Meet Australia's 99 Per Cent


Over the weekend the #occupywallstreet movement’s Australian iteration began in earnest, in concert with other worldwide uprisings under the same banner. The Australian arm is small — no more than around 1500 attended the Sydney meeting at its height — and pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of people camped out in Times Square and Zuccotti Park, or the estimated 200,000 rioting and burning cars in Rome.

I visited both the Melbourne and Sydney occupation sites over the weekend. Far from the conspiratorial, bitter old whitey demographic represented at the anti-climate movement’s Potemkin people’s uprisings in Canberra, the occupations were generally good natured and multi-ethnic, with plenty of youth involvement.

Most attendees had individual reasons for coming which were organised under the broad "99 per cent" slogan popularised in the USA: the very richest 1 per cent in our society are living at the expense of everyone else. The movement is small and the nation’s commentators seem hell bent on proving it’s a waste of time, but talking to people at the rally it was hard to avoid the impression that, hardcore socialist fringe aside, many of the issues being discussed at the various occupations are decidedly mainstream.

Kerry, a young woman of Greek descent protesting in Sydney, was attending to show support for her family in Greece, who were suffering under the government’s imposed austerity measures. She acknowledged that "we have it really good", but wondered whether it was "only a matter of time before the world’s economic troubles come to Australia". Ana, a Spanish emigrant, came for similar reasons — to show support for the Indignados. She works as a waitress and is worried about her job security.

Susan Price and Helen Masterman-Smith both attended the Sydney protest on Saturday, flying the flag of the National Tertiary Education Union. They planned to put a motion before the union to endorse the protests. Price, an administrative assistant, is concerned about the direction higher education is taking: "Universities are competing against each other, there’s a culture of managerialism and the market rules." She was involved in a three-year fight to secure better enterprise agreements for university staff — job security again.

Masterman-Smith, who lectures in sociology at Charles Sturt University, said she was attending because research funding for universities increasingly favoured corporate ventures. Research on sustainability, development and social inclusion was increasingly under-funded. She thought the #occupy movement was "a good experiment" because it "provided a way to include people who fall outside mainstream politics".

Isaac, a 29-year-old single parent protesting in Melbourne, came because he had no choice but to quit his job as an engineer. "They pay you for 38 hours work, but you’re expected to work more than 70 hours a week. I had to give up working like that to raise my son." He now runs a business recycling remaindered technology — laptops, old mobile phones — and questions whether people need a new iPhone every six months. He was also worried about the introduction of income management in Shepparton, near where he lives, because he thinks it demonstrates "the government thinks there’s something wrong with me, and I need to be controlled". He also thought the scheme "preferences the big supermarket duopoly; it stops us from shopping at the op shops, the community markets, the places we go for community and so we can survive".

Tal, Oceana and Micah donate their time to the kitchen at the Melbourne camp and say the local council and nearby businesses have been supportive. Cafes on the trendy Degraves Street strip have been donating surplus bread at the end of the day. Sushi restaurants have delivered California rolls gratis for protestors. Protestors and members of the wider public have given crates of food, which are stacked high at the back of the tent overlooking Swanston Street, and hundreds of dollars in unasked-for donations. The council has opened the public bathrooms for 24/7 use.

Their only gripes until this point have been the park’s sprinklers and an ABC news crew turning up at 3am and being "dicks". The police have been civil in Melbourne. "If they wanted to clean us out it would be fairly easy," Micah laughs. "There’s only a few hundred of us here and the cop shop is right across the road!"

In Sydney the police have been less benevolent. Rumours abounded that the protest would be dispersed on Saturday at 4:30pm. The jubilation when that deadline passed was short-lived. Five hours later, police raided the camp, with riot and mounted police in attendance. A garbage truck rolled in and the camp’s tents were bundled into the back of it. Only one arrest was made: a man who attached himself to the truck by his neck, using a bicycle D-lock. According to New Matilda writer Kate Ausburn, between one and two hundred people remained, sleeping on the concrete. At the time of publication police had made new threats to remove sleeping materials and other equipment from the site.

Lance, one of the Sydney occupation’s organisers (he runs the @occupysydney twitter feed) and a lifelong squatter and homeless activist, anticipated the police action. He was keen to see the protest organised as if it were a mass homeless sleepout, relying on the NSW State Protocol for Homeless People. He saw the contingent from various socialist groups, who in Sydney seemed to dominate the "general assembly" and associated organising groups, as trying to "engineer a conflict". Paul Benedec, an organiser and member of Socialist Alliance, said the conflict was inevitable and "the more structures we have the more real it becomes — the tents are required for the occupation".

Because of the small size of the protests, the battle over whether the #occupy tag is relevant in Australia will not be fought out as a real issue — only so many people will walk through the sites and talk to the occupiers, with an even smaller number deciding to participate — but as an abstraction bigger than itself. Does this resonate with the experiences of the Australian 99 per cent? How does the media coverage look? Can people draw a line between the US experience and what is happening — or might happen here? And so on.

The outlook of the ordinary punters I spoke to at both sites was markedly different to both the hard socialists and green left — the ethical consumers. People are worried about being driven into a marginalised position. They are worried about unaffordable housing, the consequences of missing a mortgage repayment, the further deregulation of their workplaces and universities. Many are disgusted with the cartel-like behaviour of the two major parties.

But the abstraction doesn’t represent this: instead we see marches on the exclusive Melbourne Club, the tired old chants of "solidarity" and all the trappings of the old left, and linkups with the anti-CSG lobby and other environmental groups. Green and red. This was always going to be the case, because the occupation is a socialist’s dream come true: one never-ending evening committee meeting.

I wonder if, just like the Convoy against Climate Change participants were sold out by a hardline anti-climate fringe, the occupiers hoping for more job security, less homelessness and a political class that doesn’t scorn them will be let down by a more radical left deaf to their real concerns and too keen for confrontation.

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