Following the election of a conservative government, a peaceful, non-partisan group of Australian citizens decided to organize a nationwide protest against the policies of the federal government. March in March was a chance for citizens to express their disagreement over the governments decisions. Vagabond Journey was there to see what they had to say.
The first signs seemed promising. The Coburg train station platform was filling with up people. An unusual sight for 11.30 am on a Sunday. I was with my housemate who had looked up the timetable and we arrived with five minutes to spare before our city loop train appeared.
I optimistically texted my wife, who wasn’t able to join us that day. It’s looking good. Already lots of people at the station.
It could be the crowd for the Grand Prix, she replied (it was also being held that day).
I scanned the crowd. I saw the usual assortment of rag tag hipsters with beards and ironic shirts. One girl had a brown t-shirt with a cartoon animation of the Golden Girls. “Thank you for being a Friend” in circular 70s psychedelic writing. Unassuming skateboarders mixed with black-clad ferals. As we boarded the train I noticed a few cardboard placards. “Stop the votes!” and “Not in my name!” It didn’t appear to be a Grand Prix crowd.
March in March. Around the country in major population centres a Facebook call to arms had been issued. On September 7th of last year Australia had brought in a conservative led government known as the Coalition (the Liberal party and the Australian National Party), led by Tony Abbott. They had replaced the minority government led by the Labor and Green parties, a legislatively successful government that was doomed by infighting and bickering and smothered by a national media that fed off the soap opera nature of the leadership struggle within the Labor party.
The protest was envisioned as a chance to rally the troops against the relatively new government. The new Coalition government has been acting fast to make the necessary changes (budget cuts) to shore up the national debt and restoring ‘values’ and ‘trust’ in the government. Most Aussies who are on the left side of the political aisle have reacted in horror to many of the proposed cuts that range from peer support for people struggling with drug addiction to threats to freeze the single mothers’ pension.
Australians are also coming to grips with a reemergence of a strand of social conservatism being peddled by the new government. New Zealand, a country often jokingly derided by Australians in a manner akin to sibling rivalry, recently legalized same-sex marriage and is experimenting with drug legalization. Similar changes are afoot in the USA, at least on a state level. The Abbott led government, on the other hand, has seemingly brought a “Father knows best” Catholic conservatism to the top job. In some of his first acts as Prime Minister, he did away with the Ministry of Science and appointed a man (himself) the head of women’s affairs.
Perhaps even more egregious in many people’s minds is his asylum seeker policy, which claims that no refugee seeking asylum will ever be granted residency status in Australia. Since the infamous Tampa incident, when John Howard was prime minister, the debate over the solution to the refugee situation has become the emotional wedge that has divided the country politically. Like any emotional issue, there is no quick fix. The previous government, led by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard also adopted a hard-line refugee policy. The Coalition claims that in a few short months the refugees have ground to a halt, but it is hard to judge whether the policy is working, as the government has put a muzzle on all press conferences on the issue, and the majority of updates are given from a weekly press release.
Our train arrived at Melbourne Central Station and we alighted and went up the several flights of stairs and made our way to the front of the State Library, in the heart of the CBD. Already there was a crush of people, many more than I had expected. We crossed the tram lines and tried to find a place in the pressing crowd. In the center of the library’s lawn speeches were being given, but it was hard through the low din of the crowd and the echo of the PA system to make out what was being said. We walked on the outskirts of the mass, hesitant to plant ourselves directly in the thick of the crowd.
As we meandered around the library grounds, basking in the chants, texts were sent and phone calls made. For what is a protest without the company of a few friends? Eventually alliances were formed and the march began. It was to go down Swanston St, which is the main thoroughfare of Melbourne, turn left on Bourke St and then finish at Treasury Gardens behind the Parliament building for more speeches.
One of the criticisms of the protest was that it had no central theme, it was too disheveled and lacked a cohesive center. This was apparent in the wide array of grievances on display. Placards showed disagreement over the governments new adoption policy (“Stop intra-country adoption”), its environmental policy (‘There is no Planet B”), to the sixties rip-off (“The world is watching”), to just downright disdain (“Fuck Tony Abbott”).
It is always a rush to walk smack down the middle of a major street with thousands of other souls. Even today it feels naughty and gives the city a slight anarchic edge. It is fun to imagine the commuters on the tram busy checking there watches and stock reports suddenly befouled by a group of socially conscious radicals. Somehow even the tops of the skyscrapers look different from the middle of the road and the seemingly stunned (I would like to say jealous) looks of the of the diners sitting in the restaurants that line the streets.
As much as anything else protests are a great chance to see people you haven’t seen in awhile, with the electricity of thousands of people around you.
“Happy New Year,” a work colleague shouted to me, repeating an inside joke from our office.
“Lawrence Lawrence!,” down the street away I saw another co-worker who gave me the thumbs up.
The march continued to the Parliament building where people ran and sat up the grand front steps and it was a beautiful moment, as the dark billowing clouds sat above us and the wind started to pick up, taking the energy of the group with it. Our group made its way to Treasury Gardens as rain started to spit down from the sky.
“This is Tony Abbott’s fault too!” one of my mates yelled to laughter from those standing around us.
At this point I was hoping for a rousing speech, or something similarly inspiring for us to focus on. Instead the rag-tag say-what-you-want ideals came to the fore. With the crowd swelling the time was right for a call to arms, a unification of the assorted ideals given voice throughout the day. Anger is born out of hope and it was time for someone to tell us that ours was not a false hope or idea, that steps were to be taken that would lead us to the better future we all wanted. I was hoping for a channeling of 1935 FDR, but this was not the case.
Instead, what I guessed were uni students started a shrill diatribe of boilerplate slogans. We care about the environment, yea! We love the Earth, yea! Nothing to latch onto, treating the populace like infants.
Slowly the crowd started peeling away. The excuses were at the same time flimsy, but valid.
“It might start to rain.”
“I do have a lot of homework.”
“I have to work tomorrow.”
“I’m hungry, anyone want dumplings?”
The next speaker (I was told this, I didn’t actually hear) said Tony Abbott was intentionally heating the earth for a return of the lizard people. Time to make a move.
We walked back to a Vietnamese noodle soup restaurant. As I sat down to enjoy my pho, I noticed placards against the wall and others wearing shirts that said “I’m ashamed ” over the Australian flag. Our soup came and we pulled red chopsticks out of our containers and started digging in. I again took a look around at the other protesters and thought for a small morning inconvenience the proprietor is now turning a handy little profit.
“Protests are good for business,” I flatly stated.
Outside the restaurant the wind had picked up and the sky was continuing to bruise. It mirrored my own emotions of the day. From sunny optimism in the morning to dark broodiness, a bitter wind. The whole exercise suddenly seemed vain and pointless. We walked a ways down Swanston St and I noted its normalcy. Its streets buzzing with the busy Sunday business. I parted ways with my friend and took the tram instead of the train, easier to fare evade and I would be damned if I wasn’t going to at least feel like a pest.
I thought about this on my tram ride back to Coburg. Had our economic model swallowed up our means of public protest?
I saw a newspaper on the tram and instantly wondered what the Herald Sun (owned by NewsCorp, Australia’s version of Fox News) would say and how the whole charade would be instantly turned into a ‘he said, she said’ argument. Rightists and Leftists, everyone with their own agenda. With the advent of personalized news the idea of broader public consensus seems more remote and maybe that is why the speakers and the protesters seemed so divided, everyone was simply speaking to the narrow group of people who agreed with them.
I wondered a lot about the fractured nature of the Left and whether or not in twenty years we would all be going to shopping malls for fresh air. A sense of anger and melancholia sat next to me on the tram. Maybe this government is what the people of Australia really want. Where are the reasoned and nuanced statesman to make it clear what we believe in, without the need to be so shrill. Or maybe it is all too clear that we are on our own.