In Defence of Protest Politics: the Strategy of Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS

Editor’s Note: This articles expresses the views of the authors and not of Woroni as an organisation. 


Woroni’s article (of September 16) analysing some of the policies of Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS consistently returns to a theme in their criticisms of the lack of “achievability” or that we, Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS  have not spelt out the exact “mechanisms” by which we intend to achieve our demands. In the final paragraph, the article argues that protests would be detrimental to our cause as we would spread fatigue and drain morale. These arguments amount to a dismissal of the politics of protest. This article is a response to Woroni and a defence of the activist strategy of Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS


Student power


The ANU Students’ Association has no power or authority over any of the day-to-day functioning of the university. That privilege belongs to the University, the network of department bosses and managers grouped around the millionaire Vice Chancellor, Brain Schmidt. These university bosses have overseen and directly profited off the absolute gutting of our quality of education through mergers, course cuts, staff casualisation or just outright mass sackings. They’ve profited off inviting private companies onto campus to sell overpriced food to students or take over the running of the on-campus health clinic. 


But the Vice Chancellor and the rest of university management do not just oversee the ANU, they are tied by a thousand threads to all other sections of the Australian Government and industry. The university managers are always attentive to the needs of Australian business profitability, which can often be the driving force of their attacks on students, as courses that don’t get adequate research grants or generate “job-ready graduates” are cut in favour of courses that streamline the kind of skills that Australian capitalists are looking for. 


Clearly, in the face of the overwhelming attraction of material interests, neither the most pleading nor the most rational student arguments stand a chance of convincing them in the other direction. 


So if students have no authority to govern the university, and very little capacity to lobby those who do have the power to act against their own interests, what do we have left? All we’ve ever had is the social power of protests to force the university to act. 


Student campaigns that have succeeded in winning their demands were the campaigns that mobilised students in protest, not the ones which most clearly spelt out the mechanism by which the university would meet its demands. They involved rallies, speeches, marches, teach-ins, occupations and a multiplicity of other protest tactics. These were about drawing in wider and wider layers of students actively into the process of politics and using that mass to disrupt the normal functioning of the university. By these tactics, students could create a crisis for the university and force them to resolve it by meeting the demands. This is what was able to defeat increases in student fees on multiple occasions, it’s what won the establishment of the first women’s studies course at ANU and it’s how students contributed to the campaigns against the Vietnam War, South African Apartheid and Indigenous oppression. This approach is what it would take to win things like the removal of Julie Bishop as ANU Chancellor, full divestment from fossil fuels, or the changing of the name of the Menzies library.


In all of these campaigns, the starting point was a broad-based sense of anger at injustice, not the perfection of a highly rational plan for the implementation of the demands. 


The obsessive focus that student politics now has on more “achievable” (read conservative) aims of masterfully negotiating with uni management or simply treating ANUSA like a business to service students is a reflection of the decline of left-wing activism on the campuses. As long as ANUSA carries on down this path of service provision and collaborationism, it will only entrench that decline of left-wing activism. 


The Transformative Effect of Protest 


The final paragraph of Woroni’s article is potentially the most damning rejection of putting any resources into building protests at all. If it is true that students do not want to attend protests and those who do invariably become demoralised and fatigued, then there is essentially no hope for campaigns to be built like the ones we outlined.


Thankfully, this is not the case. Mass demonstrations are often inspiring for people facing issues as enormous as the climate crisis, oppression or even just the neoliberal university. The spirit of collective defiance and solidarity that rallying creates can transform the people involved. Undoubtedly, almost everyone involved can think back to the massive marches for marriage equality towards the end of the campaign, or the enormous climate strikes in 2019 to remember the electrifying and empowering effect of protest. 


Even just this year, thousands were moved into anger and protest at the potential passing of the Religious discrimination bill and later the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the US. Many young women and LGBTQI+ youth were empowered and confident to lead the march, lead the chanting and make defiant speeches in ways they had never done before. These marches, in concert with similar demonstrations around the country, pushed back on the confidence of the homophobic and misogynistic far-right to wind back the rights of the oppressed. We are not just talking about a subsection of students on campus, but the powerful politicians, bosses and lobbying bodies that are seeking to dismantle the gains made by the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation movements. Not to mention those in positions of power who already defend their right to be bigots, like the Calvary hospital bosses, who receive public funding but refuse to offer abortions because of their bigoted beliefs. To separate these issues from “student life” is arbitrary; students are affected by these attacks and ought to be part of campaigns against them.


It is true that rallies are not always as big as the ones we’ve mentioned. Often campaigns that went on to win against seemingly insurmountable forces, such as the anti-Vietnam War protests, began with a very small but determined minority of activists. What mattered was their political orientation. It was the people in these campaigns who always waged a concerted political argument with students about the importance of protest politics who could inspire and lead broader layers over time to build up to the enormous moratorium marches. They didn’t squander their energies in the cul de sac of “lobbying” and co-optation or the impotence of lowered horizons. Radicals were able to win positions in student unions and turn the resources towards mobilising student power against attacks from the university or broader social injustices. There they could build up confidence and defiance amongst the student body to assert their rights in greater and greater numbers. 


The current status quo


The alternative strategy that ANUSA has pursued for decades has had a much more corrosive effect on the morale of students and the oppressed. The incumbents in this election, running as Power in Community but representing a continuity of personnel with every incumbent ticket for at least a decade, have run the student union in a way that has placed activism secondary to lobbying and negotiation. ANU students have faced some of the largest attacks on their education through a procession of course cuts, staff sackings and funding cuts, but they have been left to face this alone without a clear lead given by their student union. Even in the face of the CASS degree cuts this year, it took months after the announcement before a protest was called at all, whilst priority was given to a series of consultation processes.


The other major ticket, Action! for ANUSA, offers no alternative, touting their “experienced negotiators” and making no case in their policies for ANUSA to undertake any activism whatsoever. 


The field for this election is crowded with student bureaucrats who represent the same conservative strategy for ANUSA as it has followed for many years. The status quo represented by these other tickets, much like Woroni’s article, has consistently encouraged students to lower their expectations, to trust the processes of lobbying at work behind closed doors, to not expect a radical alternative and certainly not fight for one. Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS is the only ticket with a strategy to revive radical activism and win ambitious demands for students, workers and the oppressed. 


Nick Reich and Wren Somerville are representatives of Climate Action for ANUSA + NUS.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.