A protest is a statement or action expressing disapproval of (or objection to) something, generally in response to particular events, policies or situations.
Ideally, those in remonstration will project a clear message: that they believe that something is wrong and want a response that leads to change.
“We want more humane treatment of asylum seekers.”
“We want same-sex couples to be able to marry.”
“We want to stop live animal exports.”
“We want policy action on climate change.”
These are all familiar and credible examples of political protest. The participants seek a specific action to fix what they perceive to be a wrong or misguided policy.
Protests like these can provide a platform to send a strong message on an issue, thereby promoting the discourse surrounding a concern to both political actors and the broader community.
At times, though, such protests can be nothing more than the futile antics of vocal minorities representing peculiar sectional interests.
Regardless, freedom of political expression and association is a fundamental principle in any free society – people should be allowed to protest whatever they like, provided they do so lawfully.
Last Sunday saw the nationwide March in March event, which, according to its organisers, was a “non-partisan” opportunity to “protest a unity vote of no confidence in the Abbott Government”.
Not so much non-partisan as totally anti-partisan – but fair enough. People are allowed to disagree with things, and certainly are allowed to feel passionately about issues and voice their concerns.
But was there an identifiable and reasonable policy response being pursued?
Australia’s asylum seeker policy, for instance, has changed over the last decade in response to the array of community concerns, and community concerns will likely continue to shape the debate as we move through new rounds of elections over the coming decade.
Same-sex marriage, too, is a matter that has been propelled into the Australian public policy spotlight over the last few years (though undeniably a large concern for many people going much further back than that).
And it’s highly likely that this momentum will lead to policy shift, one way or another.
These are just two examples of protests that have a clear message. They present their desired solutions to their respective goals. This does not mean that their goals are realistically or immediately achievable – it is unlikely coal exports will be banned tomorrow, for instance – but an alternative is being presented all the same.
Yet all March in March proffered was a deep dissatisfaction with anything related to politics in general, with a strong focus on vilifying Tony Abbott. Far from a rally based on peacefulness and decency, the protest seemed largely to be aimed at demonising our Prime Minister. Posters and banners used obscene language and portrayed Abbott as a dictator, homophobe, sexist and racist.
Aside from the fact that many of these same people used to claim no Prime Minister had been abused as strongly as Julia Gillard, including the Guardian’s own Van Badham, the question remains: What were they trying to achieve? What response did the protesters want?
One sign proposed to kill the PM, another offered a “vote for retroactive abortion on Tony”, while many simply chose to don t-shirts with “FUCK TONY ABBOTT” printed across the front. These are all illegal, impossible or private matters – not policy responses.
There did seem to be a loose theme: to get rid of the Abbott Government. (There were, of course, a few rogues – such as the union official who told the March that Qantas CEO Alan Joyce should be shot in the head.)
But why we should get rid of the Abbott Government was not definitively nor coherently answered.
In any case, how do the governed go about getting rid of the government?
In Australia, we have elections every three years. On these days, every citizen is given the opportunity to express his or her confidence in the government. Each person can choose a political party that he or she would like to represent him or her. In fact, we are legally required to have our names ticked off the electoral role on polling day.
Evenly enough, the past four decades to 2014 have seen the Coalition in government for 21 years and the ALP in power for 19. Governments can and do change, and when they do they bring with them policies that tend to reflect their over-arching ideology.
Some people will be affected by these policies, and some people will oppose their ideological basis altogether. That’s why in Australia there are a number of different political parties people can choose from. Equally, that’s why people can and should protest about specific concerns they may have. Protests, boycotts and all other forms of political demonstration are important and inherent parts of any free society, no matter how annoying they can be.
But March in March was not an example of a successful political demonstration. It ignored the fundamental principles of democratic process – that a very small handful of people cannot simply overthrow a recently democratically elected government – and offered no logical or rational alternative.
The March in March provided nothing more than a hate-filled rampage of distasteful and odious messages, lacking any kind of substance or credibility.