'What do we want?' A fascinating history of Australian protests

Gathering at the end of the anti war protest Botanic Gardens, Brisbane 2003. Source: Wiki Commons/SLQ


“What do we want?” portrays the history of protesting in Australia, and is written by the Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Clive Hamilton.

The famous protests that have lead towards social and political change in Australia are all discussed, and there are many iconic photos of important marches and events that highlighted injustice. 

When our first federal Parliament House was opened in Canberra back in 1927, there was a single Wiradjuri man, Jimmy Clements, present at the opening. He had walked 150 kilometres from Tumut and was there to assert his rights to the land that Parliament House stood on. He carried out his one-man protest in a peaceable manner, without attracting much attention.

In 1965, Charles Perkins headed the Freedom Ride on a bus trip through NSW. There was an angry confrontation at Walgett, where Aboriginal servicemen were not allowed into the RSL. Townspeople were drawn into the confrontation, and the local Aboriginal people were encouraged to stand up for their rights. Following this confrontation, the bus attracted media coverage, and the group moved on, raising the issue of racial discrimination in other NSW country towns.

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The story of Aboriginal protests includes the Aboriginal Embassy, which was set up by a group of activists including Gary Foley in 1972.

Another important period of protest for Australians were the demonstrations against conscription that occurred during the Vietnam war. The National Service Act required young men who were turning twenty to register for the draft. Twice a year, a draw was made, and those whose birthdays were chosen had to serve two years in the army. Those who failed to register for the draft were automatically conscripted. Out of those who were conscripted, about a quarter were sent to Vietnam.

The lead up to the draft was a stressful and anxious time for young men, who had to choose between registering and taking their chances, spending time in prison, or going on the run to avoid being conscripted. The nation was divided over the issue, with many of the older generation being opposed to the demonstrations, and labelling young men who did not want to take part as ‘draft dodgers’. The protesters gathered strength and Moratorium marches commenced in 1970, supported by members of the Labor Party.

Saving our environment has been a cause close to the hearts of Australian activists. An interesting and little-known story about environmental protest occurred in Bunbury, Western Australia, in 1976. Two men decided to take a stand against the logging of the south-west’s old growth forests. A campaign was underway to save the forests, but the men became impatient and developed a plan of their own to halt the process by blowing up the woodchip loader located at Bunbury. They managed to cause serious damage to a stacking gantry, hoping that causing a delay to the operation would allow time for public pressure to mount against the operation. They weren’t successful because the operation was barely interrupted, and they were soon tracked down and arrested. It is one of the few actions where violence has been used as a form of protest, because history shows that violence is more usually displayed against the protestors themselves.

I really enjoyed this book, there are so many wonderful stories and images that capture the feeling behind the protest. There is a foreword written by Germaine Greer, who highlights the inequality that many Australian women still face in the form of domestic violence. We have started to protest on this issue, but we have a long road ahead.

What do we Want: The story of protest in Australia, by Clive Hamilton, is published by the National Library of Australia.