apart from a surge in 1975 during the Whitlam sacking, the late 1960s and early 1970s were the heyday of such demonstrations. The people who organised them were taken seriously enough to the point of being discriminated against and even watched by sections of the police.


No longer. Peaceful demonstrations are seen as the right of citizens to make a point, and the police make an effort to accommodate such events, having given up surveillance of the organisers decades ago. Now the usual attitude to such events, and this is far worse from the point of view of those who organise them, is to simply ignore both protests and protestors. The federal government does not seem to take a blind bit of notice of demonstrators or their organisers, even when the events have obviously broad-based community support, such as the recent demonstrations against Australia's involvement in Iraq.

Like the government, the mass of the Australian public also seems unmoved by such events, and can even be repulsed by violent demonstrations. The frequently violent demonstrations against meetings of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party of a few years ago, for example, culminating in a serious assault on one person who attended a meeting, did little but generate sympathy for the party.

The one group that does not seem to have noticed that demonstrations now mean virtually nothing are the hard-core demonstrators themselves, including the strange people who fly around the world to fight with police at international finance meetings, such as the World Trade Organisation meeting at Cancun in Mexico in September. As it happened this meeting imploded of its own accord, without the demonstrations having the slightest effect, or without even being much noticed. But in their quest for attention this subset of activists are hampered by the fact that the main plank of their platform, that of being against "globalisation", is somewhere between ridiculous and absurd, not to mention directly harmful to the interests of the poor people in the poor countries they affect to be defending.

The demonstrators of the 1960s at least had Vietnam, a war which (almost) everyone now agrees was a bad idea. It also went on for many years, required conscription, and had an immediate solution (unlike globalisation - what can one "do" to resolve that issue?). The war in Iraq could have become a rallying point but it came and went far too quickly for the hard left of the demonstrating elite to gain any traction from it and, in any case, the war was conducted solely by a small number of volunteer professionals. Ordinary Australians were not affected.

But even back in the Vietnam era, demonstrations achieved little in the way of policy changes. Australia's involvement in Vietnam ended for a host of reasons - including Whitlam coming to power and American problems with the war - that had nothing directly to do with the demonstrations. Whitlam's coming to power was, in turn, the result of a range of issues, one of which was Australia's involvement in the war.

But still the demonstrators of that era point out, as leading activist of the time Dr David Nadel recently did in a lecture at Monash University in Melbourne, that they drew community attention to a number of causes such as Aborigines, gay rights, single mothers and so on. Perhaps. I remain to be convinced. The media has been screaming about all those issues and many more before and since the era of demonstrations, and so may claim a large share of the credit for progress made in them.


In any case, those once-pressing issues now seem almost old hat and university students, who now have to get their degrees and earn money to pay for their education, have much less enthusiasm for the "hobby" of protesting. In my day universities were free, employment was still relatively full and campus culture in all its bizarre forms - including ratty politics - thrived.

Should we be concerned over the decline and obvious irrelevance of this form of political activity? No! The radicals of the 1970s were long-haired, badly dressed (it was then fashionable to look scruffy), full of zeal and spouting slogans from half-understood lectures in politics 101 and summer tutorials on Marx. All that seems to have changed is that the hair is shorter and clothes slightly better. Then as now student protestors in particular have no connection with the electorate - they represent no-one except themselves - and don't know anything. Their only claim to any public voice is that they are loud and sometimes violent. If they want a say in public affairs then let them line up at the ballot box like everyone else; or run for office and see how far a protest sign gets them in influencing a suburban electorate interested mainly in jobs and (high school) education for their kids.

At the same Monash University event attended by Dr Nadel, a present-day student complained that at least Dr Nadel got coverage. Now, the student complained, they are ignored. This is as it should be.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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