What is remarkable about Wednesday’s Parliament House protest against detention of asylum seekers is that there has not been a lot more of it. In the history of protest it was a minor event, minimally disruptive and not especially creative.
The media attention it grabbed was due less to its intrinsic reportability than to press gallery boredom and the fact it happened under their noses while the cameras were rolling. When the law-and-order brigade demanded that the book be thrown at the protesters it was dutifully following its part of the script.
Protests have been inseparable from Australia’s social and political history – from the Eureka Stockade and the conscription rallies of 1916 to Captain de Groot’s dramatic unofficial opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932.
Yet when we think about the story of protest in Australia, we usually think first of the 1960s and 1970s, for it was then that powerful waves of dissent broke over the nation. The protest movements transformed our society in ways unimaginable then and often forgotten by young people now.
The dissenters met fierce resistance from a mostly stolid, conservative nation still in the shadow of the patrician post-war prime minister, Robert Menzies. But Australians who entered the 1960s feeling comfortable and relaxed soon felt an earthquake beneath their feet.
Progress does not just happen. It occurs because a few individuals began to demand change. They have to be determined, obstinate and willing to suffer, because those opposed to change are more powerful and typically react with ridicule, anger and, at times, violence.
It’s faded now, but in the 1960s and 1970s one of the most powerful institutions resisting social change was the RSL. Every social movement had to take on the returned soldiers’ organisation.
In the 1960s the Walgett RSL Club enforced a colour bar that extended to Aboriginal diggers. The sleepy club provoked a storm controversy when in 1965 the Freedom Riders arrived and picketed it with signs reading “Good enough for Tobruk. Why not Walgett RSL?”
Then as now, the RSL was the keeper of the Anzac tradition, but the armed forces’ values of regimentation, discipline and conformity represented everything the counterculture rejected and which young people were yearning to escape.
The military’s entanglement in the Vietnam war and the horrors committed against the Vietnamese people tarnished the armed forces for decades, something conveniently forgotten in the recent rehabilitation of Vietnam vets and the mawkish sentimentality that now smothers Anzac Day.
Anzac was also the symbol of Australian masculinity, and so incomprehension mixed with outrage when a vanguard of young feminists arrived at the 1977 Anzac Day parade in Sydney waving placards denouncing rape as a weapon of war.
After all, as one placard read, US soldiers admitted to mass rape in Vietnam, and some of those marching down George Street had fought with them.
Gay Liberation too had to confront the RSL. In 1982 the League’s pugnacious Victorian president Bruce Ruxton stood in the path of members of the Gay Ex-servicemen’s Association to prevent them from laying a wreath at the Shrine of Remembrance.
“I don’t remember a single poofter from world war two,” he growled.
The RSL was not the only bastion of the old world’s homophobia, racism and male privilege. The police forces were just as guilty. When the politicians wanted to teach protesters a lesson they only had to let the police off the leash.
Back then “police brutality” and “Queensland” were almost synonymous. But not only there. The Vietnam Moratorium march in Sydney in September 1970 ended in disarray as police bashed protesters indiscriminately.
And much of the battle for gay rights was a battle against the police, most notoriously in the premeditated violence by police at the first Gay Mardi Gras in 1978. This year the New South Wales police force and the parliament apologised.
Looking back now, the protest movements take on a romantic aura; but, at the time, protesting often had the emotional ugliness of a schoolyard fight. The Age cartoonist Michael Leunig, among the earliest to take to the streets against the war in Vietnam, remembered it like this:
It was a very sinister and disillusioning time. Something really dirty happened back then, and I have never forgotten it. … I saw how paranoid, conservative and insensitive this culture really was.
In those days, transgression was a potent political tool – gay men challenged the law with a public “kiss-in”, feminists chained themselves to the foot rail of a men-only bar, and Aboriginal militants pitched a tent embassy on the lawns of Parliament House, daring politicians to take it down.
As this week’s “glue-in” attests, the story of protest has no end. There was a sense that the protesters had reached the point of desperation, so frustrated had they become with the policy of bi-partisan cruelty.
No one expects the parliamentary disruption to change anything, and yet many protest movements are marked by long phases of apparent futility, until history shifts and makes it all worthwhile.
* Clive Hamilton is the author of What Do We Want? The story of protest in Australia, published by the National Library of Australia.