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Rallies take the good fight to Canberra


'Rallies' by Chris JohnstonPolitical rallies are on the rise. People are on the move and the destination is Canberra. That is a good thing. Democracy means more than just casting your vote. No one should object to citizens becoming more active.

The relatively small Convoy of No Confidence descended on Canberra from rural Australia last week to rally in support of country interests generally, against the ban on live cattle exports, the carbon tax and a whole catalogue of the Labor Government's alleged sins.

There are alternative democratic options. What can rallies do that voting or focus groups and public opinion polls can't? What can citizens achieve by travelling to Canberra that they can't achieve by going to see their elected representatives in their local electorate offices?

First, the rallies are cathartic, even a bit of fun, for those involved. They enable participants to let off steam and to release their frustrations. Liberal Senator Chris Back from Western Australia said of the convoy idea that it was 'driven by sheer frustration' that those involved are not being heard. Whether they are or not is not the point; they don't believe that they are.

Importantly such supporters are given something much more active to do than the parliamentary system generally allows. This is a welcome change. Inside the Parliament House chambers the rules strictly specify that citizens may be seen but not heard. Even outside the building and on the lawns there are strict rules and permissions to be obtained by any group wanting to stage a rally.

Action is something that both the old and new social movements have always relied upon to invigorate supporters. It beats attending a dry party branch meeting in order to get a motion passed.

Secondly, the rallies offer a collective voice. One pamphlet emphasised that 'it's crowds that talk'. That doesn't mean they necessarily represent a majority voice; minorities can organise a good demonstration too. But they enable individuals to magnify their voice. The downside is that people sometimes do and say things in groups that they have the good sense to avoid as individuals.

Thirdly, the rallies try to influence the politicians gathered inside Parliament House. Most rallies try to appeal to politicians' self-interest. They want politicians to be afraid of losing their seats. The National Marriage Day organisers, for instance, warned all politicians not to take them lightly and pointed to the success of a previous rally in 2004.

They try to seduce ministers and shadow ministers into making commitments. Those momentary lapses can then be used repeatedly in subsequent political argument and in election campaigns.

Fourthly, rallies attract media attention, often, like the recent convoy, beyond what they numerically deserve. Their colorfulness is always more attractive to the media than a quieter, more private event. If the rally can generate a counter-rally leading to harsh words being exchanged by participants then so much the better for the media.

Finally, they demonstrate intensity of commitment. This is an often forgotten element of politics. Those who participate in rallies may make efforts above and beyond the so-called passive 'silent majority'. They leverage their numbers and try to multiply their impact.

Senator Back said of the convoy members: 'Everyone will be making a significant sacrifice in terms of time, money and energy.' Rally-goers hope that intensity will impress the rest of the community, therefore advancing their cause directly and indirectly with Government and Opposition.

Detailed analysis of those who participate in rallies is rare. But MPs make their own judgments. Many rallies contain lots of true believers with predictable political commitments. In other words they are the usual suspects.

The ones that really make governments sit up and take notice are those that contain not just rusted on party supporters, as some of the organisers are, but people who really are considering changing their vote; that means not just changing from how they voted in 1972 or 1983 but from the Gillard-Abbott election in 2010.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Convoy of No Confidence, rallies, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott



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Existing comments

Oh dear! Emeritus Prof Warhurst spruiking for Alan Jones and the One Nation-Tea Party style of 'politics' marks a low point in 'intellectual thought' in the black art of politics.

Perhaps a commentators job awaits with Fox News?

What this 'might' show is just how little work our politicians are doing in their electorates, driving their voters to take things into their own hands.

Certainly my Liberal MHR, nestled down in a safe seat, makes absolutely no effort whatsoever to 'speak' to his electorate, and neither do his state counterparts from the ALP and the LNP, so he is at least in good company.

But for Warhurst to gloss over the pulling power of the Radio Ignoramus who helps to drive the 'average Australian' in their addled thinking is to fundamentally misread the 'peoples democracy' he writes about here.

Absolutely none of those wasting their time and money on the convoy-of-nonsense would have voted for the ALP last time around and to even hint that they represented disaffected Gillard supporters is the ultimate in not understanding how the RARA mind works, which should be a 'first principle' for a political observer.

Anyone who drove a semi from Port Hedland to Canberra at 6 mpg has got too much money, or a wealthy backer. This was a stunt, and nothing more than that.

As would a union rally have been too.

Harry Wilson | 29 August 2011  

I agree that rallies can be fun and are necessary to a democracy. However, there is nothing fun about Alan Jones's demagoguery or misogynistic placards aimed at Julia Gillard.

Barbara Harland | 29 August 2011  

The largest rallies this country have ever seen were dismissed by Howard as "the mob" and over 1 million humans are dead.

The losers who went to Canberra spent upward of $10,000 polluting the atmosphere to complain about a tax they won't be paying, and if they were it would take over 33 years to pay the $10,000 they wasted to complain about it.

Marilyn Shepherd | 29 August 2011  

Oh Harry, how wrong you are. There were many a Labor voter on that Convoy who will never do such a thing again.

And the "wealthy backer" that you refer to was none other than rural and regional taxpayers from across Australia.
Keep sipping on your soy lattes and dont come looking for a feed when all the farms are sold off to China and we cant import cheap beef.

Well done John Warhurst for finally shedding some truth on the Convoy.

Stuart Austin | 29 August 2011  

Great to know that all those that don't drive trucks or run a trucking business know exactly how this carbon "lie" tax that will be imposed on us will cost such a business.

There were a lot amongst that convoy or who supported the convoy that once voted Labor but will never again do so, as they are so totally disgusted with them.
If you bothered to listen to the leaders of the convoy you would have heard them say that they don't want the Labor party destroyed,they said it has it place, but it is a case of wanting one party to run the country, not this disfunctional one, which is made up of so many.
The fact that most of those in power didn't have the respect to even show their faces to these people who made it to Canberra, just goes to show exactly what the convoy was about.The fact that so many all around Australia helped everyone in the convoy to get to Canberra just showed the huge support nation wide this great vote of no confidence had.

So Alan Jones has a voice, great, he wasn't the only one on the convoy.

Ann Britton | 29 August 2011  

Children were performing in a choir at Parliament House for the launch of the Multicultural Council when this convoy/demonstration was on the lawns. They met the PM and other Ministers.

Just great that they saw signs referring to the PM as a bitch as they went in.

Most invigorating.

Penelope | 31 August 2011  

Three months ago, 10,000 people in Melbourne and 8,000 people in Sydney, marched and gathered for a rally calling on our Government to act on climate change. If we just look at pure numbers, then these rallies win hands down over the "convoy of no confidence" with its a couple of hundred.

But more importantly there were no signs labeling MPs as bitch, no speaker spouting hatred towards people, and no one calling on supporters to "take up arms".

These were rallies about action for our children and planet. I do not know what ideals the convoy hold dear, but it is not respect for our democratic principles, as this article seems to imply. If it was then they would show more respect of our elected representatives and leading institutions such as the CSIRO and Treasury.

Damien | 02 September 2011  

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