Today (26/09/2011) I visited the rally for the "Nationwide Day of Student Action" that took place at the AUSA (Auckland University Student Association) quad at the University of Auckland, one of the protests occurring simultaneous with other universities. They had advertised this event with posters and messages everywhere. I had heard of it as early as Thursday 22nd September at a university Amensty International debate, where university lecturer Mohsen Al-Attar (LLM, PhD candidate) had hijacked the debate moot and turned his speech into a promotion for the protest. The next day (Friday) I went to class and asked my tutor Vernon Tava (LLM, Green candidate for Northcote) about the protest, and I thought it was a good idea to have a look at what it was about.
I must state, I was there to observe and learn, I wasn't there to hinder the protest in any way, whether I agreed with it or not.
At 1PM in the AUSA quad, many faces were present in the audience, Vernon Tava, Mohsen Al-Attar, Jacinda Ardern (Labour list, candidate for Auckland Central), Nicky Hager, leaders of AUSA, the socialists and about 300 protestors. As much as I would like to say students,there were a large number of non students, including supporters of the Mana party. Ardern said that her opponents Nikki Kaye (National, Auckland Central MP seeking reelection) and David Seymour (ACT list candidate and Auckland Central candidate) were invited, but were not present. This is clearly not my typical crowd, and I kept a low profile since I knew ACT and like-minded capitalists were in their crosshairs.
The speakers were clear to blame ACT and National, they saw a political reorientation and an ideological attack on students, with Green supporters quick to add they were against VSM (Voluntary Student Membership, a bill proposed by ACT). They also mentioned that students were in a state of disunity, with Al-Attar mentioning that students are quick to assume identities associated with "Young Greens, Young Nats, ACT on Campus" and other identities, that the government saw as a weakness, adding that we should set aside these differences to unite under the banner of students. The speakers also seemed to imply that they had the full support of the student body, with the entire audience cheering everything said. The general targets of all the talk were University of Auckland vice-chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon, the ACT Party, the National Party, supporters of VSM, the New Zealand Police, university administration, older generations that benefited from free education, and even themselves.
The question that has been missed here is - what are they protesting?
One of the main reasons I went along was actually to see what it was people were against. What I found is that the 300+ people gathered were not united by any one reason or goal; everyone was there for different reasons, all of which they were unhappy about. I found a two-sided flyer that advertised the protest for two different causes.
The summary of the obverse side was a rally to "Defend the right to protest," on the basis that security had cracked down on students during a human rights protest. The reverse side was a "We are the university" protest that opposes VSM, opposes Stuart McCutcheon, and marks solidarity with Victoria University of Wellington as well as Greek and Chilean student grievances.
This is what annoyed me about the protest, while I shall stand neutral on the various individual points they protested against; the fact is they gathered up numbers for more than one cause and protested with no real direction. Their causes were:
- Stuart McCutcheon
- Right to dissent
- Academic freedom
- University working conditions
- Intergenerational equity
- Solidarity with other students (VUW, Greece, Chile)
- Free education
- Abolition of student loans
- Universal student allowance
- Lack of employment following graduation
- Freezes on increasing education costs
I spoke with Mohsen Al-Attar on Princes Street, and honestly introduced myself as a member of the ACT Party. He wasn't offended, fortunately. I asked him about the protest and it's motives, and he tried to draw my attention to issues that would concern me, such as human rights and free speech at the university, along with frustration of the government for not doing enough to improve the job market. This to me implied that the protest had no certain goal, the idea seemed to be to gather as many students unhappy with something and use the numbers gathered to further any of these motives.
Why is it that student protests are always a phenomena of left-wing causes? Not to say that there weren't elements of those protests I agree with, but the overwhelming crowd was leftist, and trying to push a mostly left wing agenda. Also not trying to be a left-basher or alarmist, but the key evidence was that there were no means to try and find a united way forward in any solutions; there was no push to open dialogue with the current government about alleviating student debt or negotiate fees with McCutcheon. Instead, the protestors were simply intent on protesting, often did I hear people in the crowd asking what was going on to be replied with "just follow the megaphone" and the like. The push to "fight" and "rise up" in the "battle" was even likened to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, which is hardly a fair comparison given the Egyptian situation. It is events like this that give VSM more reason, as students are represented in a way that does not truly reflect the will of the student body.
It is hard to acknowledge the validity of the protest when there is no cause, only a will to protest. Not to discredit the effort these people have put in, only to recommend that they are clear on their goals and intentions, keep an open mind, and to maximize dialogue to achieve their goals. Rather than trying to 'fight the power' in an 'us versus them' situation, it is better to use the democratic system to change things from the inside-out, knowing that it is harder from to change things from the outside-in.