Police on horseback and riot officers violently broke up a student protest in Melbourne on October 30. The demonstration was held to oppose federal government threats to higher education, and was part of a national week of student action, called by the National Union of Students.
Just two days before the protest, education minister Christopher Pyne told the ABC’s Q&A the government was investigating the possibility of selling off student HECS debt to private companies.
A month earlier, on September 25, Pyne told the Australian Financial Review he intended to slash funding to student organisations, to remove participation targets for disadvantaged groups, and to review the current uncapped number of university places.
The rally on October 30 was attended by 80 to 100 students, and marched from Parliament House to Liberal Party headquarters. There was a heavy police presence from the start.
Early in the rally, Treasurer Joe Hockey was spotted approaching Parliament House on foot. Students confronted him on the street, before he was escorted away by police.
Students later marched along Bourke Street, and held a sit-down action at two intersections, where effigies of Abbott and Pyne were burned. The march ended outside Liberal Party headquarters, where protesters held a shoe-throwing action at the building to express their disgust at the government's policies. This form of protest is more common in the Middle East, but has become more widely known in Australia since 2008, when an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at then-US President George Bush during a press conference, and in 2011, when an activist threw a shoe at former PM John Howard during an appearance on Q&A.
It was at this point in the protest that police attacked, surrounding the group, and moving into the crowd to pick off individuals for arrest. Protesters were thrown to the ground, and there were media reports of police punching students in the head. Mounted police charged into the crowd in formation. Eleven students were arrested. Police have already laid serious charges against some students, and others are likely to be charged.
The protesters were attacked again by police as they made their way, with arms linked, along Swanston Street, towards RMIT.
The actions of police were condemned by rally organiser and Socialist Alternative student activist Sarah Garnham who told Channel Seven’s Sunrise program the next day that police had attacked the protest after having earlier authorised the shoe-throwing action. Garnham told Sunrise that one protester appeared to be unconscious when police were arresting her, and they had not provided her medical treatment while in custody.
Garnham told Green Left Weekly: “The shoe-throwing was approved. The actions by police on the day, however, appear to indicate that this was a premeditated operation, and they were just waiting for an opportunity to attack the protest. Why would they have had such a big presence at a small rally unless they were planning something?”
The rallies were held in the pre-exam study week, and this was a factor in a much lower turnout than previous education rallies this year in Melbourne. The largest such rally was held on May 14, when over 2000 students and staff took action. This was followed by a protest of 600 students on August 17.
Garnham said: “We never expected this rally to be big, given the time of year, and the fact that so far there is only a suggestion of what the government has planned for higher education.”
Garnham told GLW that activists were now discussing how to support those who were arrested and are likely to face charges, but in the meantime, the campaign would continue. “We want to keep protesting, and we won’t be intimidated by the actions of police,” she said.
After the Australian Financial Review report, Pyne back-tracked on his comments and PM Tony Abbott tried to reassure the public, vice chancellors and his National Party colleagues that the government had no plans to revoke compulsory university student services fees or cap university places.
However, Abbott has now announced his government will conduct an inquiry into higher education. Although the inquiry’s terms of reference haven’t been released yet, Garnham told GLW: “We can’t wait for it to be confirmed. We know it is bogus. This demonstration was a signal to the government of the kind of campaign we want to run. We also want it to set a tone for the [upcoming] National Union of Students [NUS] conference.”
La Trobe University will be the venue for the NUS conference in December. On October 18, La Trobe University management announced it would cut $65 million from its budget. There are estimates of 300 to 500 jobs likely to be shed, as a result of university restructuring and $30 million in federal funding cuts to the institution.
“We don’t want to take issue of federal funding cuts off the agenda,” Garnham explained. “But stage two of this campaign is fighting local administrations over the redirection of funding [as a result of the cuts].”