In Protest: The effectiveness of student rallies in Australia
Words by: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Image credit: Theconversation
Student protests have been a part of Australian society as early as the 1960s. An increase in the student population gave rise to activism over a series of issues such as the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, women’s liberation, and Aboriginal rights movements. In the ensuing years, as the student protests gained momentum, the John Gorton government in 1969 feared that these protests were getting out of hand, afraid that they might escalate towards the kind of violence that took place in Paris in May 1968, when students built up barricades. Gorton issued the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act passed in May 1971. This Act prevented protests in Canberra and on Commonwealth premises.
Today, student protests have become recognized to the Australian government and society. In Western Australia alone, rallies have been organized at universites like University of Western Australia, Murdoch, Curtin and Edith Cowan. Most recently to protest against the Federal budget cuts for higher education. The Australia-wide May 21st 2014 student protests resulted in arrests in Melbourne and Sydney during a sit-in.
“Sitting-in” is a popular tactic often used by students during protests, since it was seen as peaceful means to disruptive ends. Public records state that the government was concerned by this tactic, internally debating whether or not the “sit-in” could be declared as a violent act or if the “sitting-in” protesters could be charged with trespassing.
These protests generally garner support from the public, especially in the instance of UWA students and staff remonstrating Bjorn Lomborg’s place at the world-renowned university. Lomborg’s controversial views on climate change have sparked outrage, and the UWA Student Guild has called for the University of Western Australia’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson to reject the $4 million offered by the Federal Government for the construction of the Australian Consensus Centre at the UWA Business School. They also demanded that he prevent the involvement of Bjorn Lomborg.
On the 25th of March 2015, university students participated in the National Day of Action (to protest against the ongoing attacks on education. A nationwide rally, protests were held in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane, Tasmania, and Wollongong. Culminating in 1500 students marshalling to fight against fee deregulation. According to the National Union of Students Education Officer for Western Australia and Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance member, Gavin Scolaro said; it was a move for free education, stating further the fears of students that there will be more education cuts in the May Budget. Despite Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s reform Bill having failed twice in the Senate, there is a fair chance that he will try to introduce it again.
The Perth protests began with confusion due to a last minute decision by the National Union of Students (NUS) to change the venue of the rally from Murray Street Mall to Parliament House, resulting in around forty to fifty bewildered students showing up at Murray Street Mall with placards wondering why there was no rally. The students who received the location change update and arrived at Parliament House called the rally a demobilized rally, claiming that the original plan was to meet at Murray Street Mall and then march to Parliament House as a group. NUS asserted that their reason for changing the venue was because they were afraid of possible police brutality, which has been debunked by students saying that countless peaceful protests have taken place at the Murray Street Mall before, without police authorisation.
In light of this, the student movement in Australia seems to be facing a serious problem of demobilisation, which an increasing number of students believe is due to organisational, tactical, and political issues with NUS.
All of this begs the question: are student protests effective or are they unnecessary?
In a country like Australia which prides itself on its democratic values, I would say that these protests are necessary. While the effectiveness of such rallies are debatable, they are necessary in getting across the public voice—or if not the public voice, then the voice of those who are affected and angered by a political decision, bringing to attention the discontent and/or faults with said decision. A democracy demands the people’s input, and a democracy that attempts to stifle the voices of the people is not a democracy.
How well the government responds to these protests remains to be seen.