Thursday, June 18, 2009

A biopsy of our movement

The June 13 Climate Emergency rally in Melbourne is a good opportunity for a biopsy of the local climate movement. Almost a year after the first Climate Emergency rally we can take stock of how much real progress has been made.

A positive protest
The spirited rally of maybe as many as 4000 showed the Melbourne climate movement at its best. A panel of sharp and political speakers played to a receptive and militant crowd. The march down Swanston St and the sit-in outside the Town Hall increased the public impact of the rally and the news coverage of and around the rally nationally was reasonable. The diversity of active groups was highlighted in the colourful array of banners, placards, puppets and so forth that festooned the march through the city streets.

Certainly, this rally was a positive and inspiring event for many. On the other hand, I spoke to at least two activists in the crowd who declared they were quite disappointed in the turnout. Should we be happy with 4000? Or should we be wondering what went wrong given that it was less than the May 17 climate Human Sign at St Kilda? That it was not discernibly bigger than last year’s climate emergency rally?

Just counting the numbers could miss the point. The political message, the public reception, and the way the rally was put together all say a lot too.

The first thing which is very positive is the active preparation for the rally by groups that brought banners, puppets and of course the bicycle band. It helped to turn a walk-down-the-street march into a veritable carnival of politics – as such demonstrations ought to be.
Climate emergency rally
Photo from Climate Action Centre


Secondly, in the lead up to the rally we distributed (an estimate) about 40-50 000 leaflets (out of the 60 000 or so we had printed). These disappeared quite easily and assuming they were actually distributed by the people who took piles, this is a pretty good effort for activists on the ground.

There were four banner drops over freeways, organised by people in Yarra Valley CAG, Moreland CAG, Families Facing Climate Change in Ashburton and WeCAN in the west. This effort may not have had a huge impact on commuters (some banners were taken down very quickly at the request of CityLink officers) but it shows a certain growth in suburban activism (relative to last year’s rally, the only real point of comparison I can think of).

The rally was incredibly visible, occupying the main street for an hour or so. One rally participant noted on Facebook that he thought as he sat outside Town Hall, "Gee, I haven't done a sit-in for years! Well, one where I actually end up getting dragged away!" We didn’t get dragged away this time, but the response from the crowd to the prospects of organising “civil disobedience” actions was positive, boding well for mass protests at Hazelwood later this year.

Weak points
The negatives are mainly related to the degree of participation in organising the event.

Firstly, the number of people at organising meetings was very small. This may make it easy to decide things bureaucratically, but that is not a strength! It was hard to make difficult decisions early on about the slogans and themes for the day because the people in the room only formally represented Friends of the Earth, Socialist Alliance and Solidarity – no-one from TWS, EV, CEN (well I sort of was from CEN); only a few local CAGs sent reps (and not all to the same meeting, necessarily!). We decided that we had to just go with what we thought the climate movement here would support, and seemed to get it right (we didn’t get complaints, anyway!), but could have easily made a wrong call that wasn’t broadly supported.

Secondly, the amount of events on may have detracted from the rally. The simultaneous organising for the Anglesea coal campaign may have taken out a few activists who could have otherwise made a difference organising the rally. The human sign at St Kilda Beach was in and of itself a great event, but LIVE and Bayside used up all their energy in organising that so we lost two groups from the rally organising (who were both key supporters in the 2008 rally). Perhaps the human sign had a greater impact, but it was not an event the whole movement had decided to prioritise at the Climate Action Summit.

Our ability to disseminate information was weak, apart from the apparent ease at distributing leaflets. We had 8000 posters printed (plus TWS did a print run of their own design with a live tree picture, as opposed to the drought-killed tree on the other posters). After doing a paste-up in the West with a friend, I ruefully remarked that we got too many posters printed. He corrected me: we just don’t have enough activists to put them up!

Trying to mass distribute the last 10-20 000 leaflets hit a similar wall. A good mobilisation of 20 people in the city in the morning could have distributed a large bundle, but we could not even mobilise the whole organising committee (who were busy and overstretched, since there were so few of us) and only got three people to the morning we had set for doing it.

Forests, desalination, bay dredging…
It was great that The Wilderness Society came on board this rally fairly seriously. Their “niche” – the forest issue – is objectively crucial to combating climate change but more than that they represent an important group of environmental activists and supporters. (It was especially pleasing to have them on board after last year they refused to have anything to do with the Climate Emergency rally!).

The Watershed anti-desalination campaign group were present, although since the rally had the national demands around climate policy and not a specific anti-desal demand, it was probably to be expected that they didn’t (as far as I could tell) bring the big crowd from Wonthaggi that they did for last year’s rally. Despite sponsoring the rally, Blue Wedges as a visible campaign seem to be pretty beaten down after not being able to stop the dredging going ahead, and I certainly met some activists but not on the scale of 2008.

To make other comparisons with the 2008 Climate Emergency Rally: Having a “hardcore political” rally was more difficult then. Many climate activists, I felt, were more comfortable with the “Climate Emergency” human sign than with the political demands on the poster (and even others were still quite skeptical about using such an extreme term as “emergency”). Remember this was before the 5% CPRS bombshell was dropped, and before the Climate Summit. Rudd still had a lot of cred; it was the projects like new freeways, coal power stations and desalination plants that provided the most obvious example of the government’s anti-ecological course, hence their prominence in the 2008 rally’s demands. I think this shows clearly that the demands of the Climate Summit have caught on with the main support base of the movement.

Now recruiting to the activist core!
It would be good to keep drawing campaigns such as those around freeways and desalination into the climate movement, and in turn drawing the climate movement into supporting their events. While climate activists and their supporters are mostly wised up about the CPRS and the Rudd government’s agenda, the broader community remains less informed. The expansion of coal mining, freeways, and Garrett’s approval of the pulp mill and desalination plants (among others) shows easily understood examples of what the government’s agenda is.

Our movement has set no firm plans beyond the Copenhagen conference and inevitable protests at that time. Yet it is almost unthinkable that we will be satisfied with the outcome of that conference. And 2010 is election year. Will the climate movement endorse, or run candidates? We need to consider these questions, but first we need to use the Hazelwood protests, the 350.org protests, and the Copenhagen protests to grow ourselves a bigger activist core. When we meet at the 2010 Climate Action Summit we must be bigger.

These three big actions/convergences in the second half of 2009 need to be organised openly in a way that we can invite new people to join in. New (and new-ish) activists need to hear (and participate in) debate about how to formulate demands for the movement, how to organise the tin tacks of a demonstration or blockade, how to get posters and leaflets and media releases out there, and so on. We need more activists who are confident to take responsibility for a group or action and run with it.

As a rule of thumb, I would say – the larger the organising meetings the better. Of course we want participants to be grounded in what is going on. A fair representation of all the existing groups is the first element to put in place. But it is entirely possible to facilitate organising meetings with large numbers of people and still get stuff done. It is possible to have new activists participate and learn.

We don’t have an army of full-time administrators and campaigners to do all the work, so it has to be divided up between all of us. Decision making has to be not just transparent and accountable but participatory. People who feel they own decisions will feel responsibility for implementing them.

What next?
Let’s refocus our various campaign groups and local CAGs. Let’s support the anti-freeway campaign and the anti-desalination campaign and the forest campaigns. Let’s get out to the ordinary people on the street with leaflets, film screenings, media stunts, letters to the editor. And make sure you send a representative to the meetings to plan the Hazelwood protest.

We have a broad concern about climate change in the community. Wong and Rudd are working to draw that concern into support for the CPRS. We have to pull every lever to shift public opinion against them.

2 comments:

  1. [received from Jonathan Doig]

    Thanks for this analysis Ben.

    > We need more activists who are confident to take responsibility for a group or action and run with it.
    Yes!

    > As a rule of thumb, I would say – the larger the organising meetings the better.
    No. Well, maybe. I hate meetings, the larger the worse. We need to firm up the relationships and roles so we can organise better as a network. This means trusting what essentially is a loose hierarchy. A national meeting sets the agenda, state meetings organise the state actions, local meetings organise supporting tasks. A critical problem is how to share the ownership and excitement in this model so the local groups take on their role wholeheartedly.

    Jonathan

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  2. In response to Jonathan:
    Yes and no. My experience is partly in the union movement. Big meetings are like big rallies: they can be inspiring. You get to see who else is there and how they are thinking/voting so if there's any controversy it helps a lot to clarify. On the other hand for a new person (and I think we need to orient towards including new activists) a big meeting can be very intimidating. You have to have the working groups, local CAG groups, welcoming committees etc to get people involved. I think big meetings don't have to be every week but note that some successful campaigns have been run with regular mass meetings: e.g. the Vietnam moratorium meetings in the 1970s; the Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill (TAP) meetings were (I am told) regularly 100 strong or more.

    You need some unity of purpose and a good chair/facilitator though!

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