So what’s the point of the “occupy” protests? Obviously they weren’t going to get a sympathetic ear – or any kind of fair hearing (did you know that if you buy a mobile phone or a computer you’re agreeing with anything done by corporate Australia and may never object to it again?) – in the commercial media, but what were they trying to achieve? What has standing around in a crowd chanting slogans ever achieved?
Well, for one, it shows politicians that it’s not just the far-right who are angry with where things are going. The anti-carbon tax and “tea party” type protests have obviously sunk into the feeling of some of our politicians, who might be tempted to think – if everyone else remains silent – that they have some kind of popular support for passing ever more right-wing policies. Because for every person on the fringe angry enough to let Alan Jones bus them to Canberra, they might reason, there’s probably a few more voters angry but too busy to come. This could be the tip of the iceberg! I’d better do what they want.
So a protest from the other side helps balance out that pressure. Even if that’s all it does, it’s still arguably worthwhile for that reason alone.
Second, it lets politicians know that there are people out there – possibly many more than have simply attended the protest, for the reasons above – who think we’re going too far down the American path. Who want them to consider the public sphere, the poor, the community as a whole, when deciding whether or not to support legislation that either redresses the imbalances in our society or which makes them worse.
The protesters don’t need to come up with a set of specific policy proposals to have an important impact. What they’re calling for is clear – policies to redress inequality. The opposite of what the so-called “pro-business” low tax advocates lobby for in Canberra. And when legislation comes before the parliament on economic issues, the politicians are on notice that they’re being watched by voters who want the balance to go back the other way for a change.
Sure, there’ll always be a few ratbags at any protest. They don’t have bouncers. We saw it at the anti-Carbon tax rallies, too (although it did seem to be more than a few of them). Even the police had their ratbags, giving the rest of them, the ordinary, decent members, a bad name – those who removed their name badges and thumped people. But so what? That’s no reason to give up on the idea of popular protest.
Protests tell government the direction in which ordinary, engaged people would like it to go. When we have three years between elections and the blunt instrument of a mostly two-party system even then, where the voters’ precise directions are sometimes difficult to discern accurately, protests are a necessary and important part of the process of democracy.
Even if they’re inconvenient and annoying.