Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2016

What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia (2016), by Clive Hamilton

what-do-we-want What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia is a sort of coffee table book for baby boomers.  That’s not to trivialise it, but to acknowledge what the author Clive Hamilton says in his preface:

… writing this book has been not only a fascinating authorial task but also a wistful  return to an early phase of my life. From 1970, while in my second last year of high school, I was a foot soldier in several of the protest movements here described.  […] For many of the young people caught up in those heady times, the protests defined us.  We felt we were making the world a better place, and we were.  Although a few moved into politics and non-government organisations, most went on to careers, families and mortgages.  But so deep was the imprint of those times that we always live a little in their shadow.  (p.viii)

The book begins with a chapter about the protests to end conscription and the Vietnam War.  ‘End the War’ starts with the 1965 May Day procession where the Union of Australian Women pioneered a movement that would bring capital city streets to a standstill but Like the Eureka Youth League, who held the first protest against the Vietnam War in 1963, they had a long way to go before the movement really took off.  Ultimately it became a ‘broad church’, including pacifists and people who objected only to the Vietnam War; communists and liberals; people who were against conscription under any circumstances and those who opposed it only for the Vietnam War, religious people and the iconic mothers who led Save Our Sons.  It feels empowering to read this chapter, but there’s a sobering reminder that moratorium-style protests don’t have the impact that they once did:

… 600,000 Australians marched in protest against the looming Iraq war, dwarfing the 200,000 who had marched at the first Moratorium in 1970.  But the Howard government was unmoved.  After the huge marches, there was no continuing campaign – no pickets, no strikes, no civil disobedience, no blockades of the US Embassy.  The times had changed.  Politicians were no longer afraid of large-scale demonstrations, nor outraged at the challenge to order.  With detailed information on how much influence various constituencies have on elections, today’s politicians may be more afraid of a small, noisy but highly influential group than 200,000 walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge.  (p.31)

*sigh* Ain’t that the truth. We saw that this week with a contemptible new policy towards refugees in limbo in those shameful offshore detention centres, a policy only too clearly pitched at winning back the votes of that nasty, noisy constellation of racists that made their way into our Senate in the last election.  Hamilton’s book must have been at the press at the time, but he devotes some pages to the influence that xenophobia had on the Howard government, a phenomenon obviously resurgent today.

(It has to be said that Hamilton is clearly on the side of the angels.  Although he notes, for example, The Cronulla Riots and manifestations of far-right, neo-Nazi demos, the protest movements he’s interested in are those that make Australia a better place.  He doesn’t resist the temptation to mock that bizarre demo against the mining tax led by Australia’s richest mining tycoons, reminding us of a journalist’s comment that though there were only 200 demonstrators there (bussed in from mining company offices) they were the best-dressed demonstrators he’d ever seen.)

In the chapter called Indigenous Rights, Hamilton draws attention to the continuing tension between confrontation and conciliation.  He briefly summarises the actions of the warrior Pemulway who led the first armed resistance to First Settlement and those of Bennelong who was inquisitive and accommodating and was accepted into settler society as a useful friend of the Governor, often acting as a go-between. 

The contrast between Pemulway and Bennelong was the first instance in Australia’s modern history of the contest between the strategies of confrontation and conciliation, a difference that today still divides Aboriginal politics just as it has divided every social movement. Authorities from colonial times to the present have of course cultivated and honoured the moderates as a way of marginalising the radicals.  The Sydney Opera House does not stand on Pemulway Point. (p. 97)

This tension between confrontation and conciliation can be seen in each of the other chapters too.  The struggle for women’s rights covers First Wave through to Third Wave, with striking photographs depicting staid Victorian suffragettes making their way to the Victorian Parliament in 1898 contrasted with the demands for recognition of rape at the 1977 Anzac Day march. Polite demos for Gay Rights in 1981 contrast with the celebratory camp of the Mardi Gras.  Two photos especially warmed my heart: two young policewomen out and proud in the 1998 Mardi Gras, and much admired Senator Penny Wong with her Labor colleagues at the 2014 parade.

Many of the photos in this book speak louder than words.  A young Gary Foley sits alone outside the hotel where the  Springboks were staying in their infamous tour of Australia in 1971.  While mainstream Australia was in uproar over their precious sport being disrupted by protests against a tour which breached the sanctions against apartheid South Africa, Foley bears a signs saying ‘Pardon me for being born into a nation of racists.’

A chapter called ‘Justice for All’ explores the impact of new kinds of protest, such as BUGA UP (who defaced corporate billboards with comic commentary); savage parody of targets (e.g. Pauline Pantsdown); unexpected movements such as RAR (Rural Australians for Refugees); and the Sydney University campaign for a more pluralist economics curriculum.  Some of Hamilton’s interpretations of events (e.g. who started the violence at World Trade Forum demos and how much impact the anti-globalisation movement has actually had) might stir some doubt, but this is not a book that’s meant to cover anything in depth. (Third Wave Feminists might take issue with what he has to say about GirlPower being more of a cultural phenomenon too.)

Many years ago when I was between husbands, so to say, I had a friendship with a very nice man who was a bit younger than me.  Not much, only a few years, but when it came to talking about social issues it was a gulf a mile wide.  I was a Baby Boomer just a little too young to vote in Australia’s transformative 1972 election, but I’d been keenly interested in all the issues including fighting my own small battles against gender discrimination in the workplace.  But he was a child at that time.  For him, the events recorded in this book were history, whereas for me they were a significant part of my life.  This experience makes me think that this book will mean different things to the generations who read it.

The chapter about environmental activism seems saddest of all to me.  Boomers were passionate about the environment in the 60s and 70s, and Hamilton traces campaigns that mattered to the nation’s soul: the fight for Tasmania’s forests; the Franklin Blockade; (yes, Peter Dombrovskis’ iconic photo of the Franklin River is included); and the Rainbow Warrior.  Not mentioned are the small things we did: unwrapping over-wrapped goods in shops and politely asking shop assistants to put the wasted paper and cardboard in their bins; refusing to buy processed food and corporate fast-food; recycling things like paper and jars within our own homes.  (We still do the latter two, chez moi).  These small things did have an impact for a while, but the arrival of Japanese-style overwrapping lured the style-conscious and the marketing power of corporations introduced pester-power to overcome parental reservations about food choices.   And then, the debacle of the Climate Change movement, which collapsed in Australia over hip-pocket issues.  The good intentions of Rangas for Climate Action have achieved nothing at all.  The irony of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is that for most Australians, taking action on climate change is just too inconvenient.  They have just re-elected a government determined to do nothing at all about climate change and to sabotage the renewable energy industry.

What Do We Want? is a title that seems more thoughtful after reading the book.  As our societies become more diverse, what we might want isn’t so easy to identify…

Author: Clive Hamilton
Foreword by Germaine Greer
Title: What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia
Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2016
ISBN: 9780642278913
Review copy courtesy of NLA Publishing

Available from Fishpond: What Do We Want?: The Story of Protest in Australia, the NLA Bookshop and good indie bookshops everywhere.



  1. I was on the organising committee for the Moratorium at Melb U. And marched in the second moratorium in Brisbane because I’d already started truck driving. Heady times! We thought we’d changed the world. Later, we took the kids on Palm Sunday marches, until the organizers let themselves be confined to footpaths. Times change, mum and dad who were purple faced with rage about the Moratoriums walked across the bridges for Reconciliation.


    • Heady times indeed! No wonder we feel nostalgic because the world was changed!


  2. Great review Lisa, looks a wonderful book.


  3. Disturbing to hear that some of those environmental issues are not getting as much attention. I’m intrigued by your comment re the Japanese influence on packaging. Whats all that about? Recently in UK there was a program where the big companies were challenged about packaging – the coffee chains came off worse because it turns out those cardboard style cups for take-aways are not recycable and despite all the worthy statements on the company websites, they are not really tackling the issue


    • Ah, Japanese packaging, don’t get me started. There used to be an upmarket Japanese boutique at Southbank (beside the Yarra, the river that runs through the middle of Melbourne) and when we went in there to look at some of the pottery bowls, I was appalled to see how they wrapped up purchases. Layers and layers and layers of colour coordinated tissue paper, then more layers and layers of printed glossy paper, then all put inside a glossy paper bag as well. All very artistic, but a breathtaking waste of paper. I thought it was just this shop until we went somewhere else (we were in a Japanese cuisine phase in the kitchen) and they did exactly the same thing. A book would be wrapped with six layers of paper and then put inside a gorgeous paper carry bag, all destined to be thrown in the bin in due course.
      But yes, that’s true about those take-away coffee cups. I won’t go to places that only sell the coffee in those cups. Apart from the fact that they make the coffee taste disgusting, the landfill issue is a serious one. But I am only too well aware that my little boycott isn’t going to make any difference. What’s needed is for lots of people to care, and the fact is, they don’t. I mean, how hard could it be to take a cup with you on the train, buy the coffee in it, and then rinse it out at work afterwards?


  4. Been marching and protesting since I was a ten year old both in my country of birth but mostly in this fair land. Not only baby boomers who participated but across all age groups. Affluence has come at a price where it seems we’ve entered a very different era with fragmentation and time poor folk both young and old much less able or dare I say willing to protest.


    • Good for you, Fay… but I hear what you’re saying about the willingness. I really do worry about the future…


  5. I want this book:) Although my daughters will be reluctant to see me bring yet another book home I think they’ll enjoy this – we could discuss the issues for hours. I still go on marches and feel sad I couldn’t get into the city today because you are right this latest attack on asylum seekers and refugees speaks volumes about the kind of society we are becoming. I was still 16 in 1970 when I skived from school to attend the Moratorium. I was unashamedly in love with Jim Cairns for years, attended meetings at his house, and years later John and I had amazing chats with him as he sold his books at Prahran Market. When O went to ANU, I was at the Aboriginal Embassy and also took my turn sitting with David Bradbury and protesting outside the South African Embassy – we had a 24-hour tent set up there. We really did believe we could change the world – and in some instances, we did influence policy change – it’s just in the scheme of things, human beings haven’t been around for long, we’re slow learners and have a long way to go. Thanks for reviewing it Lisa – I’ll start dropping hints for Christmas.


    • You’re an amazing activist, Mairi, and I’m proud to know you. I reckon you could have written this book yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] the availability of usable images.  Pictures do play an important part in this book, described in Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers LitBlog as “a sort of coffee table book for baby boomers”. As a result, he generally takes up […]


  7. […] Port Philip) review of Craig Wilcox’s Badge Boot Button: The story of Australian uniforms and Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of Clive Hamilton’s What do we want: The story of protest in Australia. These are just […]


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