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Hundreds of thousands of Australians marched against the deployment of Australian troops to Iraq. Simon Mossman/AAP

What do we want? Charting the rise and fall of protest in Australia

In 1965, when a few hundred anti-Vietnam War protesters in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra staged Australia’s first ever sit-down demonstrations, the authorities were apoplectic. How dare these agitators block the traffic and defy authority?

At the 1970 Vietnam Moratorium rallies around Australia, 200,000 marched against the war. Even the police were afraid. It was seen as a turning point in our history. The game was up. Our troops would have to be withdrawn from Vietnam, and across the nation people came to believe that taking to the streets could change the world.

In 2003, when the government under John Howard deployed troops to fight in Iraq, 600,000 Australians marched in protest. It was a number never approached before and in all likelihood will never be exceeded. But despite their massive size, the protests were simply ignored.

Many of those who had joined the rallies became disillusioned. In Australia and other places where similar protests proved futile, demonstrators could no longer believe that marching in the streets could make a difference.

Today protests have become a commonplace, even banal, part of political life. Back then the tabloids screamed “Mob rule!” and so did the politicians. So debased has the act of protest become that in response to the mining tax in 2010 Australia’s then second-richest person, Gina Rinehart, could mount a flatbed truck and bellow “axe the tax” to an assembly of well-dressed company employees sent along for the cameras.

For those whose understanding of the act of protest was formed in the decades when every demonstration was greeted by the authorities as a threat to the stability of the social order, the protests of some of Australia’s richest left a sick feeling. What had happened since the glory days of protest in the 1960s and 1970s?

Australia’s Vietnam War protests. National Library of Australia

Old left, new left

This is just one of the conundrums I came up against while writing my new book, What Do We Want? The story of protest in Australia, commissioned and published by the National Library of Australia as part of its program of making better use of its rich archives of photos and images.

When we think about the story of protest in Australia we are naturally drawn to the upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s because it was then that powerful waves of dissent broke over Australia. Australians who entered the 1960s feeling comfortable and relaxed soon discovered they were sitting on a volcano.

Compared to the worldview of the Old Left, the new social movements – for peace, women’s liberation, gay rights and Aboriginal justice – understood power and oppression in new and more complex ways. The New Left that grew out of these protest movements focused less on economic inequality and exploitation, and more on forms of oppression embedded in social structures and the broader culture. The target was conservatism rather than capitalism.

Still, the Old Left, tied to the trade union movement, played a vital mobilising role in the rise of the new social movements. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) had long been active in the peace movement and it was natural for it to oppose American and Australian military intervention in Vietnam. Members of its youth wing, the Eureka Youth League, staged perhaps the first demonstration against the Vietnam War as early as 1963.

Women members of the Party were also prominent as the second-wave of feminism took shape. Arguably, the first tremor of the new phase of the women’s movement was felt in 1967 when Zelda D’Aprano – a party member and clerk at the Meatworkers Union – chained herself to the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne in support of equal pay. Three years later she and a friend famously boarded a tram and insisted on paying only 75% of the fare because they were paid only 75% of men’s wages.

Red to green?

Even in the early years of gay liberation, activists who were also members of the CPA had a prominent role, working to radicalise the emerging movement. They argued (wrongly as it turned out) that discrimination against homosexuals was part of the broader pattern of capitalist oppression.

It was this implied solidarity that in 1974 saw the communist-led Builders Labourers Federation place a black ban on work at Macquarie University after the University excluded trainee teacher Penny Short because she had come out as a lesbian.

But ironically, given the hysterical claims of today’s conservatives that environmentalism is little more than socialism dressed in a green disguise, the Old Left played no role in the formation of the modern environment movement. In fact, it was often hostile to what appeared to be a middle-class indulgence.

Environmentalism was originally perceived as a middle-class indulgence. National Library of Australia.

There were exceptions – notably the “green bans” of the early 1970s staged by the Builders Labourers Federation – but, as any climate activist will attest, the battle for a safe climate has until recently been as much with unions as with the “greenhouse mafia” - the group of industry lobbyists who played a key role in climate policy under John Howard.

So the activism of the new social movements of the 1960s challenged the traditional left as well as conservatives. The New Left’s emerging agenda of social change began to eclipse the Old Left, locked as it was into the belief that only organised labour could create a new social order.

When economic change and the rise of the New Right in the 1980s saw the collapse of union power, the Old Left was history.

Clive Hamilton will be discussing his new book with David McKnight at Gleebooks in Sydney at 6 pm on Thursday November 24.

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