Baby, nobody knows the trouble you’ll see
Had I gone mad? I was up at 4:30am and at Bondi Beach at 6:00am to help setup for something I once swore I’d never do again: a political protest.
Which is a big deal. Coming from a family grounded in working class politics, protest marches were just another family activity for me growing up.
Mum stood for a NSW Labor seat and became an effective community health and hospital administrator. Dad was an active Labor Party member too, and legendary ‘Green Ban’ union leader Jack Mundey joined them in singing me happy birthday, one memorable year.
Dad was also the first member of either of my parents’ families to complete high school, get a university degree, and have a profession rather than a trade.
Men in my mother’s family going back generations lived and died their short lives as coal miners. Strikes and other political actions were as much a part of life in a Scottish coal mining community as surfing is in my own.
But if you ask me, the hey-day of strikes and protest marches as an effective lobbying tool in Australia was the ‘70s and ‘80s.
I joined the Young Labor Party as soon as I was 16 and old enough to register, going on to volunteer and protest for the ALP, NDP and my university student union.
It was a great time to be a protestor because we could reach a broad community audience via a media careful to represent both sides of complex issues in detail and without additional spin.
We could easily talk to the whole community this way, who might not all join us in our next action, but they’d tell the newly-important political polling firms when what they’d learned from our action, and it had influenced their voting intentions.
That period ended when conservative politics worldwide suddenly wised-up: it no longer instinctively lashed out like a wounded bear when protests happened and media reported on it.
I think Conservatism had noticed media was changing with a gradual extension of broadcast hours. It was being forced to spend less time on balanced and researched political reporting because it was too slow and too expensive to fill eight, then twelve, then eighteen, and eventually, twenty four hours of programming that way.
Sensational media reporting is much cheaper and faster. The media didn’t need all the facts, or both sides – it believed the audience had lost the patience for all that and just wanted a quick fix: stereotypes, sound bites and grabs, clear labelling of who was right, who was wrong, who should be feared and who should be hated.
Political action made that all too easy. Protest actions make great news entertainment if marchers are portrayed as eccentrics at best, deluded idealists, trouble-makers and dangerous radicals to be feared at worst.
It worked really well, and protesting to show you were unhappy with Government policy became something only troublemakers, dreamers and dangerous people did.
I believe everyone who joined a protest march or strike from that time on actually worked against the outcome they were acting to achieve. The more you showed you cared, the less you were understood and the more you drove away that mainstream audience you needed.
It actually became illegal to protest in the state of Queensland, and the change was widely supported by most of the community, not because protests were actually dangerous to anyone but because most people really believed the media and government’s manipulated messages that these were bomb-throwing anarchists and communists.
Even in relatively enlightened states such as NSW and Victoria it became illegal to mount protest action without a permit from local government and police.
So I had to stop protesting as much as possible. There were still times (oil wars, bass-ackwards renewable energy policy, etc) I couldn’t help it.
But mostly I stayed home and shouted at the television (“She’s not a dangerous radical, you idiot reporter! She’s a primary school teacher/nurse/charity volunteer/somebody’s grandmother!” Or words to that effect).
Since then, nothing’s changed. In fact, it’s worse. What’s changed is me.
I still know that for protest action to be effective in achieving political change, it has to reach a wide audience and convey an unbiased message about participation and diversity and the right to disagree with a government.
Not happening any time soon. Nor has social media helped us do an end-run around the media – if anything, it’s created multiple walled garden media audiences compromising sub-communities of people who all subscribe to the same world-view.
And if there’s a debate, anybody can engage in it, without even needing to know any of the facts. As my wonderful glamactivist friend Claudia said to me this morning, “you no longer need facts, you don’t need to understand the actual issues, you just need to have ‘your opinion’. When did this become a thing?”
Your opinion is sacred, apparently, and it is not to be challenged by anybody, even if they can prove you are wrong with, like, facts, n’ shit.
Reality TV (which has replaced the hours of the broadcast schedule which used to be given to (actual) current affairs and nature documentaries, has taught us how to respond. When someone challenges our sacred opinions with, like, facts ‘n shit, we get offended.
“I’m so offended!” We manage to choke out before going Full Sulk or ALL CAPS OUTRAGE to our friends on our social channels.
All rational, logical debate must then be suspended indefinitely until the offence of “making me feel bad about my opinion with your so-called facts” has been rantily condemned by your social network supporters wailing like professional mourners for long enough that you’re once again distracted by FarmVille or a new episode of “Who Wants To Be Stuck In A Jungle With These Fuckwits” on Channel Major Brands, brought to you by New Product and proudly sponsored by I Can’t Believe It’s Not Government Election Advertising.
So why did I join a protest today and what sort of protest does a guy go to even when he thinks protests are broken?
All across Australia people from all walks of life continue to protest the Government’s plan to return 267 people seeking asylum to indefinite detention on the Pacific’s-shit-sandwich which is Nauru.
It’s bad enough that the Government, Opposition and way too many ordinary Australians feel it’s acceptable to contravene UN treaties by doing this; treaties we signed and agreed to abide by. It’s bad enough that they believe it’s acceptable to take these immoral and inhumane actions to discourage other immoral, inhumane actions by smugglers sending them to risk their death by sea. Bad enough all of this happens without any oversight or monitoring by independent advocates, lawyers, media, UN, churches or charities. Bad enough that you can be jailed for trying to observe it, or for even speaking about it ever again if you’re working on it.
No, what makes it seem more like the actions of a rogue dictatorship than a leading democracy is that this group of 267 includes 54 children (37 babies, some born in Australia) some of whom, according to corroborated witness statements, were victims of sexual assault while in detention.
We’re about to send babies (born in Australia from mothers considered by the UN to be genuine asylum seekers legally entitled to our highest available protection and best possible care) to an indefinite jail term in a secret prison in a failed nation guarded by private contractors already shown to be incapable of providing a safe environment for adults, much less children.
This morning a crowd gathered on Bondi Beach at sunrise, united with GetUp and Amnesty International in the ongoing ‘Let Them Stay’ campaign (#LetThemStay) to voice their objection to this decision to pile a new layer of immorality upon the injustice already resting comfortably on a bedrock of secrecy, xenophobic fear and callous disregard for human rights known as “Border Policy”.
What’s changed for me?
I’ve let go of trying to change voter opinion and of trying to hold elected leaders to moral standards they demand of others.
I’ve also embraced self-expression – I don’t have to achieve change but I do need to speak out, even if it’s only to regain some peace.
I also need to find further avenues for achieving small changes where I can, such as donating to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, donating furniture, books and household items to newly-resettled refugee families in Sydney, and volunteering my time to refugee-focused hackathons. I was inspired today to take further action.
Finally, to be able to look my beautiful, strong, smart and humane teenage son in the eye when he learns of the inhumanity committed by the Australian nation he’s still so naively patriotic about.
I need to be able to tell him I didn’t just shrug my shoulders and look away.
I need to be able to tell him it’s important to care about the big stuff, no matter what our culture tells you about caring only for who might get voted off “I Cook And I’m An Easy Stereotype” on Sunday night, or who sledged their way to an easy century before the twentieth pause for Proudly Brought To You By Your Growing Gambling Addiction.
In other words, I need to show him by doing, that we must all act against immorality and injustice without regard for whether we’ll succeed against it.
“You can’t change the world!” Shouted an angry old man as he passed by me carrying a protest sign.
None of us can, really. I don’t think any of us ever could.
All we can change, is how we respond to how the world tries to change us.
And sometimes, when enough of us do, the world might change for the better.