By Paul Howes
[The following is an edited version of a talk presented to the "Fight back!" conference organised by the Democratic Socialist Party and the socialist youth organisation Resistance on September 1. Paul is a year 9 student at Blaxland High in Sydney's west. He is also a member of Resistance and Students Against Cuts.]
On August 29, more than 3000 high school students from across Sydney walked out of their classrooms and joined with tertiary students to rally and march against the Liberals' attacks on education. The Sydney action was part of a national school walkout which started out as a protest against the federal budget plans for education, but became much more than that.
It has always been the way of governments, Labor or Liberal, to scapegoat the most vulnerable sections of society, and a lot of the time this means young people. For years a little attack here and a little attack there have angered high school students, and this is all piling up. The budget is the final attack and has angered us for the last time, because this time we are going to fight back!
We will fight not just to get back what little we had but to improve on it, to reclaim every little right and benefit they have taken away from us, because we are angry now and this time we are going to fight and we are going to shake this Liberal government to its foundations.
On August 17, Resistance called on high school students to walk out of classes for August 29. In just 12 days, Resistance, Students Against Cuts (SAC) and tertiary student activists supported by the National Union of Students (NSW), were able to get 3000 to the walkout and rally. This shows how we can organise high school students in a short amount of time.
The message spread through Sydney schools like wildfire through leaflets and word of mouth. Students themselves told their classmates and friends, because of how angry we are at what this government is doing. This is why we have to continue organising on high schools, continue to get students to join Resistance and Students Against Cuts, because the anger is there and we want to do something about it.
Students from schools all across Sydney will start coming to SAC meetings, and little SAC groups will start to organise on individual schools; this is how we'll be able to continue to build this campaign. Solidarity between high school students and uni students is what will also help the campaign to grow. We need to work more closely with the Education Action Groups on universities to help the rallies get bigger. It's only by organising together, with as broad an opposition as possible, that we will be able to defeat the Liberals' plans.
Public high schools are fast becoming an endangered species in Australia under the Liberals. They want to shift as much as $300 million in funding from public schools to private schools. This is forcing some schools, including my own, to seek corporate sponsorship. This isn't just about the school's soccer team being sponsored by the local butchery. They are talking about a public education institution being sponsored by multinational corporations, such as NEC or Panasonic. Our education will be compromised because of this dependence on sponsors.
The Liberals want to cut more people off Austudy, but youth unemployment is huge, and the jobs we can get don't pay enough to live on. In his "fair go" budget, Howard is also proposing to lower the already shameful youth "slave" wage to as little as $2 an hour! That means, if I worked at a place like McDonald's for 12 hours on a Saturday, I would earn $24. And they wonder why we walked out of school!
In my town, I'm not allowed on the street after 9.30pm because as a young person they suspect I "might" break the law. Now Bob Carr, the New South Wales ALP premier, wants to give the police greater powers to "deal" with "suspected" street gangs. This means the cops can harass groups of three or more young people standing in a public place, break them up and demand names and addresses of suspected gang members.
A couple of years ago, the public found out that the ALP's policy document described gangs as "youths, their baseball caps turned back to front"! Under Carr's new plans, it will be the right of the police to interrogate suspected gang members, and this means they will increase their harassment of young people, especially those who are black or Asian.
We can't skate on the road or other public places, because all of a sudden the state Labor government made skateboarding a crime.
The local youth advisory board, which has not one member under 28 years old, wonders why we break the law when they have organised perfectly wonderful youth activities like bushwalking or Scouts. We can get suspended from school if we express a political point of view, even though everything the teachers say is political. It's political that the school will be sponsored by big business.
They tell us our hair is too long or too short. We're told to get a job but there are no jobs out there to get. It's a crime to steal bread to live, yet Howard is a national hero for cutting young people off Austudy. These are all reasons why we're pissed off and we're not going to stand for it any more. Starting with this budget, we're going to fight back and get rid of every injustice that has been laid upon us.
So where to now? How and where are we going to continue the fight? One idea in SAC is to call on students to walk out of school again, along with other actions like pickets, speak-outs, and meetings. We will continue to build actions with all sections of our society that under the knife from the Liberals, and most importantly, high school students will organise together. Howard should be scared that high school students, the new generation, are starting to really organise. It's through organising and getting out on the streets to protest that we will fight and fight hard, so this government shakes so hard it will crumble.
We are not going to give up and we are not going to accept our politics being written off as "brainwashing". We have our politics to defend our rights: our right to free and quality education; our right to walk the streets at night and talk to two or more friends in a public place without police harassment; our right to Austudy; our right to a media source that is not controlled by big business; our right to political freedom. We will organise and fight to defend and reclaim these rights!