Clive Hamilton on how protest works

Successful movements always start with just a handful of people, according to Clive Hamilton, but now is the time to take more risks to protest on climate, he says.

Six major social movements – the peace movement, women’s liberation, LGBTIQ rights, Indigenous rights, social justice and the environmental movement – are documented in Clive Hamilton’s new book, What do we want? – The story of protest in Australia.

It is part photo essay on each movement, and a written historical and philosophical analysis of how the movements unfolded and what they have achieved in terms of reshaping both public and private discourse in our country.

Given the events of the US election and the grassroots agitation around all of these issues that is ongoing in Australia, it is also extremely timely.

There is something to inspire hope, for example, in seeing how the early days of the Indigenous rights movement gathered momentum and achieved major milestones, including the rights of full citizenship for Aboriginal people, land rights and the apology by Kevin Rudd on behalf of all Australians in 2008.

Some of the protests are amusing, like the brilliant work by BUGA UP on tobacco billboards in the 1970s, others like the Franklin River campaign, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras or the Vietnam Moratorium marches have become iconic parts of the Australian narrative.

For anyone struggling to comprehend how democracy can go pear-shaped, as many are in the wake of the US election, it is a fundamental reminder that democracy does not just happen at the ballot box. It is also something that happens on T-shirts, on the streets, in the forests, outside US bases or refugee internment camps, on the coal-loading dock and on the nightly news.

The Fifth Estate spoke with Hamilton recently about the book and about the role of protest in creating positive change.

He said the topics and the content for them “mostly fell into place by themselves”.

The protests were chosen on the basis of their importance, their entertainment value and the availability of images. The images were chosen to “honour the activists” and the act of protesting in its myriad forms.

Overall, they give a good representation of the evolution of major social movements, he said.

These movements were successful in transforming Australian society. The process of transformation was often tense and difficult. Sometimes violent.

“A lot of people suffered and had to be really brave,” Hamilton said.

“These movements confronted the deepest elements of Australian society.”

Young gay people who protested, for example, would have to tell their families they were gay. That would often be the most difficult thing they would ever do, he said, and yet it had to be done.

“The drama on a national stage had to be played.”

Climate change is one of the threads of the environmental movement section, and it is something Hamilton has been writing about since 1995.

It became more and more significant for him as he became more and more scared, he said.

In the 2000s, it outranked every other issue, however, the major environment groups were still not seeing what was “so obvious”.

Hamilton said this was a “great tragedy” as it meant the movement lost about 10 years of potential momentum. Now, it completely dominates environmental campaigning.

“I wish it had happened earlier and [the groups] had been willing to take risks in protest and up the stakes.”

It takes a while for people to “take up arms” he said. The anti-Vietnam war movement for example had its first protest in 1963 and up until 1968 was a fringe movement. But between 1968 and 1972 there was a massive surge of activity.

“Things can happen very fast sometimes.”

Of all the movements, Hamilton said the Indigenous rights movement had been the “most difficult and in some ways the least successful”.

By contrast, the women’s movement and the gay rights movement were successful at changing society.

“The sources of Indigenous repression run very deep in Australia. You can abolish racist laws but you can’t abolish racist attitudes.”

We also have people who are “manifestly racist” elected to the Australian Senate, he added.

“We shouldn’t think the advances were granted [to Indigenous people] – they were won by Indigenous people through a long and determined struggle.”

After finishing the book, Hamilton said he was left feeling that having reviewed the social history of our last decades that Australia has been transformed in ways that were unimaginable in the past.

The environment and Indigenous movements still have some way to go.

The progress on all fronts has come with its own process and contradictions.

The market, for example, has been quick to exploit the demands for individual rights with marketing angles around “create a self”.

The sexual freedoms won by women’s and LGBTIQ rights movements have been exploited by all sorts of people, Hamilton said.

“I think unwittingly most of the progress has been a double-edged sword.”

He said the market could embrace women’s rights, gay rights and Indigenous rights because they did not threaten it. Climate change, however, and the way the earth is being transformed, does.

“The environmental movement really does challenge the power of the wealthiest companies.”

For example, a proper carbon tax would see steel and concrete industries affected, while timber, which can be a renewable industry, would benefit.

Hamilton said this had started to happen before the carbon tax was abolished.

It starts with a handful of people

All of the movements in the book started with a handful of people. That’s how protest works.

“You have to have the radical elements. The fringe elements challenge the foundations of society.

“Without those small groups and individuals beginning the protests, those big transformations wouldn’t have happened.”

There is always a radical wing to any movement, and a moderate wing, and they are “always in contention”.

It’s the tension of being in the system versus being out of it.

The contrast between the Indigenous warrior Pemulwuy and Bennelong  –  “the conciliator who collaborated”, for example.

In the 1970s there were two kinds of activists, those in the system, and those outside it, such as those who established the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972 on the lawns outside Old Parliament House.

“Some people believe the system can be changed from within by gradual means; others believe it has to be overthrown.”

Hamilton gave another example, University of Sydney lecturer and gay rights activist Lex Watson, who said, “We are not going to wait for society to be ready to give us our rights, we are going to confront society and demand our rights.”

The same can be seen in the movements around climate change and coal, which has two elements. One element is the groups working within the system, such as WWF; the others are the grassroots anti-coal protesters that want to challenge the system.

The need common to all, though, is that some kind of shift is needed to shake the whole system up and really make a change.

The divestment movement proving to be very effective

The divestment movement, which is very much within the system, is proving to be very effective. However Hamilton said he tells young activists to “take more risks”.

“This issue is massive.”

The activities of “peaceful radicals” in terms of the issue are “justified in moral terms”.

A worrying sign is that the government is passing increasingly draconian laws in anticipation of greater protest.

“We need more kinds of protest.”

Lock The Gate is a good example, and has shown itself to have made an impact on decisions at an electoral level in the Liverpool Plains area.

While protest will not make climate change go away, it can help stop a lot more of it being locked in.

“I hope that one of the impacts of the book will be to send a message to readers that protest in Australia has proven to be enormously inventive and creative, in radical, effective and sometimes humorous forms of protest.

“There are more forms yet to be invented.”

What do we want? – The story of protest in Australia is published by National Library of Australia Publishing.

More Articles on this Topic