The March in March protests across Australia over March 15-17 were a resounding success – not just because of their size, focus and breadth.
Just as significant is the fact that March in March tore apart the idea – seeded by the cynical rhetoric of John Howard's spin doctors in the wake of the invasion of Iraq – that protests don't work.
This protest worked precisely because it brought between 80,000 and 110,000 people out of their homes and into the streets in a disparate yet united way against the Tony Abbott government's attacks.
They worked also because so many want to do it again. Commentaries on social media reveal a consensus: one protest isn't enough – sustained mass protest is what's needed to defend our rights and services.
Yes, the politics was varied. The unifying factor, however, was a hatred of the newly installed conservative government's policies.
So soon into the Coalition's term, and months before an anticipated horror budget of service cuts and privatisations, the size of the March in March protests — seemingly erupting from nowhere — was a shock.
No wonder Abbott and Co. looked so grim.
At his March 16 press conference, Abbott feigned ignorance of the March in March – even though he had bagged it out the day before. His spin doctors must have warned him off commenting given his negative approval rating and declining support for the government. Just six months into its first term, the Coalition’s support stands at 51% of the two-party preferred vote.
The corporate media have been conflicted.
Some have tried to run with “The protesters don't know what they're protesting about”. But the many articulate and sharp placards give the lie to that.
Mostly the mainstream coverage has been shallow and cynical. Fairfax's Sydney Morning Herald put up photos of March in March online but decided to ignore it in the hard copy edition (while devoting space to the much smaller St Patrick's Day march).
Murdoch's Australian ran a story on the Queensland March in March with the headline “Man collapses in anti-Abbott Qld march”.
Significantly, social media has provided the best and most in-depth coverage.
Since the weekend's events, thousands of citizen journalists have posted pictures, YouTube films and comments wondering about the huge size of the rallies, where they sprung from and their political significance.
In Sydney, the crowd stayed positive despite heavy rain: they listened to (rather than talked through) the speakers, sang along with Billy Bragg, and then marched. It took about three to four hours. Photographers had a great opportunity to showcase the size, colour and multi-generational nature of this long march.
First-time rally goers – both older and young – were invigorated by the feeling of collective power that comes from masses of people taking to the streets with a clear message.
March in March was the conduit for the first (hopefully of many) national collective mass political actions against an already very unpopular government.
While it appeared to be entirely spontaneous, in fact it relied on the work of many hundreds of communities and social movement groups, which are mostly not seen or heard, including those concerned about refugees, the environment, service cuts, housing rights, Aboriginal rights, union rights and more.
If it wasn't for all these more permanent social movement committees doing a lot of the on-the-ground organising of their networks, March in March would not have worked so well.
March in March underscored the legitimacy of mass political action and discussion – something that has taken a battering in Australia since the February 2003 protests against the Iraq war.
The national campaign against Work Choices in 2005, while significant, was very different because it was tightly controlled by the ALP and its lieutenants in the union bureaucracy. The Occupy movement had only a fraction of the reach of its US and European counterparts.
While the corporate media cannot write off the March in March protests — largely because of their size — they are and will continue to do their best to delegitimise them as having any meaning or political value.
But we should expect this from the media that serves the 1% — especially in this period as the Abbott government uses the media to prepare the ground for the massive cuts its secretive commission of audit will recommend for budget 2014.
Already at the rally the feeling was that March in March needs to be more than a “one off”. The national coordinators are discussing whether to hold another protest after the budget in May.
The theme of “No confidence in the Abbott government” worked well at March in March but it needs to be sharpened for the next one. Demands such as job creation in sustainable industries, more funding for education, health and other services and the humane treatment of refugees including ending mandatory detention are possible. These were overarching themes of the recent March in March.
While there was a clear anti-Abbott focus, the overwhelming sentiment at March in March was that the ALP neither could (nor should) be trusted.
In general this was not expressed as a “neither left nor right” type of politics — the defensive line put by some March in March organisers a day or two before the rallies in response to an Abbott attack. The overwhelming political character of the protest was progressive and left.
And the fact that these rallies were largely organised outside the traditional Labor-dominated structures, including most trade unions, meant that they were a lot more open politically. Some unions did get involved, and many individual unionists marched, but unions should seek to get more involved in the next one.
To become more politically potent, the movement needs to get better organised for the second march – this time in May.
A critical first step has been taken by up to 110,000 people who are not prepared to wait until the next election. They do not agree with the narrow electoralist view that anti-Abbott protests should wait to simply vote them out.
March in March presents a challenge to those traditional organisations – especially unions – many of which have retreated from their once strong role in protecting jobs, conditions and the rights of others, such as asylum seekers.
The unions need to get involved and start planning now with the March in March protest organisations for a serious national day of action in May. This is what will help make this still-too-diffuse anti-Abbott movement into something more politically potent, and help re-vitalise the notion that real and lasting change always comes from below.
Pip Hinman is a member of the national executive of the Socialist Alliance.