On the 19th of April, 1965, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced the deployment of Australian combat troops to Vietnam. In July of the same year, 800 students attended the first ever teach-in protest at ANU.
In a 1968 edition, Woroni would later recall, “Menzies announced that Australian troops would be sent to Vietnam and the first of the huge ANU demonstrations began. It was rapidly being realised that the ANU’s position in the heart of the National Capital afforded an instant and massive press coverage to the activities of the ANUSA and our impact upon world events assured.”
Throughout the years, ANU students would channel the same enthusiasm for activism. By 1976, after months of demand and protest, the University offered the first Women’s Studies course. In 1978, Women’s Officer Gaby wrote in her Officer’s report, “I hope campus activists realise how difficult it is for women to do anything worthwhile—because as soon as we hit the scene we’re attacked”. Feminist activism would remain resilient, since the next year saw “Wimmin on Campus”, the first feminist club being established.
In 1989, the Hawke government introduced the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECs) and the National Union of Students launched the first of many campaigns against it. The Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Center opened the same year. The ‘90s would see campaigns against increasing fees and course cuts and the first ever pro-choice awareness campaigns held by ANU Women’s Officer Kate Harriden.
By the 2000s, students started protesting against refugee camps and established the ANU Refugee Action Collective. A student declared in a Woroni opinion piece, “The protests have begun. They will escalate and they will continue until all refugees are free.”
In the 2010s, student activism steered towards environmentalism and pride protests. After 500 pride posters were torn down on campus, students from the Queer* Department dressed in camouflage and staged a stakeout to defend and re-decorate posters. In 2013, the Fossil Fuel Divestment campaigns began and by 2014, after protests and campaigns, the ANU partially divested from the fossil fuel sector.
In recent years, the ANU student body participated in an average of seven protests each year. Protests regarding the University’s management of courses and student wellbeing, organised by ANUSA departments, tend to have the highest student turnout. Woroni spoke to Women’s Officer Phoebe Denham who explained, “Activism is integral to the role of Officer. It ranks highly (with service provision) since community work and activism go hand in hand.”
They also revealed that historically Departments autonomously select protest issues and political actions, while the ANUSA executive provides logistical support to the initiatives, including financial aid and resource provision, such as first-aid. Departments often organise protests that relate to student wellbeing issues, including protests against campus racism and sexual assault and harassment (SASH), usually inspired by Department reports.
However, this can lead to burn-out amongst Department staff. At the final SRC last year, many Department Officers condemned the workload and burnout that autonomous activism can cause.
ANUSA Education Officer Beatrice Tucker (they/them) acknowledged that ANUSA has lacked a whole-of-union approach to activism and has “attempted to solve issues bureaucratically, behind closed doors in meetings with [university] management, rather than through popular support and activism.”
On-campus groups, such as Socialist Alternative, often organise on-campus protests, including protests for climate action, such as the upcoming National Day of Action. The National Union of Students (NUS), which ANUSA is affiliated with, also organises protests on issues such as climate change and abortion rights. Protests against course cuts are organised by the college students themselves in conjunction with the ANUSA Education Committee, such as the protests against CASS program disestablishments last year.
Mass advertising of campaigns and the effort of organisers both help to increase student turnout. An ANU student who attended the 2023 Invasion Day protest and the International Women’s Day protest told Woroni, “There are always posters around campus for upcoming protests and…emails from ANUSA [with invitations] to join protests.”
Phoebe explained protests can be inexpensive with the main costs being posters and banners. However, the labour can be taxing, especially for department officers who spend time organising protests. Beatrice told Woroni, “I had been working with my classmates for the School of Arts and Design (SOAD) for 18 months…raising expectations for what is possible, regularly discussing similar fights and successful organising campaigns.”
The SOAD had three years of closed workshops and online attendances, even after the ANU and ACT government both lifted restrictions. After a three-day sit-in organised by the students, at the main foyer of SOAD, SOAD management allowed students access to low risk studios on weekdays.
Student activism has increased in the past decade due to accessible organising through social media. However, consequences remain severe. Luke Harrison recalls feeling “unsafe” at a protest against the corporatisation of pride, “The police have a long history of oppressing queer people, and they kept snickering and sneering at us.”
In 2014, then Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop was met with thirty student protestors when she came to speak on campus. The protests were part of a bigger opposition to the Abbott government’s university de-regulation initiatives. Police arrested three students despite protesters claiming to be non-violent and pleading that the broken window of Bishop’s car was an accident. In 2016, ANU students were arrested for blocking a coal train from NSW’s Whitehaven’s Maules Creek Mine, while protesting the climate effects of coal mining.
This year in February, after protesting against the rising cost of housing, the interest rate and bank profits in front of the RBA, Cherish Kuelhmann, a UNSW student was arrested and taken into custody at midnight before being set strict bail conditions. The University of Sydney also suspended students Maddie Clarke and Deaglan Godwin for their involvement in a protest against Malcom Turnbull when the former PM visited the USYD campus. ANUSA’s first Ordinary General Meeting of this year echoed concerns of whether similar circumstances could occur for ANU student protestors, as a motion calling for ANUSA’s support for the two students passed unanimously.
Although peaceful protests are not illegal, police can arrest students with charges such as obstruction, trespass, offensive behaviour and property damage at protests. Arrest records can be detrimental to a student’s career, since many jobs require police clearances. Graduates may find they are denied opportunities, promotions, or are subjected to prejudice for their arrest record. This is of particular concern at the ANU, where many students seek to work in fields requiring government clearance. For international students, arrests can lead to the termination of visas and deportation.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, Indigenous Australians are 17.3 times more likely to be arrested than non-Indigenous people, especially in situations with assault occasioning no harm, such as offensive language or resisting police arrest. These are charges often used to make arrests at protests. Attending protests also threatens individual anonymity as Denham explains, “It’s scary stuff (to see) photos of other people at protests (and) seeing yourself.”
In light of such statistics, the ANUSA/ANU Law Reform and Social Justice Legal Observer program launched at the Invasion Day protests this year. The program involves training by staff from Legal Aid ACT to observe interactions between protestors and police enforcements at protests and detect any encroachment on the right to protest.
Trained lawyers and students will attend protests to observe and report the conduct of police and private security. Luke Harrison also explained, “Police Liaisons who are [at protests] are trained to engage with police on behalf of protestors and Marshalls who are trained to direct the crowd away from dangers and in directions of the protests [are also present]”. Departments have also requested protestors to wear face masks at protests, for health reasons and to anonymise identities. The Women’s Department also co-operated with SAlt to organise a long, distance, bird’s eye camera for the International Women’s day protest.
Despite challenges, student activism is at the core of students and departments. An ANU student told Woroni they attended protests because, “It was invigorating and you feel like you’re a part of something very powerful. The chants, the posters, the walking together, it feels like something bigger than life.”
Tucker compares student activism to “detonators of success”, saying student activism provides, “students with tools to take with them into the future to fight [for] their own rights as workers”. Denham stresses the importance of “showing up when you can”, for students who cannot attend protests. They explained, “I feel a lot of solidarity with other students and I know I have the student body behind me”. An ANU student protestor emphasised, “Without protests, we have nothing. Changes may not be tangible and visual yet, but protests are the only way to create change.”
Editor’s note: the history of student activism listed here is not comprehensive. For a more in-depth timeline, refer to the ANU website, Woroni archives, Marie Reay wall and the banner along the BKSS railing.
If this article has affected you in any way, do not hesitate to reach out to the following resources:
ANU Student Safety and Wellbeing
(02) 6125 2211
ANU Respectful Relationships Unit
Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Crisis Line
(02) 6247 2525
(02) 6125 2442
1800 737 732
ANU Disabilities Students Association
ANU BIPOC Department
ANU Indigenous Department
ANU Women’s Department
ANU Queer* Department
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