Demonstrations swept the country over the last two weekends as tens of thousands turned out against Scott Morrison’s government in the wake of the bushfire crisis. Protesters chanted for the end of Morrison’s prime ministership, for an increase in fire service funding and for drastic action on climate change.
National estimates say over 100,000 turned out, a significant attendance relative to Australia’s small population of 25 million.
Protests of thousands took place in major capital cities including Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth. Residents of regional cities and towns including Geelong, Newcastle, Wollongong and Byron Bay mobilised in their thousands as well.
Friday January 10 was designated a national day of action. In Sydney up to 50,000 took part, more than attended recent climate strikes. Meanwhile in Melbourne somewhere around 30,000 participated despite hours of pouring rain.
Follow up protests of several thousand took place in major capital cities again in the week after. Demonstrators came out in Sydney on Wednesday evening, in Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra on Friday evening and in Melbourne and Perth on Saturday.
Police in Melbourne and Sydney unsuccessfully tried to cut across the mobilisations, telling people to stay away. This highlights the narrowing of democratic space in society and warns about future crackdowns as people organise to challenge the system that is delivering climate catastrophe.
In Melbourne the police, backed by Labor state premier Daniel Andrews, falsely claimed that the rally would draw emergency services away from the fire front during a time of high danger. But on the day, they were forced to admit that no police resources were redirected from emergency zones.
Many pointed out that there was a heavy police presence during official New Year’s Eve celebrations in the city centre and at cricket matches on days of high fire danger. No one called for those events to be cancelled. Rather this was a cynical political move by senior police to damp down protest action and protect their political masters.
In Sydney police said they would actively block Wednesday’s protest from entering the road to march from Circular Quay to Martin Place. A local police inspector told protest organisers “There’s no appetite to allow a march” while passing on the message from ‘higher authorities’.
Martin Place is a street housing the headquarters of the Reserve Bank of Australia and the other big private banks and finance houses. The New South Wales state parliament is also located at the top end of the street. In other words, it’s a den of climate criminals.
But regardless of police and politicians working against the demonstrations, it’s clear that anger against the government is white-hot around the country and people were keen to show it.
Socialist Action members spoke to many protesters who were on the streets for the first time, or had otherwise only been to a few major rallies. The crowd was particularly youthful.
We found that many people agreed with our demands and explanations, which were much more radical than the ideas being put from speakers on the platforms.
For example, senior Green politicians were allowed by organisers to promote the demobilising idea that the movement should be focused on supporting them at election time.
Socialist Action used leaflets and petitions to call for a fully funded fire service that has the resources to better tackle worsening fire seasons. Currently $29 billion is wasted on fossil fuel subsidies that worsen the risk of bushfires, so clearly the money exists. It’s simply a question of the priorities of those in power.
Genuine disaster relief is also needed, we said. The $2 billion announced by the federal government is not enough. There should be full compensation to those who have lost property or income, or suffered ill health.
To tackle global warming, and reduce the risk of bushfires, we need a green New Deal to protect both jobs and the environment. Because the big private polluters will always put profit ahead of our needs, we need to take them into public ownership and put them under democratic control.
That way we could affect a swift and just transition to 100% renewable energy and zero greenhouse gas emissions, while also protecting the livelihoods of working class communities with proper reskilling and green jobs.
To achieve all of this we need a new political force in Australia. It would put the needs of the many above the greed of the few by fighting to replace the bad old polluting policies of capitalism with democratic socialism.
Such a force could be born from extending and developing the current demonstrations, linking up with student climate strikes and drawing in workers, most effectively through the trade unions.
For these demonstrations to make a more concrete and lasting impact on the political situation there is a need to move to stronger action. We need stop work shutdowns to hit corporate profits and pose the question of who really runs society and in whose interests.
Ordinary people would feel their potential power to remake society for themselves, instead of the bosses.
There is a long and proud tradition of mass political strikes in Australia that has rocked the establishment, shifting politics and making society better. Mass stop work actions were used in the anti-Vietnam war movement and to defend the predecessor to Medicare in the 1970s.
Today trade union leaders could organise mass stop works either as open political strikes or under health and safety laws because of the smoke-poisoned air in the cities. There have already been some smaller-scale examples of this, like construction workers in Melbourne and dock workers in Sydney walking off the job.
But because the current trade union leaders are mainly Labor Party operatives, they are not interested in challenging the system. They aren’t taking responsibility to lead. They should be replaced or circumvented where required.
Demonstrations over the fire crisis have the potential to be a rallying point for a new political movement. We need to seize the opportunity now to rebuild politics in Australia to serve the interests of ordinary working people, all those impacted by the fires, and the planet we live on.
By Kirk Leonard