By Paul Benedek
The global economic meltdown is yet to hit Australia hard, but 2011 was still a busy year of struggle in this relatively sheltered, wealthy country.
The year began with an Australian citizen on the global centre stage. WikiLeaks cables embarrassed governments worldwide, revealing war crimes and treachery, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested without charge. He was detained for all of last year. His supporters fear he will be extradited to the US, where conservatives have openly called for his assassination.
The federal government joined the attacks on Assange, but public sentiment has been overwhelmingly on Assange and WikiLeaks’ side.
On the other side of the world, after decades of oppression in the Middle East, the Tunisian revolution began the inspiring Arab Spring. Solidarity rallies and meetings took place across Australia to support the peoples’ power uprisings and oppose the West’s support for the region’s tyrants, such as Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.
The horrific war on Afghanistan, and Australia’s involvement, reached 10 years in 2011. The anti-war movement mobilised around two contrasting visits to Australia.
Afghan anti-war and feminist activist Malalai Joya’s tour inspired hundreds with her message that the troops must leave Afghanistan. She said the Afghan people must determine their own future.
A few of months later, anti-war activists headed to Canberra to confront US President Barack Obama. Obama outlined plans to build a US military base in Darwin and strengthen the US-Australia war alliance. The anti-war movement did not mobilise big numbers, but a large, passive sentiment against the war persists.
Solidarity with the people of Palestine was another big issue in Australian politics last year. The second freedom flotilla to Gaza took place in July. Three Australians — Michael Coleman, Vivienne Porzsolt and Sylvia Hale — were among the activists on board. When the Greek government impounded the peace ships, Porzsolt and Hale flew to Israel. They were detained then released, gaining huge coverage for the Palestinian cause.
In Australia, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel’s apartheid policies attracted relentless attacks from the political right. But Palestine solidarity activists remain undaunted and will continue the campaign this year.
Yet perhaps the story of 2011 occurred near the end of the year, with the birth of the global Occupy movement.
Occupy, equal marriage
Sparked by the Occupy Wall Street protests in the heart of the world’s richest financial centre, the movement inspired thousands of Occupy protests worldwide. Occupy broke the illusion that revolt couldn’t happen in the US. But it also challenged the idea that today’s youth have simply submitted to the dominant culture of consumerism and individualism.
The Occupy movement has resonated strongly in Australia, even though the country has not yet faced US or European levels of unemployment and economic hardship.
Beyond the local expressions of international struggles — WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring, anti-war, Occupy — Australia’s political terrain is also marked by domestic struggles.
The largest domestic campaign last year was for marriage equality, culminating in the December 3 march of 10,000 people to Labor’s national conference in Sydney. Years of campaigning have convinced many to support equal marriage. A broad and youthful equal marriage movement has emerged. A big majority of the Australian population now supports marriage equality.
The ALP conference passed a motion in support of marriage equality. But it rendered the new position ineffective by allowing MPs a conscience vote. This means any proposed law for equal marriage would fail to pass parliament.
Yet the change in the ALP platform is a victory for the movement. This year, marriage equality activists will push to build on this partial victory and have equal marriage passed into law. Equal marriage campaigners will rally in Canberra on February 7, the first day of federal parliament, to demand equality.
At a time of economic crisis the wealthy “1%” always try to make the majority wear the pain, and deflect anger on to scapegoats — in Australia, refugees and Aboriginal people bear the brunt of such attacks.
The few thousand asylum seekers arriving annually by boat, fleeing war zones Australia has helped create, are a tiny part of Australia’s annual immigration intake. Yet refugees who arrive by boat are a daily political and media punching bag. As the ALP and the Coalition engage in a race to the bottom on anti-refugee rhetoric and policy, the refugee rights movement has re-emerged.
The crisis for refugees could hardly be worse — suicides and self-harm are frequent in refugee detention centres, which are run for profit by private company Serco.
New detention centres are being built and old ones expanded as detention numbers rise. The Labor government has threatened to deport more refugees back to danger, including Hazaras to Afghanistan and Tamils to Sri Lanka.
The major party “solutions” to the refugee crisis are to dump refugees in Malaysia or Nauru.
But as the horror grows, so does the grassroots opposition. Refugee advocates that hoped the election of a Labor government would bring refugee rights have realised the struggle must continue and have restarted their networks.
Labor has also expanded the racist intervention into Aboriginal communities, despite figures showing that the punitive, disempowering policies have coincided with a rise in Indigenous incarceration and suicide, and a fall in school attendance. Black deaths in custody also continue while the federal government plans toxic waste dumps and uranium mining on Aboriginal land.
Yet Aboriginal people and supporters continue to struggle. The first key date for Aboriginal rights this year will happen over January 26-28 in Canberra — a convergence to mark 40 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
The campaign against coal seam gas (CSG) mining exploded last year. The Lock the Gate Alliance now groups 133 community organisations fighting CSG developments in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia.
The breadth of the campaign is impressive, involving country and city, farmers and socialists, celebrities and greenies.
In NSW, more than 20,000 people signed a petition for a Royal Commission into all effects of CSG activity, a moratorium on all CSG activity and an immediate ban on fracking.
As the anti-CSG movement grows and broadens, governments are on the back foot. However, the hard work of the campaign still lies ahead. Queensland already has more than 1800 CSG wells. More than 4000 have been approved, and the state could have 40,000 wells by 2030.
This year the movement will need to grow to make support for CSG poisonous for any government. Socialist Alliance has a vital role to play in building the movement in the cities as well as the country, and organising forces to join farmers on the blockades.
The campaign also has an important role to play in inspiring the broader climate movement, as the global climate change emergency reaches critical tipping points.
The narrow debate around the Gillard government’s carbon pricing plan disoriented the climate movement. However, many of the tens of thousands who are coming out against CSG see the need for a rapid transition to real climate solutions, especially mass investment in renewable energy.
Another environment challenge this year will be taking on the ALP’s recent decision to approve uranium sales to India, further putting profit before the planet.
The Australian political landscape for 2012 remains heavily dependent on global developments — the ongoing economic and environmental meltdowns, further uprisings in the Middle East, WikiLeaks, the Occupy movement and the threat of a US war against Iran.
At home, most campaigns involve moral outrage at clear injustices — the treatment of refugees, Aboriginal rights and marriage inequality. The movement to stop CSG is perhaps the clearest manifestation of a broad-based community environmental campaign capable of growing into a powerful force for change.
This year, it is impossible to predict the exact breakouts that will occur, just as no one predicted the Occupy movement. But 2011 was a clear indication that as capitalism flounders economically, environmentally and socially, revolts and campaigns will emerge at the global and national levels.
Socialist Alliance will actively build a wide range of these movements, involving the largest numbers of people in campaigns for progressive change, and raising the need for system change where people and planet, not profits, come first.