What do we want?  Grumpy old men at the National Library of Australia (book launch!)

What do We Want?Last night at the National Library of Australia two grumpy old men talked about social movements and protest.  That doesn’t sound too enthralling, does it? But the event – hosted by the NLA, and the launch of the book “What Do We Want: the story of protest in Australia”    was a thoughtful, passionate and even (perhaps!) inspiring event.

After the normal welcomes and acknowledgement of country, Clive Hamilton took to the podium to graciously list all the people who’d been involved in the realisation of the rather beautiful book (think a cross between a solid piece of academic research and a coffee table book, lavishly illustrated with brilliant photos and images; I only don’t have a copy because if I bring one more book home, the Amazing Wife will d.i.v.o.r.c.e me).  He admitted that three years ago he’d turned down the initial suggestion he write it, but a month later changed his mind, and was very glad, having ‘never had so much fun in the writing and selecting images’.  He especially thanked the NLA staff and his research assistant Jemma Williams.

Hamilton then sat and had a conversation about the book and the history of Australian social movements/protests and their impacts with Jack Waterford, a journo and raconteur.  The two have known each other since the Vietnam War Moratorium mobilisations in 1970, recalling that a senior Liberal politician characterised the marchers as ‘political bikies pack-raping democracy’).  Waterford riffed on this, invoking the Marlon Brando movie ‘The Wild Ones’ and the famous ‘what are you rebelling against/what have you got?’ line.

The conversation ranged freely, and it’s impossible to capture the nuance. So, some bullet points-

  • Hamilton pointed out that all movements have a cautious ‘don’t scare the horses/let’s show how respectable wing’’ and a ‘we’re sick of waiting’ wing, and that over time the cautious wing (institutioanlised, funded) has won out.
  • Waterford responded to this with reminisces of the ‘Black Power’ rhetoric and imagery of some indigenous activists (see here too), and how in response the mainstream papers were suddenly saying ‘yes, Aborigines have legitimate grievances x, y and z, but this is too much’ – where previously grievances x,y and z had not been admitted.  [Another example of what the pointy-headed academics who study this stuff call ‘the radical flank effect’]
  • In a conversation about a possible lack of humour/mockery in the movements nowadays “BUGA Up” (which the author remembers well) were billboard defacers from Sydney, who took careful and accurate aim at the tobacco and drinks industries.  Nowadays it’d be called ‘culture jamming’.  Personally, I was always more astonished by the ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’.
  • Waterford reminisced about a magistrate (Pat O’Shane, my squiggles say) acquitting protesters who had been charged with defacing advertisements by agreeing that indeed yes, the adverts were sexist.
  • Hamilton offered ‘three cheers for political correctness’, tracing its roots back to the (self-mocking) days when Maoists carried around their little red book, pointing out that it’s about showing respect and not being a douche (my words), no matter how the term has been hijacked by the right as a handy tool of opprobrium.
  • Hamilton pointed out that while the left won the ‘cultural’ battles, the right has won the economic arguments [up to – and weirdly beyond – 2008].  Of the five movements he covers in the book – peace, feminism, LGBT, indigenous and environment) they both agreed that the LGBT has been the most successful.  In talking about the George Duncan case (a gay law lecturer killed by off duty police in Adelaide when they threw him in the Torrens, not realising he couldn’t swim), Waterford pointed out that it was the editor of the ANU’s student newspaper, Woroni, who went to Adelaide, came back to Canberra and wrote a piece naming names who got things moving. His story was then picked up by the Adelaide Advertiser (back then, still a proper newspaper) and pressure mounted for something to be done.  There was an interesting discussion about Hanson’s One Nation, Trump and Brexiters as a response to the cultural changes (from the left) and the economic changes (‘economic rationalism/neoliberalism’) people feeling disorientated and not consulted on these changes.
  • Waterford pointing out that in 1981/2 John Howard, in the Liberal Cabinet, was challenging Malcolm Fraser’s position on apartheid (Fraser was up for sanctions, Howard wasn’t).  He pointed out that the culture wars are unable to turn the clock fully back, but the right-wing culture warriors have become adept at throwing a dead cat into the room to cause outrage, and that Howard was good at creating distractions (getting the Age to fulminate about the wrong thing).
  • The final topic was the fraught one of how social media does (not) help with changing minds and mobilising.  Clicktivism etc etc.  Hamilton urged protestors to take a risk and have a sense of humour.  Hamilton suggested that if the Galilee Basin goes ahead (and the Queensland government seems very determined then the protests may outstrip the Franklin Dam protests. We shall see…

While they spoke, dozens of images from the book were flashed up behind them, an inducement – if any were required – for the large (and largely grey) audience to part with some of their super for a super book.


There was only time for three questions, sadly.  The first came from Blair Palese of 350.org. She asked if the attacks on charities today are unprecedented.

Waterford thought they were, but argued that the ‘left’ had set themselves up for it by accepting government cash.  Hamilton recalled that after he gave a critical speech at an event 15 or so years ago, a government minister had approached one of the event’s organisers and said ‘why do you bite the hand that feeds you’.

[FWIW, I would argue that while the attacks are bigger, the 2002-4 efforts by the Howard government, where they hired the IPA to be their goons in an attack on charitable status, are a fair precursor.]

The second question was on the Iraq War demonstrations of 2003, and their effect, given how much bigger they were than the Vietnam War protests.

Hamilton talked about how governments are now more adept at handling these things, and Wateford pointed out that the difference was the Vietnam War had actually been popular until the late 60s, with the ALP getting slaughtered on the issue in the 1966 Federal election.

The final question (from me) was about hope – I said that it had been possible to believe you could transform/democratise the State, but now, with the juggernaut of climate change as well, things looked bleak – what would you say to someone who said ‘why bother?’

Waterford admitted that a council of despair is possible, but we must remember that movements DO sometimes succeed.  He also lamented the lack of charismatic politicians in Australia of late, with Pauline Hanson about as ‘good’ as it gets.

Hamilton made a good observation, using feminism as an example.  After first wave feminism won the vote, things went quiet, but there was still activity (what the social movements guys call ‘abeyance).  And if you could speak to a feminist activist in 1960, they would say ‘nothing is going to change, the patriarchy is too entrenched, there’s no hope’

That was a wrap, and then there was wine and (too few!) nibbles upstairs.  Future events at the NLA look good (see here).   Call me a crushing snob – Jodi Piccoult?!

Addendum – What DO we need, then?
I was unconvinced by the answer to my question.  Charismatic leaders are a perhaps necessary but certainly not sufficient answer to the ‘what do we need’ question.  I think we need social movement organisations that are capable of growing, learning, organising and winning.  That are capable of not becoming dependent on either the State’s money (always with strings, and the strings can become a noose) or its good graces.  That are capable of escaping the stale repertoires of marches and rallies and other emotathons.  That are able to escape the smugosphere – where things are done not because they might succeed, but because they are in the comfort zone of organisers looking to attain or sustain their status within their own particular mileu.

We need movements where people can stick around, and WANT to stick around, even when they become busier with kids/sick parents/heavy workloads, where they are able to exercise the skills and knowledge they have and acquire NEW skills and knowledge.  Here’s a blog post about how a social movement organisation could –  in a fun way – go about identifying skills and knowledge that it had and that people in a room wanted…. See also here.

All the while, of course, the carbon dioxide accumulates.  (The Australian centre that measures that accumulation has the appropriate name Cape Grim.)

Other books readers may find useful

Verity Bergmann’s 1993. Power and Protest: Movemetns for Change in Australian Society.  I haven’t read  Power, Profit & Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2003, but it is probably very good!

Allen, Y and Noble, J. 2016. Breaking the Boundaries: Australian activists tell their stories. Adelaide: Wakefield Press

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