The power and passion of protest

The power and passion of protest
Clive Hamilton describes the process of creating What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia
11 January 2017

When I was first approached by the Library's publisher Susan Hall to write what would become What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia, I declined. I was too busy with ‘more serious' things. Besides, I'd never written a ‘picture book' before and was unsure what it would involve.

But I kept thinking about it; it struck me as something that would not only be very worthwhile but also—unlike my wrist-slashing tomes on climate change—enjoyable to write. So a month later I phoned Susan to ask if the opportunity were still available. I'm glad it was because writing What Do We Want? was fascinating and inspiring, undoubtedly the most pleasurable book I have undertaken.

International Women's Day march, 1975

'Not the Church, not the State, Women must decide their fate!' Women on the march, International Women's Day, Melbourne, 1975, nla.cat-vn3510654

Composing a book constructed around images is a wholly different kind of enterprise. I began by reading all I could about the great Australian protest movements, especially those of the 1960s and 1970s, then going back and coming forward from there. Delving into the Library's archival material—such as yellowing newsletters from the first days of gay liberation—turned up some gems to make the text sparkle a little more.

At the same time, with excellent help from my research assistant Jemma Williams, we spent months searching the Library's collections for suitable images. Where there were gaps—for example, no suitable image for a crucial protest event—we looked in other collections, such as the Mitchell Library and the State Library of Victoria and private collections.

Welcome party at Franklin dam protest site

The welcome party for people joining the protest against the damming of the Franklin River, 1983, nla.cat-vn6978126

When choosing the pictures to include, my first criterion was: Does it show people protesting? I wanted to communicate to the reader—or perhaps the viewer for those who would keep turning the pages to look at the pictures and read the captions—the sheer colour, diversity, inventiveness and vivacity of the protest story.

Some images struck me the instant I saw them. ‘That has to go in,' I said to myself. One of my favourites, for its poignancy and historical significance, is the image of Jimmy Clements, an old Wiradjuri man, sitting in the dust with his dogs and holding an Australian ensign, at the 1927 opening of Parliament House in Canberra.

Jimmy Clements at the Parliament House opening, 1927

Jimmy Clements practising the politics of visibility at the opening of Parliament House, Canberra, 1927, nla.cat-vn3547995

Nangar, or ‘King Billy' as he was known, had heard about the new big house going up on the Limestone Plains (Ngunnawal territory) and walked for some days to make his presence known. He said that the land was Aboriginal land.

As a historical footnote, Parliament House was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York. The Duchess, who shook Jimmy Clements by the hand, would become the Queen Mother, giving the royal family of today a connection to one of the first land rights activists. (I have a tiny hope that a lady-in-waiting kept the glove the Duchess was wearing.)

Jimmy Clements died three months after the event, aged 80. He was one of the earliest practitioners of what I call in the book the politics of visibility, of being present where you are not meant to be and where your presence creates discomfort.

While the book is about protests and those who undertook them, it is at the same time a social history of modern Australia. It's not a ‘history book' (which would be much less interesting) but the story of the great social movements that shaped modern Australia.

NSW Police join Mardi Gras

The long march from the first Mardi Gras in 1978 reached a milestone in 1998 when NSW police officers participated, nla.cat-vn3097609

Unless you understand the new social movements that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and the environment movement that took off in the late 1970s, you can't really understand how our contemporary society and politics are structured. For example, some of our politicians are still fighting the battles they lost on the campuses 30 or 40 years ago. Why?

When Germaine Greer agreed to write the book's foreword, I wondered what her approach would be. She could have gone anywhere with it. In the end, she penned an encomium to the power, and the necessity, of resistance. If we don't resist we cannot be free, because there are always forces out there that will oppress us. She's right.

Germaine Greer's Foreword

Germaine Greer's thought-provoking foreword to What Do We Want?

As I write in the book: ‘Progress does not just happen, as if we are magnetically drawn towards some social utopia. It occurs because a few individuals begin to demand change. They must be determined, obstinate and willing to suffer, because those opposed to change are more powerful and typically react with anger, ridicule and slander'. Without protest, we would be enslaved.

What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia by Clive Hamilton was released by NLA Publishing in November 2016