One of the persistent criticisms made of the contemporary left is that it fails to present a credible alternative to the ascendant neoliberal right. Simon Copland falls into this pattern, regrettably critiquing the upcoming March in March for ‘focusing on Abbott’s character and not presenting new policies’. Copland argues that the March in March has adopted the tactics of the Abbott government, and in doing so perpetuates what Kevin Rudd might refer to as ‘old politics’.
I agree with Copland that claims the Abbott government is ‘illegitimate’ and calling for the Governor-General to sack the government are, to be frank, silly. However his characterisation of the March in March is needlessly simplistic. In calling for the left to present a credible alternative, and then citing the boycott of the Biennale sponsor Transfield as an example of a successful re-articulation of the ‘Asylum Seeker Movement’ (a weird term in and of itself), Copland rips open an enormous contradiction.
As has been widely reported, Malcolm Turnbull criticised the decision to sever ties with Transfield, stating that “I think the artists that have done this have potentially driven a stake, not through the asylum seeker policy, I can assure you of that, but through the heart of the Biennale itself”. Correct. To accept the logic of corporate boycotts is to accept the fundamental logic of the market – not an ideal outcome for a left that Copland wants to present a ‘credible alternative’.
In fact, these kinds of high-visibility, but ultimately impotent, protests do more harm than good. Have the artists who have successfully culled a long and fruitful partnership for the Arts now further reduced the platform from which their message can be heard? Realistically, the problem facing the left in Australia today is not merely the unjust structures that govern our society, but the fact that the public does not actually see that these structures exist.
In short, the message is not getting through to the people, and our art and music and literature are the ways with which we change the minds that vote for Australia’s political parties. Any reduction in the left’s cultural volume is not a victory, however nice it might feel to attack Transfield.
What Copland fails to recognise is the nascent glimmer of left-wing community in March in March – a trace of Occupy, a splash of Brand. Sure, some of the noises from parts of the March are anti-Abbott, but hasn’t the left throughout history utilised the figure of the privileged and out-of-touch ruler as a clarion call for communitarian politics?
In her profoundly radical and inspiring address to the World Social Forum 2003 in Brazil, Indian writer Arundhati Roy calls for the progressive community of the world “… not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it”. Likewise, in the spirit of compassionate dissent the March in March seeks to mock and shame Abbott’s ruthless government.
The March in March has advocated for transparency and accountability, something sorely lacking in the conduct of the current Coalition government, but more importantly the March has issued a call for decency. In my work with the organisers of the Gosford March in March, I have seen a grassroots movement of people who are seeking a shift in the language we use in our politics: a return to compassion, to kindness, and to the idea of community.
Copland is right when he points out that the left is seeing declining influence, declining union membership, and declining popular clout. And alongside this, people are disconnecting from politics as it has been done in Australia historically.
March in March represents a break from the old politics – a movement of people who want to see a change, and have the energy and drive to articulate a new language of common good.
Don’t write it off before it has happened; there’s the old saying about babies and bathwater – March in March might just be the clean water the community needs.