Originally published by Independent Australia, 30 May 2014.
[This short protest essay has quite the backstory. At the time, a Tony Abbott led Liberal National Coalition party was in government in Australia and had proposed a rather unpopular budget. What bristled many was the claim the party was making to having a “popular mandate” from “the people” to do effectively what the party wanted spending wise. If you do the math, and well we did in a different essay, it’s quite clear to see that no such mandate exists, at least not beyond a substantive minority. Mark Chou and I were teaching together at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) at the time and were fielding questions from angry students who were, to put it plainly, rather unconvinced by the option to contest the legitimacy of the budget (and ruling party!) when the next election rolled around. They wanted to counter it, now, and sought advice on how to do so. Our first port of call was The Conversation when we got our ideas together and, well, things went smoothly initially, including the creation of an infographic on how to challenge the budget, but someone higher up the editorial line pulled the plug on the piece at the eleventh hour: it was, we were told, just too risky a proposition to publish. They didn’t want to chance legal action from the government. Thankfully, we were saved by Independent Australia. Happy reading. Oh, and we got to keep the infographic — see below.]
MAY 13 saw the Coalition hand down its first budget. The response since has been one long story of protest and opposition. Even State Premiers have banded together to reject the proposed changes.
It’s now looking likely that Premiers will ask Senators to staunchly oppose the bill.
The budget, it’s been argued, is heavy-handed, unjust and illogical. Most Australians don’t want the budget to pass in its current form. Nor do a number of elected representatives, including several Liberal MPs.
But so far, it’s primarily been opposition political parties making their case about how they plan to block the budget. Is there anything that we, as citizens, can do to block the budget in our own right?
There are at least two approaches.
The first is from ‘within’ the system and the second is from ‘without’ the system. In the past week or so, Australians have already shown their resolve on both fronts. Yet if we want to pressure the government to change their path, more Australians still need to act.
One key form of action is hardly new: communicate directly with MPs and Senators. The aim here is to petition federal representatives (Liberal, Labor, National, Green, PUP, independents, and so on) to maintain their political opposition on your behalf.
Contacting Senators is particularly important since the government lacks a majority in the upper house. Email them. Send them tweets, Facebook posts or even snail mail. If you can, try to visit them in person at their office. Don’t just make noise: make a clear case against the budget.
You can protest. But protesting from within means that you must be ready to back up your revolt with a plan for a positive alternative. Direct your displeasure at government legitimately; make it difficult for your representative to dismiss you as just another protester. Here, it’s not just citizens who need to act. Political parties and parliamentarians must be ready to respond.
We saw what shape this type of action can take recently when tens of thousands took to city streets across the country to protest against the proposed budget. The so-called March in May rallies united people from all cross-sections of society left disenchanted with their government’s plan for their future.
But this was not just any protest. It wasn’t just rants and marches. Political parties, such as the Greens, were also out in force and they’re asking for people to share their stories and proposals. They want everyday perspectives to bring back to Canberra. This is the type of representative politics we need — the type that depends on our active participation.
Public servants, many of whom may soon face the axe, can also play a role from within. Before departments close and the projected 16,500 public servants are forced from their jobs, they can strike — even for an hour. In solidarity with colleagues, and as a symbolic gesture, public servants can show government that efficiency comes with costs.
Try running a government, even for an hour, with insufficient staff and see what happens. Sometimes, you just can’t do more with less. It’s not just about economic benefits. It’s not even about a ‘smaller, less interfering government’, as Joe Hockey put it. It’s about the public and how they’ll no longer be served by the government that’s supposedly there to represent them.
The other form of action — which can overlap with the first — is often advocated by those outside formal political institutions. This form of action is about peacefully disrupting the continuity of everyday life. It’s about challenging the system until the government gives in or a new election is called.
The indigenous Idle No More movement in Canada serves as an instructive example. Protests, marches, sit-ins, boycotts, and the like can be headline grabbing. But how often do they truly impact the decisions of leaders? Protest is easily dismissed or, worse still, condemned.
Take the recent demonstration on Q&A for example. Not only were the students dismissed by Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, they were condemned by host, Tony Jones, who chided:
But what Idle No More does so well in the Canadian context is to protest where it matters. By peacefully blocking things like major highways, commercial railway lines (a useful technique for protesters in country Australia) and the gates of major ports, they target the national economy. They force a response from government. In Canada, the government has responded and even entered into dialogue with the movement.
For those not able or inclined to challenge the budget from within, this may be your route. For those who feel un-represented by political parties — even minor parties like the Greens or PUP — there is no need to speak truth to power through an intermediary. You can stand together as citizens and associations.
Some of the techniques used recently in Thailand, or during the height of the Occupy/Indignados Movements are also helpful. Peacefully and consistently blocking busy inner-city roads and the entrances to train stations, ferries, and airports has the effect of annoying others that would rather stay out of politics. It spreads the message through irritation as those inconvenienced by the protest are more likely to petition the government to resolve the issue.
Of course, state response to peaceful mass protest has the unfortunate tendency to turn violent. Rather than dialogue with demonstrators, governments have a habit of shutting down rallies and evicting occupiers. Just last week, students protesting the proposed changes to higher education as part of the budget initiatives were dragged from the streets by police.
Still, this is no reason not to try. Remember: in many other democracies, it’s not uncommon to occupy public spaces for prolonged periods of time. It shouldn’t be in ours either.
Combining strategies from within and without will weaken the government’s resolve and strengthen the opposition case. But there are provisos. Both strategies need to be performed non-violently. Violence de-legitimises democratic opposition. Both strategies must have the same goal in this instance: block the budget by putting forward a more just and measured alternative.
There should also be a clear follow-up policy for the government. Following the world’s first Citizens Parliament run in Australia more than 5 years ago, we would recommend that a citizens’ deliberative assembly be created to thoroughly investigate the budget. Economic reforms should then be made in line with the assembly’s recommendations.
In an age brimming with democratic innovations, it’s a shame that a government can ask a panel composed of people with possible conflicts of interest to review an entire country’s budget. It’s appalling that a government can use dodgy numbers to breed uncertainty and fear in the electorate.
Australians should be thinking seriously about how we got ourselves into this situation in the first place.
Australia budget democracy democratic democratic alternatives democratic theory democratization Jean-Paul Gagnon Mark Chou philosophy political theory protest