It seems to me that if our elected government is to have legitimacy, it must necessarily take on certain responsibilities. I propose that at least one of these is to provide quality, affordable education to its constituents so as to advance the society that it governs. The steady relinquishment of this responsibility to the market-driven private sector cannot rightly be called responsible governance. Do we want a tertiary education system where the content and affordability is driven by a market-based entity that is concerned not with the advancement of society but by the accumulation of profit? This question has spurred students to make their views known to those in power who are currently transferring the provision of our country’s education to corporations. This is happening while these government ministers continue to accept the handsome salaries of those who would actually take on the responsibility of providing and managing such education themselves.
Some professional commentators, such as those on Yahoo7, have called the latter part of Wednesday’s Victorian student rally ‘ugly’ and ‘violent’. In my opinion, it was neither. The sit-in that occurred in front of parliament house after the main rally was, in fact, relatively well-organised and provided a real example of subversive yet peaceful direct action. As many publications have failed to point out, the relatively large minority group organised itself autonomously and liaised with police through an older, more experienced activist, a man who had addressed the crowd of five thousand or more that participated in the earlier part of the rally.
These activists, not least the young woman identified as Talullah, knew what they were there for and accordingly conducted themselves with ideological and tactical unity. They did not simply decide to sit in the road and cause trouble. They employed a tried and tested tactic known as a “sit-in.” This tactic has a history in the peace movement, women’s movement, the gay and queer movements, indigenous land rights struggles, environmental movements, worker’s movements and of course the civil rights movement in the USA and elsewhere.
As a group, the protesters conducted themselves respectfully, were committed to their action and refrained from overly inflammatory behaviour or overt provocation of police. As individuals, some may have engaged in more profanity and aggressive behaviour than did others. The police, to their credit, did not employ unnecessary brutality (that I saw). The group forced police to do their job. In doing so, they attracted more media attention and exemplified what is known as direct action, which stems from the idea that true power is taken, not given.
What we saw on Wednesday was an example of how grassroots actors can take a movement beyond state-sanctioned peaceful protest and into the realm of civilly subversive yet peaceful action. This form of action may come as a shock to a nation in which the current generation of students has never had to fight for or defend anything. We are being shaken from our state of political apathy. We may actually have to organise resistance. This resistance can take many forms.
The Victorian rally was an unmitigated success that even the channel seven news called “a lesson in unity”. We ought to be proud. We ought also to pay attention to movements above and beyond the (well organised and brilliantly executed) National Union of Students rally. Sit-ins, lock-ons and civil disobedience do not just happen. They have grown out of a rich history of resistance and are used time and again as a way to indicate indignation against the policies and actions of institutions like the Coalition government. This is a time of heightened political movement and mobility. This is a time of potential radicalisation and a new, vigorous student movement that, like the climate, is just warming up. As a student and an independent member of the Monash Education Action Group, I stand in solidarity with those who conducted the sit-in.