16 November 2005

Fear and loathing in Swanston Street

I can say that I was there with the 500,000 who protested all round the wide brown land yesterday against the Howard regime’s iniquitous Workplace Relations laws. I don’t have to tell my children about it one day, as one of them was there with me.

The response of the media so far has been tediously predictable. Quibble about the numbers, call us all the Usual Suspects, make out it was only unionists and public servants (as in “a protest by unionists and public servants today…”), say it was a tiny proportion of the workforce, that the overwhelming majority of Australian workers stayed at home (despite threats of five-figure fines and jail), et cetera et cetera.

But you can’t pull that shit with me ‘cause I was there, and it was the biggest protest I’ve ever seen.

I was struck by the quiet of the crowds. Not angry or loud, but purposeful. The thousands moved off down Swanston Street without even the ambient hum that you would hear from a football crowd. That said something about Australians, I think, and about the emotions that accompanied the action on the day. Protest is essentially useless, as the Murdoch line dominates the media, and the assembled thousands know very well that no matter how many turn out, Howard still wins elections. That quiet was a symbol of the demoralised ‘left’ in the widest possible sense.

I should say, though, that the huge screen dominating my view of Federation Square had a Sky Channel logo on it. I’m not sure what that says. Maybe that revenue talks louder in the end than the boss’s editorial line.

I was enormously impressed witgh the level of professionalism displayed by the ACTU’s presentation. It was sharp without being slick, and actually very moving. Tim Ferguson MC’d without getting in the way, John Clarke and Brian Dawe’s routine was very funny, and the emotional impact of seeing and hearing ordinary people give their accounts of the effects of workplace “reform” was devastating.

The real moment of clarity came, for me, when ACTU Secretary Greg Combet gave an impassioned speech which was articulate and quietly brutal to the Government’s case. He staked a claim yesterday, as the most thoughtful and articulate leader in the labour movement.

This also marked some key point in the history of the union movement in this country. (Would that be a key-turning point?). It has finally shrugged off the habit of a lifetime and completely avoided the divisive images of the past and started actually speaking to real Australians at work, not some romantic ideal from the 1930s. This impression comes across loud and clear in the ACTU’s recent advertising campaign, which makes the Government’s own bloated campaign look obscure and irrelevant by comparison.

I believe this new image began to register with the unions when little grey-haired John Coomb first faced television cameras during the Waterfront dispute several years ago and spoke with great feeling of the impact the attack on his workers was having on ordinary families. This from a man who was the head of the Maritime Union, a bunch of thug wharfies according to John Howard, his chief dog Peter Reith, and the shifty Chris Corrigan.

Something was wrong with the message. It didn’t fit the pictures, especially the one of a man in a black balaclava, as big as a tugboat, with an angry dog on a chain. He wasn’t a waterfront worker, but one of the hired goons the Government put there to break the strike.

The same sense of cognitive dissonance is spreading over the community now. The wider the smiles of the workers on the factory floor as they wave to the cameras in the Government’s $55 million advertising campaign, the wider the gap between ordinary Australians’ sense of what they know the Government wants and what they know is good for them.


Not the 6 o'clock news said...

I too was a part of history. I felt the amaraderie in a crowd counted in the tens of thousands. Where strangers spoke to one another, aghast at the governments changes to our Australian culture. That which is about to envelope us, our children and our children's, children.

Conditions my grandfather fought for, my father after him and now me. What legacy to our children - dispair?


I am the Queen of F*%&ING EVERYTHNG...OK!! said...

I was'nt there ,sadly enough,but in spirit and with gratitude for those who are personally taking part in saving the legacy of our forefathers for our children and grandchildren. Something of this magnitude would change the way our live are for generations, if not forever. Funnily enough, despite many letter and calls by many to the media they refuse to relay/report on the FACT that many of the people in the ads were actors.