The 1967 March from the University to the City: Why Marching Still Matters – Adrian Skerritt

This paper was presented on 9 September 2017 at a conference organised by The Civil Liberties ’67 Reunion Committee to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic civil liberties march from The University of Queensland to the centre of Brisbane. Police violence against the marchers that day radicalised many students and ushered in a new period of resistance to authoritarian government in Queensland…

Newman’s assault on the public sector and civil liberties shocked Queensland and made us think about the Bjelke-Petersen years. Some asked – what is it about Queensland that produces such autocratic leaders? But Newman was not a uniquely Queensland phenomena. Rather, he was part of global trend of governments introducing market mechanisms into the public sector, often accompanied by a strong-arm approach to dissent and law and order issues. The Cloudland Collective formed in order to make an argument about the importance of an extra-parliamentary defence of the public sector and civil liberties. People had marched in their thousands against the Nicklin and Bjelke-Petersen governments. We said this was necessary once more.  We wanted the politics that surrounded militant action, such as the 1967 march from the university to the city, to be dominant once again.

Voting for change was fine but it was not the main thing. We noted that the massive mobilisation against war in the US had been folded into the campaign to elect Obama. We also noted that in Queensland the leadership of the labour movement subordinated the movement on the streets to the ALP election campaign. The Cloudland Collective essentially deals with ideas – the idea that strikes and marching create real change – but when and where we can we promote, and at times help shape, community campaigns.

Rather than simply asserting a preference for marching I want to try to make a case for it. I’ll provide a very brief survey of political turmoil in different parts of the world.

Trump and Corbyn

These are volatile times. We have seen voters in Britain decide to bail on Europe. Jeremy Corbyn received a massive vote. Voters in the US have elected a deranged reality-TV personality to run the country. Or more precisely, traditional democratic voters were not sufficiently inspired by an establishment politician like Clinton, and a steady Republican vote saw Trump get over the line. Clinton lost that election. She worked very hard to lose it.

The election of Donald Trump to the White House was a shocking and terrible event. But the mainstream narrative misses an important point about the election. It was not that Trump’s bigotry and economic nationalism won over a decisive section of the white working class. Rather, compared to the 2012 election what we can see is that Democratic support in rustbelt states, in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, collapsed amongst the white working class. Many voted for a third candidate or they stayed at home.

So in the rustbelt states the Democrats lost 1.35 million voters and Trump picked up less than half of that – around 590,000.

If we survey the political landscape of the United States what we find today is that Senator Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the US. The Democratic machine made such a calamitous error in backing Clinton over Sanders. Sanders could have mobilised voters in the rustbelt states around a positive message of protection of jobs without the bigotry.

In contrast, the electoral process in Britain produced something good and quite incredible. At least 13 million people voted for the most left-wing manifesto that has arguably ever featured in a British election. If Corbyn had run in the 1950s his campaign platform would have looked like a fairly left-wing version of a Keynesian social democratic program. He spoke about higher taxes for the rich, borrowing to fund infrastructure, ending privatisation of the national health service, renationalising rail, water, electricity and mail. In the 50s this would have been unremarkable and totally expected from a Labour leader. In the context of neoliberalism, however, this program strikes us now as being radical, almost insurrectionary.

An important part of the Corbyn phenomena has been a large number of young people who have supported his campaign by organising in the community and marching on the streets. They began to be radicalised by the Occupy movement of 2011; young people who wanted to do more than hold the one per cent accountable but were serious about dividing up the wealth of the one per cent amongst the rest of the population. These were victims of neoliberalism who work in low-paid jobs, who have degrees that guarantee them nothing, who live in inner-city areas in difficult conditions, who struggle under massive student debt. They look to Corbyn. May’s Tory government is not stable and it’s possible that before 2022 there could be another election. The polls indicate that Labour has a chance of winning, which could make it the most radical left-wing government ever elected to office in the UK. Unlike Sanders, Corbyn is not interested in an accommodation with imperialism. Sanders voted for the war in Afghanistan and also supports Trump’s attitude towards North Korea. Corbyn is anti-imperialist and will take this to government.

An Australian Corbyn?

So that’s the situation in the US and Britain. Similar stories of volatility can be found in Portugal and Spain and Greece. It also exists in Australia.

According to a survey conducted by the Australian National University Australians’ satisfaction with democracy has collapsed to its lowest level since the Whitlam dismissal. Forty per cent indicated they were dissatisfied with democracy, up from 28 per cent after the 2013 election and just 14 per cent after the 2007 election.

Fifty-two per cent of respondents said politicians don’t know what ordinary people think, the highest result since this question was first asked in 2001.

Just 26 per cent of respondents said people in government can be trusted, the lowest level since this question was first asked in 1969.

A striking 56 per cent of people think government is run for a few big interests, a dramatic increase on 38 per cent in 2007.

For that volatility to have any positive impact on society it needs to be channelled by some political formation. Could an Australian Corbyn rise up through the ALP? I don’t think so for two reasons. First, Labor does not have the structure to allow someone with a left-wing manifesto and rank-and-file support to be catapulted into a leadership position. It just couldn’t happen. Second, Labor has disqualified itself as a vehicle for historical change by deciding to participate in the torture of refugees who arrive here by boat, and the Queensland Labor government’s support for the Adani coal mine. Support for the mine demonstrates a complete lack of concern for the future. They have joined the LNP in this kind of death cult that wants to hasten catastrophic climate change.

So Labor won’t be it. What about the Greens? Back in 2003 when Bob Brown spoke out in parliament against George Bush the Greens appeared to be a party that was able to articulate anger about war and the treatment of refugees. However, since that time the Greens have moved steadily towards the centre and seem to be wanting to occupy the position vacated by the Australian Democrats.

I vote Green but I don’t think they can effectively channel the volatility that exists around the world. The Greens are generally polite and behave themselves in the corridors of power and I think the situation requires something very different, something militant and uncompromising.

No Longer Possible to Vote in Change

But there’s a more general problem with a parliamentary group effectively channelling the anger in the community. The emphasis on parliamentary politics takes resources away from far more effective strategies – mobilising in large numbers on the street and in industrial campaigns. In short, it draws resources away from the kind of politics we witnessed in the 1967 march from the University of Queensland to the city. The Greens state election campaign features this trend of placing electoral success above other strategies. Recently, the Queensland Greens state director sent out a bulk email that argued ‘it is only with Greens in State Parliament that we will put a stop to this monolithic, reckless Adani giant.’ (my emphasis) This is just not true.

Seventy years ago, achieving significant change through parliament was very possible. It should be pointed out that there was an unprecedented economic boom from the 50s through to the early 70s. Many Western governments presided over full employment, a ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare system, a reasonably well-funded public health system, and state control of utilities.

Genuine improvements in living standards after World War II convinced many that getting good people in parliament could improve things. It also promoted the idea that the state was essentially neutral. In the 1970s an economic crisis erupted that we are still living with. There was no longer the uninterrupted boom that could easily finance a public health system, a public education system and public-works. A new cycle of boom and slump denied the parliamentary reformers the means to deliver the reforms.

But the leaders of the left-wing parliamentary groups have been determined to keep the party apparatus intact. And politics, as far as they were concerned, should be directed towards their re-election. That was now the entire point – winning office.  We ended up with leaders like Tony Blair, George Papandreou and our own Paul Keating. These people dabbled in the rhetoric of reform in the interests of the majority but by and large were responsible for a range of neoliberal attacks.

Voters over the last 30 years have found it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the parliamentary reformers and those political parties which are clearly pro-establishment.

Our first Cloudland Collective meeting was about exploring the meaning of neoliberalism and it remains an important issue for us in the last two years.

The state, which has never been neutral, has to look for ways to remove those regulations and laws which appear to be obstacles for business. Usually these regulations are about protecting labour rights and the environment. Neoliberals aim to introduce the operation of market forces into the state sector. A very clear example of this is NAPLAN and the way it is being used to sharpen competition between government schools for academically-gifted students, resources and teachers who can obtain the right results. It is not surprising that an army of private providers like Pearson Publishing have now locked onto NAPLAN as a way to sell their phoney educational strategies.

Services that were once the domain of the state have been given over to private providers. Neoliberals use the language of liberation when they privatise and deregulate – they want to liberate parts of the economy from the stifling effect of government regulation. But the overall result of neoliberalism is to create different forms of authoritarian practice which are often backed up by a more aggressive state. We can think of the combination of Newman’s assault on the public sector and his attack on civil liberties. So the state doesn’t disappear or become less important; rather, it assumes a set of different responsibilities. We think that this is an important issue to keep returning to.

It seemed plausible in the boom years that a truly egalitarian society could be achieved through a steady accumulation of good reforms. This idea now looks absurd. Even so, we have the extraordinary resurgence of mass campaigning and often militant struggle around a reforming platform. Syriza’s rise was closely connected to waves of general strikes. Podemos in Spain was not possible without the occupation of town squares.

People march and occupy and still put their faith in a political party to do good things on their behalf in parliament. More could be said but the simple explanation is that in the absence of any durable structure on the left the parliamentary option will continue to attract followers while the movements themselves lack the confidence to win reforms through the exercise of their own power.

The challenge is persuading people to go beyond simply voting for change.

The Politics of Demonstrations

An event like the 67 demonstration challenges state authority just by gathering people together. It is not primarily a media event. Its great value is for those who march. They get a sense of their collective strength, they aren’t atomised individuals at a voting booth, on social media, or raging against the TV in the living room. Together they have become something much bigger and that gives them confidence to continue the challenge. This is a quote from an interesting article John Berger, the Marxist art critic:

‘Mass demonstrations are often where people learn about the true nature of the state: either authority must … allow the crowd to do as it wishes … demonstrat[ing] the weakness of authority. Or else authority must constrain and disperse the crowd with violence: in which case the undemocratic character of such authority is publicly displayed.’

In 1968 Dr King encouraged activists not simply to challenge authority but actually stop the exploitative society functioning. He wrote about a strategy he described as dislocation. ‘To raise protest to an appropriate level for cities, to invest it with aggressive but non-violent qualities, it is necessary to adopt civil disobedience. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it is long-lasting, costly to the society but not wantonly destructive. Moreover it is difficult for government to quell by superior force.’

The Cloudland Collective has tried to promote the demonstration and the strike as the best strategic responses to neoliberalism, attacks on civil liberties, privatisation, etc. We think the demonstration, with the qualities described by Dr King and John Berger, will be central to creating a truly egalitarian and just society. But we discuss it as an idea. We don’t have the resources to create permanent structures of resistance of the kind that cohere a movement between the rallies and strikes. Permanent structures of resistance are the things we now desperately need as well as the politics of the 67 march. I hope we can put those things at the centre of a powerful campaign to stop the Adani mine and help traditional owners win back control of their land. The floods in Bangladesh, Texas and the super storm that tore through the Caribbean indicate that we really need to rush to the streets and stay there.