25 June 2011

How not to engage the community: the politics of 5 June

by David Spratt and John Rice

On Sunday 5 June, a set of coordinated public rallies in support of climate action, and particularly a carbon tax, under the banner “Say Yes....”, were held in capital cities around Australia.

For many people, including climate activists, they were a disconcerting experience, in which the community was effectively taken out of these events, reduced to little more than extras providing a staged backdrop for an inordinately expensive media stunt, led by GetUp.

The events may have been public, but they had nought to do with community organising and empowerment. In many ways, they were its negation.

The rallies were nominally organised by the “Say Yes” coalition (or POP11 - Price on Pollution 2011 group of NGOs, including ACF, Greenpeace, WWF, Climate Institute, AYCC, EV, GetUp, ACTU and CANA; at one stage also known as PACC11).

But in effect, the rallies were called by GetUp (and the proposal supported by the ACTU), without consultation with, or the prior knowledge of, most of the environment/climate NGOs in the POP11 group. Some environment NGOs were opposed to the idea in the way it was proposed and with timelines involved. 

That Getup should act unilaterally is unsurprising. It is consistent with what Crikey’s Bernard Keane describes as the “remorseless self-promotion and self-congratulation of GetUp” that demands that GetUp be not just a partner in events, but the leading light that makes the big moves and claims the credit, whether justified in part or not.

[And here lies a bigger question: do the branding imperatives of large NGOs, financially reliant on e-list supporters, drive them to market themselves as separate and distinct from, and of higher standing, than other NGOs and the community groups with which they profess common purpose?  Is this one reason why climate advocacy is so often chronically divided and ineffective? And a reason why as a national movement the climate issue has too rarely been able to engender a public sense of unity of purpose that other movements, such as for refugee rights and peace, have been able to do, with vastly fewer resources?]

In Canberra, an event on the same day was organised outside of the GetUp/POP11 frame by a coalition of 12 local climate and environment groups, with a message around “Real action on climate change” (rather than price on pollution). It was proportionately the largest of the rallies, and generated the only story of the day with new content, based on comments made by one of the speakers, John Hewson. In tone and content, with an emphasis on funding renewables, it seemed the most pertinent to the current deliberations of the multi-party committee.

In all the other mainland cities, the events were organised by GetUp, who seemed unprepared for the task and mildly surprised that environment NGOs who had nought to do with the decision were not prepared to bust their boilers to put the GetUp/ACTU decision into effect.  The organisers made little or no attempt to work with climate activists and climate action groups, in some cases being positively hostile.

In South Australia, for example, the activist umbrella group CLEAN approached the rally organisers offering assistance, requesting one speaker on the platform and saying they would organise an information table on the day. A flat “no” was given to both the speaker and information table proposals. As CLEAN distributed a flyer at the rally, AYCC members and GetUp T-shirted organisers told CLEAN activists to desist, an outrageously undemocratic stance for a public event in a public place. In Melbourne, people wearing Greens T-shirts were approached and asked to remove them.

Oh, the irony: were it not for the Greens’ balance of power in the House of Representatives, and balance of power in the Senate after 1 July, there would not be  a multi-party committee, any prospects of a carbon tax, or any likelihood of it passing the Senate! 

With very little time, no activist base, and some mildly pissed-off environment NGOs, the rallies were bound to be small. Posters and leaflets were printed in token quantities, and marketing of the rallies barely extended beyond social media and the e-lists of the participating organisations, some of whom did their bit but hardly pressed all the buttons. Compared to significant climate mobilisations in the past, their was no buzz in the lead-up, no community radio, no stories in local papers, no outpouring of emails encouraging friends, little on twitter, no street presence by way of posters. Just a comms flurry the day before, and thousands of automated phone bots with a pre-recorded message from GetUp CEO Simon Sheik, which may have annoyed as many people as they encouraged.

Whilst POP11 had promoted their collective capacity to mobilise many of their three million members and supporters, the rallies did little to substantiate this assertion. Organisers claimed a total attendance of “up to 45,000”; reports compiled from activists suggest 30,000 was closer to the mark.

In Melbourne, the crowd was 10,000 at most. By Melbourne standards, this is a poor show. Organisers of Walk against Warming work on a minimum benchmark of 20,000, and 30,000 as a good day out. For a city that has put a quarter of a million on the streets against the Iraq war in 2003 and more than 150,000 for anti-Workchoices rallies, the “Say Yes..” rally was small. And flat.

And it had paid private security, in Melbourne and Adelaide at least!  Several people commented that they were flabbergasted to see paid security guards at the event, suggesting either a budget that knew no bounds, or organisers who did not trust (or know?) a good old-fashioned set of marshals, who come free-of-charge and with a coloured band tied to one arm.

Nothing contributed more to a general sense of deflation at the rallys’ end that the decision taken in advance (at all the rallies, except Canberra where local activists were in charge) not to march.

In Melbourne, for example, instead of marching people were encouraged to pick up pre-prepared post-cards for their neighbours. This misread the crowd, which included many experienced climate and community activists who are already involved in work around transition towns, alternative energy programs, campaigns for adaptation funding in the Pacific, lobbying within their union, school or workplace or participating in their local climate action group. There were certainly some first-time ralliers on the day, but this was a small crowd of the core, many of whom have been door-knocking, setting up street stalls and handing out how to vote cards for some time, and for many causes. A desultory postcard was close to an insult.

A march was what people want and expect, it gets energy moving, and voices heard, provides colour and movement and pictures, and takes the message to the city. People were pissed off. As they milled around in confusion, perhaps they needed a tweet from the rally organisers telling them it was time to go home?

It’s hard not to conclude that marches were off the agenda because they provide moments of spontaneity, and cannot be 100% controlled. When the Melbourne MC, Corinne Grant, announced there would be no march, there was an audible groan – people suddenly realised that their role was just to provide the crowd picture for the photographers perched on a scissor-lift that towered over the rally.

One Sydney participant wrote: “Totally disappointed. Not long after we got there…it was over! Many stood around like us asking ‘what now?’  Only saw Channel 9 & Sky…no helicopters checking on numbers, no polar bears and other assorted costumed characters to liven things up. No march….just a couple of thousand standing in a park, talk about preaching to the converted. We went a couple of years ago to the rally in Martin Place and then the march – brilliant! Not sure if someone different was running it this year, perhaps a case of too many cooks spoil the broth! “

A set of large, coordinated community rallies perform a number of functions. They publicly demonstrate large and energetic national support from hundreds (not tens) of thousands of Australian for political action. They energise and build the movement, an opportunity to gather names, help the formation of new groups of local activists, kick things long, build momentum, inspire many more to become active. None of that could be said of 5 June. 

They are also the culmination of work in the community over previous months, where local and sectoral activity -- letterboxing, street stall, public forums, local stunts, outreach -- all help build momentum for the big day. But this was never going to be a big day, having been called a few weeks, rather than a few months, in advance.  And with a few exceptions, most of the POP11 alliance have no capacity, experience or interest in such large-scale community organising. Indeed, a number of them have, effectively, self-appointed boards without any democratic structure or membership, and a disenfranchised supporter base good for money and an email inbox. It is quaintly feudal in its way, in a world reputedly made “democratic” by social media.

So what were these rallies about? Clearly, despite the bold intent of  the initial POP11 vision, this was not about community organising and empowerment. They were, in reality, a very expensive media stunt, and little more. No community involvement in organising the events, no local buildup, no local follow-up, no march, no energy.

Of the speakers at the rallies, about two-thirds came from the POP11 organisations or their affiliates. There were only three speakers at the Melbourne rally, hosted by comedienne Corinne Grant. Peter Marshall of the firefighters union was followed by Jenna, a “suburban mum”, then ACF CEO Don Henry. The presence of a “community person” on stage was undercut when Jenna read a prepared speech that simply echoed Get Up’s message, rather than speaking with passion or anger, for example, about a parent’s concern for their childrens’ future.

POP11 CEOs were spread around the country to get the TV grabs: John Connor (Climate Institute) in Adelaide, Don Henry (ACF) in Melbourne, Simon Sheik (GetUp) in Sydney and Linda Selvey (Greenpeace) in Brisbane.

It was another day at the office, another big NGO media stunt, this time in front of a “community” backdrop, rather than the parliament house lawns. The community participants were passive players, who were denied the right to either help organise the events or march. And in some cases, apparently to hand out a leaflet or wear the t-shirt of their choice.

In this theatre, the community were not actors and this stage was not for them. They were extras, those who mass in a crowd without any scripted lines, bar a muffled “Hoorah” for the King and his new clothes.  

And the message? The government’s policy of just a 5% reduction in emissions by 2020 below the 1990 baseline, and a carbon tax for that purpose, are so grossly inadequate as to be little more than a suicide note. If a “price on pollution” descends into a scam carbon-trading scheme with unlimited offsets and so on, it may be next to useless. As grassroots activists we must demand the actions that fit the science for a safe climate.

But criticism of the government, in any form, and encouragement to do much, much more were clearly not the purpose of 5 June. The rally flyer’s message was “Say yes to action on climate change: Say yes to putting a price on pollution, because we can’t afford not to.” That was just about it. Labor was off the hook; the gross inadequacy of its 5% target didn’t rated a mention. Presumably that was the idea.

The 5 June rallies have left many people feeling very uneasy, including within some environment NGOs. Clearly POP11 did not succeed in the task that was set, and the process started too late. But many of us failed for different reasons.

For months Abbott raged, but his sham policy was not sufficiently the focus of attack from any part of the movement. He won the battle to make Labor’s policy the story, not his hopeless mess of a “direct action”policy. 

Suggestions from some activists that a low/no carbon price was better than a higher price distracted sections of the grassroots movement, and was politically naive in assuming that a lower carbon price would make “complementary measures” easier to achieve politically. In reality, the short-to-medium term chances for renewable energy funding were pretty much dependent on the size of the tax (especially with the Treasury head and senior ministers committed to reducing “non-market” energy policy mechanisms once a carbon price was working). 

In the absence of carbon price legislation or even a clear idea as to what it would look like, trying to sell it was a very big challenge, and perhaps the wrong tactic. In the last six months, Julia Gillard sounded credible on climate on the very few occasions when she talked about how climate change was, and would, impact on people’s lives. But telling the climate impacts stories -- making the climate connection to extreme events, the impending collapse of the Barrier Reef system and the job losses, the water and food insecurity of a rapidly-warming world, the health and family impacts, the coastal flooding and social dislocation --  were put aside by the government and most NGOs in favour of an economistic “price on pollution” win-win narrative. But if people don’t get the real urgency of the problem, why should they care about the answer, or support a level of action which is absolutely necessary but far beyond Labor’s aspiration?

The unity of POP11 did not last. Branding imperatives triumphed over good politics. Commitments to consultation with the movement were hollow; many of the smaller climate groups, for example, did not know what was being planned for months. GetUp’s unilateralism triumphed over real community organising. The timelines appear flawed. A political strategy based on research in a few marginal seats should have been applied in those seats, but not nationally.

Packing most of the bang into one “week of action” used too much precious ammunition. Poor judgement led to an expensive, but poorly-conceived, TV advertising campaign that was easily derailed. An impossible task was set in trying to sell a government policy before it existed, with a limp, focus-group-driven slogan -- “price on pollution” -- wrapped in a campaign called “Say yes”. Which, in bitter experience, is what you say when you don’t know what to say.

It’s time to draw some lessons from this disconcerting experience. If these words are pointed, it is because the experience has been deeply troubling, and 5 June is no model for the future. Large public rallies are an indispensable part of almost all social movements and can play a unique and irreplaceable role. How can diverse forces unite at crucial times, and provide a large, engaged, public community face to our deep concerns? In what we do next and how we do it, finding an answer to this question is crucial.