March 17, 2014

The view from Billinudgel

March in March

By Mungo MacCallum
March in March

The organisers of March in March are understandably chuffed. The weekend saw demonstrations numbering many thousands in the cities and bigger than expected crowds in many of the regions. For an event arranged at short notice and built from the grass roots, it was an impressive result.

But it should be put in its context. The most successful Australian protests of modern times were undoubtedly the moratoriums of the 1960s and 70s. One moratorium in Melbourne alone brought some 100,000 into the streets, more than all those who marched around Australia over the weekend. And the reason was that it was sharply focussed: the aim was to end Australian involvement in the Vietnam war, a clearly defined objective which galvanised the crowds.

A similar clarity of purpose could be applied to the artists who withdrew from the Sydney Biennale last week. I, along with many others, have been critical of the way they went about it and the end result their action, but they were single-minded in their intention: they objected to the involvement of one of the Biennale sponsors, Transfield, in the atrocity of the concentration camp on Manus Island and they demanded that the Biennale ditch the firm; which the organisers did. The consequences have not been pretty, but at least they spelled out exactly what they were about.

March in March by contrast, adopted the scattergun approach. Protestors over asylum seeker policy mingled with those unhappy about climate change and the cuts to the science budget, those worried about GM food and unrestricted imports, opponents of the government’s attacks on the trade unions and the ABC, the ditching of the Gonski reforms and the trashing of the environment, supporters of gay marriage, those angry about the lack of women in Tony Abbott’s cabinet – you name it, they were there.

Now all these are thoroughly worthwhile causes in themselves, but when they are mixed into one all-embracing protest, they lose their edge. What the media recorded, at least in the excerpts I have seen, was not a sharply defined demand for action and change, but a disgruntled crowd who were simply against the government – any government, always had been, always would be: perilously close to a bunch of professional whingers.

And that was why I, and many of my friends, stayed home at the weekend. But rest assured, we are not like the ALP leader Bill Shorten, whose half-hearted and wimpy response was to say that people had a right to express themselves, but to dissociate Labor from the protests – doesn’t he want those thousands of votes? The fire has not gone out of our bellies; we have protested before and will do so again. It’s just a matter of getting the basics right – what do we want and when do we want it. While I didn’t march in March, I certainly may in May. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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