The two of us, long-time activists and members of Socialist Alternative, were suspended the other week for protesting Malcolm Turnbull last year. Despite the penalty, we would do it again.
The University’s decision has rightfully sparked controversy, not only amongst students and staff, but in society more broadly. It has made national news, being the subject of newspaper columns and television panel discussions. An open letter to the University, initiated by the USyd Student Representative Council, has garnered over 100 signatures. No wonder why — the University has publicly signalled that if former Prime Ministers suffer the slightest protest on campus, then those responsible will be summarily punished.
University management may defend their decision on the grounds that they actually do respect the freedom of speech of protests. Indeed, in their public statement they even grant us the liberty of being named “rowdy and spirited”. Where they draw the line is when we allegedly “interfere with the rights and freedoms of others.”
Our protest didn’t seriously interfere with the rights or freedoms of powerful people such as Turnbull. He has continued access to the mainstream media and significant connections to the upper echelons of business and politics. The idea that a group of activists armed with megaphones have silenced a man reportedly worth over $200 million is ludicrous to anyone aware of the realities of class and power in our society.
The University’s defence rests on one key assumption: that management are the arbiters of what constitutes a legitimate or illegitimate protest.
In responding to our suspension in a Sydney Morning Herald article, former student activist and UTS lecturer Dr Jenna Price said that “[s]tudent protest on campus has always been structured by what’s permitted by the ‘authorities’.” It’s an important point — those who wish to oppose the current state of things are constantly told to be “reasonable and respectable”. Spirited? Yes. Disruptive and rude? Absolutely not.
There is a long list of progressive reforms which would never have been achieved had the social movements behind them accepted the parameters of respectability set by the ruling class. From suffrage to desegregation, the oppressors have always asked the oppressed to dissent according to their rules. Rejecting these rules has been a prerequisite for any serious challenge to injustice.
But there’s another more contemporary example: the fight against fee deregulation under Tony Abbott.
In 2014, Abbott and his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, attempted to transform Australian higher education into the American model. They proposed the total deregulation of university fees, which would lead to degrees costing upwards of $100,000. Also included was a 20% cut to the government contribution to fees, and an increase to the interest rates on student loans.
A national student protest campaign was launched to stop this. It involved the largest mobilisations of students in over a decade, with protests of thousands of students in nearly every major city.
A core tactic of the campaign was the harassment of Liberal ministers, particularly Abbott and Pyne, whenever they stepped foot onto campuses. Abbott was forced to flee both Adelaide and Melbourne University within the space of one month. Julie Bishop, then foreign minister, received a similar treatment at this very university, as student protestors showered her in insults as she entered her event. Liberal ministers cancelled speaking engagement after speaking engagement on university campuses. I have no doubt this past weighs like a nightmare on the mind of Malcolm Turnbull.
The 2014 campaign was successful — by December, the government’s reforms were scuttled in the Senate. For years afterwards, no government could go after students in such a way. It wasn’t until the pandemic that the Morrison government could introduce the Jobs Ready Graduates Package.
If, as students, we are ever able to defeat future attacks on our education by the government or university management, then we can’t be afraid of being disruptive and militant. The business as usual of the university interferes with the right of all students to free and quality education. It is this business as usual which interferes with the right of students to affordable, dignified housing. It is this business as usual which interferes with the freedom of students to study for the sake of learning, not for the needs of weapons or mining companies. Politicians and bankers, of which Turnbull is the twisted product, are the ones responsible for the current rental and cost of living crisisf. For this, they deserve spirited and rowdy protest.
But it goes beyond moral condemnation. It is about political strategy. Students need to make politicians and Vice-Chancellors afraid of screwing us over. They need to know that we will resist, and resist powerfully, any attack on us. Students might lack the economic power of striking workers (such as university staff), but their defiant resistance can act as a lightning rod for the anger of many other groups in society.
Our protest against Turnbull last year was not just a publicity stunt. It was part of a tradition of standing up to hated Liberal Party politicians whenever they show their faces on campus. We need more student anger and activism, and that means taking it to our enemies at any and every opportunity. This is no threat to freedom of speech. A lively student movement would be the greatest expression of the opinions, grievances and anger of the vast majority of students, at present ignored by the rich and powerful. The right to protest, and to protest defiantly and militantly, is not only a democratic right, it is the proven strategy for fighting injustice and inequality. The university wishes to curtail this right — we have to do everything we can to stop them.