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Mar 25 2014

If 100,000 protest and few report it, did they make a sound?

Last weekend I participated in the March in March (MiM): on the order of 100,000 Australians marching in 33 locations around the nation to express our dissatisfaction with the Abbott government. My dissatisfaction increased when the mainstream media largely ignored, downplayed, or ridiculed the protests.

This will be an extremely long and heavily illustrated post, to cram in as much documentation as possible of the marches the media ignored, but feel free to skim.

Why did we March in March?

MiM’s stated purpose is:

to protest against government decisions that are against the common good of our nation. This signifies a ‘people’s vote of no confidence’ in policies of the government that go against common principles of humanity, decency, fairness, social justice and equity, democratic governance, responsible global citizenship and conserving our natural heritage… there are dozens of specific issues that affect all Australians, now and for generations to come.

MiM was conceived in a Twitter conversation and organized through Facebook, apparently by people largely unaffiliated with existing political parties or protest groups. It appears to have been genuinely grassroots, with an incredible diversity of attendees and an open microphone for anyone with an anti-Abbott-government message. Marchers carried placards mentioning myriad issues from climate change to asylum seekers (you can read my personal list of reasons for attending here). Some were more radical than I, some less so. But there seemed to be a general consensus on one thing, as Mike Marriot wrote on Independent Australia:

I asked people what prompted them to protest. I asked them ‘Why are you here? What made you come?” What surprised me was the uniformity of their response. It wasn’t a single concern that motivated them to participate in this incredible display of people power… ‘It’s… everything! Everything Abbott is doing!’

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Similar to the Occupy movement in 2011, a frequent criticism from journalists is that MiM does not have a single set of clear demands. I see the critics’ point to a degree, but if MiM had been focused on a single issue it probably would not have mobilized 100,000 people. There are plenty of other smaller protests focusing on specific issues such as climate change. I can see value in also having a broad protest movement against the Abbott government and its neoliberal ideology. Attendees were united in their broad opposition to Abbott’s policies and philosophy, which we believe are against the public interest.

Many Australians have long harboured a growing dissatisfaction with the political establishment and its elitist ideology of neoliberalism, even as politicians have raced rightward. But until now there has been just enough semblance of balance (particularly under Labor governments) that we’ve sucked it up. We’ve whinged about politicians but done nothing about it, in accordance with the Australian apathetic stereotype, inhibiting our doubts with the status-quo media and the siren song of the supposed economic experts that there is no alternative. But Tony Abbott is so extreme, so ideologically pure, so completely representative of everything we on the left despise, and so obviously determined to crush all opposition, that 100,000 of us felt compelled to get off the couch and into the streets to say: Abbott does not act in our name.

Polls and anecdotal conversations suggest dissatisfaction with the government extends far beyond those of us who protested. Abbott’s is the least popular incoming administration in four decades. His Liberal/National Coalition won the election merely by not being Labor, rather than on their own merits. And as Gillian Berry writes:

The thing about Australians, is they’re a very laid back bunch. As a culture there’s a lot to be said for, “She’ll be right mate, no worries.” The standard response to a bad thing is to crack a tinny with your best mate.  Ignore it, build a bridge & get over it, because it will all come good in the end. So for something to get over 100,000 Australians off their collective arses to gather & then walk together around the nation, holding signs & loudly calling rhyming slogans with no need for beer or football/motorsport/cricket… well, I’d say that means they’re feeling pretty damned strongly on the topic.

Although Labor backbencher Lisa Chesters spoke at my local MiM in Bendigo, many speakers and attendees were clearly disillusioned with both major parties, debunking accusations that the marches were a Labor front.

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Me at the Bendigo March in March – I’m on the left with the placard. (Source)

Labor leader Bill Shorten reportedly distanced himself from MiM, albeit saying weakly that “I do get that people want to express their views”.

Tony Abbott himself refused to even acknowledge the marches were taking place, audaciously saying:

My understanding is that the only big rally in Sydney is the St Patrick’s Day parade. That is the big event in Sydney today. I wish all of them well. If their parade is rained on, there is always some Guinness available around the city.

 

 

Speeches and placards

Here’s some videos of MiM speeches (note that I don’t necessarily agree with everything said in these videos, particularly the challenges to Australian nationhood from indigenous activists): Here’s a montage of some of the best placards: Here’s another montage of the Melbourne march, which for some reason uses Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator as a voiceover: More placards and other messages:

 

How many marched in March?

The exact number of marchers is unknown, with the organizers and the media sometimes claiming wildly different figures. Adding up all the local estimates, nationwide attendance numbered from around 65,000 to 125,000, or 0.3-0.5% of Australia’s population. About a fifth of the population of Lismore marched, and about a tenth in Byron Bay.

Day Town Min estimate Max estimate
Saturday 15/03 Armidale 400 400
Saturday 15/03 Caboolture 200 300
Saturday 15/03 Cairns 800 1,000
Saturday 15/03 Darwin 200 600
Saturday 15/03 Gosford 1,500 2,000
Saturday 15/03 Grafton 150 200
Saturday 15/03 Lismore 5,000 7,000
Saturday 15/03 Toowoomba 300 300
Sunday 16/03 Adelaide 2,000 6,000
Sunday 16/03 Alice Springs 400 450
Sunday 16/03 Bendigo 150 300
Sunday 16/03 Blue Mountains 700 1,000
Sunday 16/03 Brisbane 2,000 20,000
Sunday 16/03 Byron Bay 2,500 4,000
Sunday 16/03 Castlemaine 700 700
Sunday 16/03 Coffs Harbour 1,500 2,000
Sunday 16/03 Denmark, WA 200 200
Sunday 16/03 Fraser Coast 150 150
Sunday 16/03 Geraldton 70 70
Sunday 16/03 Hobart 3,000 3,000
Sunday 16/03 Mackay 60 60
Sunday 16/03 Melbourne 30,000 50,000
Sunday 16/03 Mildura N/A N/A
Sunday 16/03 Newcastle 2,000 3,000
Sunday 16/03 Perth 2,000 2,000
Sunday 16/03 Port Macquarie 450 450
Sunday 16/03 Sydney 7,000 12,000
Sunday 16/03 Townsville 1,000 1,500
Sunday 16/03 Wodonga 120 300
Sunday 16/03 Wollongong 1,000 3,000
Monday 17/03 Canberra 500 2,000
Saturday 22/03 Gold Coast N/A N/A
Saturday 22/03 Taree 50 50
ALL 66,100 124,030

An initial 8,500-12,000 attended marches in a few regional towns on Saturday 15th, followed by 55,000-110,000 in the cities and regional areas on Sunday 16th. The Melbourne rally alone attracted 30,000-50,000 people; Jenny Bates at No Fibs describes what it was like to attend:

Alighting at Melbourne Central we moved like sardines into the world through the doorway into daylight – and came to a stop. Wall-to-wall people as far as my camera could see. Luckily I was able to stand on a bench for crowd shots. It was also a good position to see the Melbourne Central tram reverse out of the crowd, as the driver could move no further forward due to the sheer crush of bodies surrounding him… We had to wait at least half an hour before we could begin to move, and we were not at the rear of the column. When we turned into Bourke Street it became obvious how very big this crowd was. The tram stop roofs along Bourke Street became prime positions for young protesters. Goosebumps appeared as Parliament House came into view, and protesters with flags waving swarmed upon the steps while other marchers continued into Treasury Gardens. We were able to climb the steps to witness the sheer magnitude of this protest.

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Melbourne March in March. (Source)

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Melbourne March in March. (Source)

 

 

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Sydney March in March. (Source)

MiM culminated on Monday 17th when up to 2,000 protesters marched to Parliament House to deliver a “statement of no confidence” in the Abbott government. The statement was handed to Greens MP Adam Bandt, and later tabled by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. Here’s an excerpt:

many decisions made within this Government’s term in office have already resulted in, and will continue to result in, great damage to Australia’s economy, to our social structure, to the deterioration of our country’s international public image, and to further devastation of our natural environment and our Heritage listed sites. The people protest at a great number of policies and decisions being implemented by the Liberal/National Party Coalition Government which are in denial of the best interests and image of our nation and an affront to the common good. This document affirms the public dissatisfaction with policies that are incompatible with our international moral and legal responsibilities and to our way of life as a compassionate and caring people. The social democracy that represents the very fabric of Australian ideology requires that the Government govern for the common good of all its people.

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Statement of no confidence being handed to Adam Bandt. (Source)

In 2011, only 300 turned up to the anti-Gillard-government Convoy of No Confidence, and even the largest anti-carbon-tax rally drew only 5,000-10,000. MiM involved 7-25 times as many people as the anti-carbon-tax rally, and 200-400 times as many as the Convoy of No Confidence. MiM is grassroots whereas the anti-carbon-tax movement was largely an Astroturf phenomenon. The MiM crowd was noticeably more diverse than the mostly old people at the 2011 rallies.

Moreover, the 2011 protests were both more publicized and more accessible, with the media actively promoting them beforehand and talkback radio hosts arranging for people to be bussed in. For MiM, as Jim McCool writes at No Fibs:

We had not been bussed to Sydney to protest, or been handed pre-printed placards to wave. We had not been bombarded by radio and newspaper adverts urging us to attend. We had not even been marshalled by GetUp to petition or parade. We simply turned up of our own accord, like so many others.

And as has been pointed out on the Fraser Coast MiM Facebook page:

You will see numerous comments from those who wanted to attend but couldn’t: aged, elderly, disabled, infirm, sick, shift workers, people with no transport or can’t afford transport, people living remotely – these are the very people most affected by government decisions & least able to make a stand for themselves.

I personally know at least one person who felt unable to attend because of their employer’s politics.

The 2011 protests were splashed all over the front pages, favourable coverage saturated the media for months, and Tony Abbott described it as a “people’s revolt”. So why did they ignore MiM?

 

Media manipulation tactic 1: Deny

The mainstream media almost totally ignored the first day of marches, despite the fact that it could easily have dovetailed with their coverage of the Tasmanian and South Australian elections, the day’s top story. When ABC24 reported the Darwin march late Saturday night, it failed to mention it was one of many around Australia. After mounting pressure from social media, somewhat more stories began to appear on Sunday and Monday, but MiM was still not given anywhere near the coverage of the anti-carbon-tax protests.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) published only one short, snide story on its website, and no mention of MiM in its paper edition (though St Patrick’s Day was covered on page 5). Timothy Pembroke wrote an angry open letter to the SMH:

Normally it’s quite tedious to scroll through the sports wrap, but we were happy to do so this morning as we reveled in the excitement of turning the pages and that beautiful moment when we would finally land in your heart to read about the mighty March In March. We searched and searched, turned and turned. We soon realized that there was NO mention of the march. Maybe we’d missed it? Was there a feature article insert that may have fallen out? It was a nationwide march, surely there was something? A political movement created by the people for the people that attracted more than 100,000 + attendees nationwide… We understand that it is footy season so your pages are already well and truly reserved for the “Tahs” who no doubt appreciated your usual 2 page critique of their backline ball movement and scrummaging, and the mighty swans whose accuracy in front of the goals is always worth a solid 500 words, especially after a shock loss to the Giants… but was there really no room for the March In March? At all? Nothing? Not even a dribble in the socials pages? Actually there was some disguised mention of Billy Brag performing in Central – but you needed a diploma in braille to uncover the code: Billy, a hugely famous political activist with decades of history was performing in Belmore Park, Sydney – on a Sunday afternoon for the March In March.

Pembroke’s open letter went viral and was retweeted by Russell Brand. Eventually Jacqueline Maley, the reporter SMH assigned to cover MiM, wrote a response trying to justify the lack of coverage. One of her arguments is that the Convoy of No Confidence was “of greater news value due to the attendance of Coalition MPs and senators”. But MiM was attended by Greens and Labor politicians, and in any case, the whole point of the protests is that politicians are failing to represent us.

On Monday morning, ABC Breakfast News refused requests to cover MiM on the basis that it was not “breaking news”, despite the fact that the Canberra rally was later that day (though ABC did a 2-minute report after the event). MiM organizer Tim Jones has claimed on Twitter that ABC management had “forbidden” its journalists from mentioning upcoming marches, an allegation that has been denied by the ABC’s Carol Duncan.

 

As Canberrans marched to Parliament to deliver the statement of no confidence, a roomful of political journalists were attending a Tony Abbott press conference, yet none of them bothered to ask him about it. Likewise, nobody on that night’s ABC Q&A panel mentioned MiM, not even Billy Bragg who was there. It was finally raised 20 minutes in by an audience member, but never brought up again (except when the show retweeted inane tweets mocking the protesters).

As John Birmingham reflected on a Fairfax blog, the marchers

were large enough to be worthy of more basic news coverage than they received. They were arguably more important to community record keeping than a bit of colour and movement on Paddy’s Day. And inarguably more important than the other ‘top’ stories which enjoyed more prominence; the ‘attack’ of a body boarder by a dolphin, the “Real Housewife’s Toy-boy All-Nighter”, and Lara Bingle’s insta-boob shot… the systemic failure to recognise the significance of the story speaks to a deeper fear I have about the news media, which is not that we might die out as Google gorges itself on the last scraps of our advertising based business model… but that it won’t matter.

 

David Horton went further on Independent Australia:

The media have long proclaimed themselves the Fourth Estate, speaking truth to power, guardians of the people, fighters for Justice, finders of facts. But in 2010-2013, they were instead active political players throwing their battalions into destabilising the Labor government and protecting the Opposition from scrutiny. And since the election they have continued on exactly the same agenda.

 

Consequently, many older Australians who don’t read independent online media might be unaware any marches took place. Why do journalists advertise right-wing protests and ignore left-wing ones?

Media manipulation tactic 2: Distort

When the media did cover the story, it was with a deliberate negative spin. SMH‘s initial report (later taken down) focused on a tiny minority of placards alleging a global conspiracy to control the weather. And in a move reminiscent of Frontline, Laura Jayes from Sky News tweeted:

There certainly are some disturbing photos circulating in the right-wing media, which News Corp’s Andrew Bolt uses to dismiss all of us who protested as “barbarians”. They include arguable incitements to violence against political and corporate leaders and a banner reading “Fuck democracy”, though some of them may be photoshopped. Comparisons to the notorious anti-Gillard placards “Ditch the witch” and “Juliar: Bob Brown’s bitch” aren’t quite accurate – as MiM organizer Sarah Garnham pointed out on 3AW when asked to apologise, there was nothing sexist or homophobic about the anti-Abbott placards. Nevertheless, incitements to violence are not okay.

However, the offensive placards represented only a tiny proportion of the 100,000 marchers, and organizers actually tried to discourage disrespectful messages, posting the following graphic on various social media:

 

After the rallies, Tim Jones told 2GB:

Maybe you guys don’t understand. You’re paid a lot of money to do what you do. I’m just a simple figure. I go and work underground. I’ve never protested in my life. I’ve been working as a tradesman for 35 years, and I’ve worked really hard to try and make sure that people can see that citizens can get up there and protest, and say what they need to say in a dignified way. And I’m sorry if, you know, if there might be one or two signs that I missed. You know, I should have gone through all 50,000 people – it’s pretty difficult.

Much criticized are the “Fuck Tony Abbott” T-shirts and badges. I had thought these were okay (figuring that using an expletive to emphasize my antipathy to the Prime Minister and his government could hardly be more offensive than his inhumane, autocratic, and unsustainable policies) until it was pointed out to me that a literal interpretation would be inciting sexual violence. Someone bought me one of those badges, but I probably won’t be wearing it now.

The author of one banner reading “Resign, dickhead” says in his defence:

You, Mr. Bolt, have the opportunity to spread your hateful messages to all of your dozens of readers without any apparent restriction on their length. You can use analogies and examples, you can present your argument with subtlety and nuance, but instead, you spew vapid lists of insults as if you also expect your message to be read from any distance amidst a crowd of thousands… My sign was dumb — but it was not competing for the cleverest sign in politics. It was competing for attention in a political climate of one-liner stupidity; a political climate for which you and your Murdoch overlord are massively responsible.

Media manipulation tactic 3: Denounce

The focus on offensive signs was backed up with unthinking defence of the government and snide dismissal of the feelings of the protesters. For example, when Sky News interviewed Tim Jones, interviewer Chris Kenny’s clueless first question sounded almost like a government advertisement:

We have a new federal government elected in with an overwhelming mandate just six months ago. So far they’ve been going about methodically implementing their policies as much as the Senate will allow them. Yet these protesters today were saying democracy was under threat. Aren’t we just seeing democracy actually play out the way it’s supposed to play out?

As Jones correctly responded, Abbott systematically misled us about what he intended to do in government. The chasm between Abbott’s rhetoric and his real intentions has become extremely obvious in just six months. Abbott promised to govern for all Australians, but in reality his every decision makes the rich richer, the privileged more privileged, and the powerful more powerful. As Matthew Donovan writes in Independent Australia:

Never in the history of Australian politics has a leader fallen from grace so quickly. Why? Simple. He’s too extreme. He’s too out of step with modern Australia. He’s too arrogant. He’s too immature. He’s too divisive. He’s just not up to it or worthy of it.  The idea that he has a mandate for all of his agenda makes me laugh given most of it was hidden or has been abandoned following the Federal election… People didn’t vote for the Coalition as much as they voted against Labor… 110,000 thousand people of all ages organising and marching within 6 months of a new government is unprecedented.

David Horton makes a similar point:

To a far greater extent than ever before, this was an election victory based on a totally misled electorate. Apart from the removal of the “carbon tax”, itself a lie, virtually every other action of the government in the last 6 months was unannounced or hidden in very fine print during the election… this has been a concerted, ideology-driven (by both the Party and its shadowy right wing think tank urgers) attack on every aspect of Australian society, culture and environment… we were all there because of this terrible certainty that Australia is being shattered before our eyes and turned into an ersatz America. And no one signed up for that in the polling booths of 7 September.

Yet another journalist’s criticism is that the marchers failed to effectively communicate a message – to which I can only say our communication might have been more effective if it had been fairly reported.

The media’s message is in a nutshell: Pay no attention to the protesters, they’re not real Australians like us. It’s the same argument that Richard Nixon used to dismiss protests against the Vietnam War, and the right wing has been repeating ever since. But it’s a specious one. As Jim Parker writes at The Failed Estate:

What the public essentially is being told in the underwhelming media response to March in March is that “we will decide what politics is, we will decide where politics happens and we will decide how the story is framed. Unless you can express your views through the institutions that both you and we have decided are bankrupt, we will cast you as naifs tilting at windmills”.

Why the March in March mattered

Some excellent analysis has been written, almost entirely outside the mainstream media, about why MiM did matter. I’ve already quoted some above, and here I link to some more.

Mike Marriot on Independent Australia:

On Sunday, we witnessed the emergence of something many hoped for, but feared wouldn’t come — the birth of a progressive coalition prepared to embrace civil disobedience. Perhaps the March in March movement heralds the arrival of a new phase in Australian politics. Citizens organising themselves in protest and uniting in common cause while rejecting the major political parties… As the crowds dissipated toward the late afternoon, I chatted to a group of friends about the success of the march and what it meant. Without reservation we all agreed. We no longer felt alone.

Nicola Bell at Sikamikanico Blogs:

There was so much buzz about the march on social media in the lead up, but I wasn’t sure if it would come to anything, especially in a regional area like this – whether there may be a few hundred straggling people. So to see the crowds packed in, to feel the atmosphere, was electrifying – so many people rolling up early on a Sunday morning, ready to say to the government no, you do not govern in our name, you do not have our silent consent. Alone, we may be lone voices in the wilderness, but when we combine our voices, things can happen.

Wendy Bacon in New Matilda:

whatever sparks our initial resistance to current policies, the high attendance and enthusiasm at the weekend’s rallies suggests that many realise we need to connect our issues… many Australians have no knowledge of the scale of the Coalition Government’s destructive attack on the environment. This is because some big media players choose to actively keep them in the dark — to produce silence and ignorance… We must talk with those we know and those we don’t yet know about why they are involved in March in March and how together we can act to create a less destructive society.

Ariadne Vromen in The Conversation:

March in March has much in common with protests such as Occupy, which emerged in the United States, the Indignados in Spain and the Gezi protests in Istanbul. All these popular protests were harder to pin down using traditional lenses for understanding interest group and political mobilisations… Political scientists Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg suggest that “connective action” is steadily replacing traditional, organisation-led collective action… social media platforms become the most visible and integrative means of organisation. The actions of campaigners gain scale and publicity through these social media networks, which are organisational hubs, along with the role of individuals in activating their own social networks.

Adam James Clarke at Planet Ivy:

this is arguably the world’s first mass protest that was truly inspired, and reported, by social media… The Libyan Revolution, Occupy Wall Street and the Bahraini Uprising were all orchestrated using social media, but the #MarchInMarch protest is arguably the first to also be reported by social media. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Vimeo detail the event from start to finish. The web is also replete with blogs… People are having their say, whether the Australia government and mass media like it or not.

Matt Young in Gold Coast Bulletin:

When people feel powerless, they protest. When people feel they have no other option, no other alternative, and no other voice, they protest. And if Sunday’s nationwide March in March rallies against the Abbott government indicated anything, it’s that there’s a few of us out there who feel exactly that… To discredit March in March for a lacklustre mission statement is preposterous. Almost as preposterous as ignoring the feelings of more than 100,000 Australians.

Wayne Jansson at No Fibs:

Australians planning to march looked on as the main stream media (MSM) mostly ignored MiM during its build up. Then, after bringing cities and towns across the nation to a standstill, tens of thousands of people were told via media silence that their opinion is irrelevant. If this MSM silence continues, independent media and bloggers will be handed a golden opportunity to grow and assist the MSM in its seemingly relentless push towards irrelevancy. Take note MSM: as you ignore the voices of the people, the people now have the tools and the skills to ignore you and make their voices heard without you.

Pip Hinman in Green Left Weekly:

This protest worked precisely because it brought between 80,000 and 110,000 people out of their homes and into the streets in a disparate yet united way against the Tony Abbott government’s attacks. They worked also because so many want to do it again. Commentaries on social media reveal a consensus: one protest isn’t enough – sustained mass protest is what’s needed to defend our rights and services. Yes, the politics was varied. The unifying factor, however, was a hatred of the newly installed conservative government’s policies. So soon into the Coalition’s term, and months before an anticipated horror budget of service cuts and privatisations, the size of the March in March protests — seemingly erupting from nowhere — was a shock.

Di Drew at Diannersaur:

If history plays into any of its usual patterns, Tony Abbott’s claim to ignorance that there is a significant discontent in this country will only exacerbate the discontent. The 0.6% will be 1% next month, then 2%, then 3%. 1% is 220,000 people, not that many more than turned up over the weekend; if Tunisia can overthrow a government with 1,000 people in the space of months, then I’m sure 220,000 could do a lot more, and a lot more quickly.

Lachlan Barker in Independent Australia:

If you too have been thinking that the reek of Canberra is beyond pestilential, then the weekend’s marches showed, likewise, you are not alone. And while the cynics print curses and say “who cares what a load of damn hippies think”, I would point to the Vietnam war protests. The cynics said: ‘no matter how much you protest, you are not going to stop the war’. Well they were wrong then and the Marches-In-March showed that they will be wrong again. The Abbott government can be stopped.

Conclusion

The March in March shows Australians aren’t disengaged from politics, just disillusioned with politicians and the political system. It also shows the advent of the internet and social media means we no longer have to think what the mainstream media tells us to think – or vote how they tell us to vote.

The Abbott government thrives on silence: silence from government to create the impression they are acting in our interests; silence from mainstream media to keep us docile and complacent; silence from citizens to create the impression we support their agenda. We need to break that silence. We need more protests like MiM. We need to build a popular movement against the Abbott government. And with the Liberals increasingly passing laws cracking down on our right to protest, the movement urgently needs to build its numbers. The Adelaide organizers are already planning a March in May.

Oh, and the answer to my titular question? 100,000 people have spread the message via social media and word of mouth, so in the final analysis I hope we have indeed made a sound.

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