I kicked off 2020 by giving a morning talk at Woodford Folk Festival called ‘A Rough Work-in-Progress Blueprint for Revolution.’ Despite half the festival still being asleep or hungover from NYE celebrations, it was exciting to see how much energy and interest there was in the discussion. People stuck around for a solid hour after my talk to keep unpacking the ideas and sharing their own perspectives (I’ll try to post a recording of the presentation sometime soon). A lot of people are hungry for change, and searching for a way forward.
As we enter this new decade, our news headlines are dominated by environmental disasters. Mega-fires are raging across multiple Australian states and half the continent is drought-stricken. Meanwhile just a couple hours’ flight to the north of us, Indonesia is experiencing catastrophic rainfall, with widespread flooding leading to around 50 confirmed deaths, and an estimated 500 000 people made homeless so far (the death toll from flow-on impacts like disease and malnutrition will be much higher, but won’t be covered by western media).
The Jakarta Metropolitan Area has a population of over 30 million people, living in an area half the size of Brisbane. Much of Jakarta has been inundated, and the city may never fully recover. The Indonesian government is already planning to abandon Jakarta as the nation’s administrative capital and establish a new capital city in Borneo.
Australia is one of Indonesia’s closest neighbours. Jakarta is closer to Darwin than Brisbane is. If not for our racism and selfishness, Australia would probably be the most logical destination to resettle southeast Asian climate refugees. We’re certainly in a better economic position to do so than other nearby countries, but I doubt anyone’s going to be talking about that idea in a hurry.
Perpetual Crisis and Denial
I find it hard to get my head around the details in the news reports - millions of hectares of forest incinerated, millions of people suddenly deprived of access to power or clean water. Numbers and statistics don’t really tell the full story, but it’s bleak.
Many of us have started talking about how the long-predicted ‘climate apocalypse’ is finally here.
But in fact, many parts of the world, and many people in our own city, have been experiencing crisis for a long time now. A lot of First Nations communities would argue that the apocalypse actually began over two hundred years ago. The changing climate is definitely a crisis, but it’s also compounding existing ongoing crises that we’ve ignored for too long.
The lens through which we view these events is important. Are the Australian droughts and bushfires a ‘disaster’ that we have to recover and rebuild from? Or are they simply the latest and most significant reminder that almost every aspect of our way of life must change in ways that most of us rarely contemplate?
Australians are vacillating between two different universes this week. People are still swimming at the beach and cheering at the cricket, while elsewhere people are running out of water or fleeing 10-storey flames. My work inbox is still receiving complaints about inadequate street parking and the lack of grass at the local dog off-leash area. In contrast, I don’t get many emails about the fact that Brisbane’s homeless population is hovering around 10 000 and still rising (and unfortunately the politicians who run our government don’t get enough emails about this either).
We’re in the midst of multiple overlapping crises, yet half the continent seems hell-bent on looking the other way and acting as though we can carry on with business as usual. Perhaps denial is an understandable response to feeling disempowered and overwhelmed, but it’s pretty bizarre…
Hypothetical weekend BBQ conversation:
“The Aussie batsmen are doing pretty well aren’t they?”
“Yeah that Marnus bloke just keeps scoring centuries hey?”
“By the way, did you hear the bushfire death toll is up to 16 now?”
Paths to action?
I’ve heard several people over the last few weeks lament the fact that there isn’t another federal election due for three years, and that PM Smoko is so unpopular right now that the Liberals would struggle to hold on to power. While that might be true, I don’t think Albanese would be much better at responding to any of the crises we’re currently facing. He spent part of December touring regional Queensland promising continued support for coal exports, when what he should have done instead was outline a transition plan to retrain workers and support communities to shift away from dependence on an economically unviable and environmentally destructive industry.
The Queensland Labor government seems to have completely ignored the Greens’ constructive suggestion to make mining companies contribute funding towards rural firefighting services, while supporting new coal mines and strengthening police powers to criminalise peaceful protest about issues like climate change. Simply replacing Scomo with another corporate sector puppet won't fix our broken system.
But even though the next federal election is still at least two summers away, there are several important elections coming up this year that will shape the national political landscape. In just 12 weeks, residents across Queensland will vote in local government elections. Here in Brisbane, the Greens have a strong chance of winning three or even four council seats off the LNP. As I’ve written about here, a swing towards the Greens at the Brisbane City Council election would dramatically shift Queensland politics.
The Australian Capital Territory elections, the Northern Territory elections and the NSW local government elections are also all coming up in 2020, as is the crucial Queensland State Election. If the Greens win state seats off Labor or the Liberals in Queensland, this will have a far bigger direct impact on government policy than a hundred protest marches.
So those of you who are feeling a sense of urgency and a desire to take action might want to start by volunteering for the election campaign.
A divided nation?
Lately I’ve been hearing more people complaining about how divided our society and our political system has become. They say things like “If only we could stop attacking each other and focus on solutions!” which certainly resonates with me to a point. I think it’s fair to say that the tone of debate, particularly in some online spaces, is unnecessarily hostile.
But a lot of this so-called ‘division’ isn’t new. What’s actually going on is that marginalised voices and downtrodden groups finally have platforms (particularly on social media) where they can challenge establishment power holders and argue against the status quo. (Some of us are even getting organised enough to win seats in elections)
Australians have been saying and doing racist things for decades. The difference is that now anti-racist activists actually have paths to get their own messages out there without being censored by the conservative mainstream media. The same is true for debates about sexism, extractivism and a whole bunch of other issues.
In some cases, the people complaining that “Everyone is so disrespectful these days! I wish people could stop attacking each other!” are actually just yearning for a past era when more privileged members of society could say and do incredibly unjust and disrespectful things without being criticised publicly, because the rest of us were too scared to speak out.
For those of us who understand the need for major systemic change, I think one of the big challenges for 2020 and the coming decade will be to understand and define the lines between those who are complacent/misinformed/apathetic/disengaged, and those who are actively hostile to change and have strong vested interests in defending the status quo.
The biggest division in our society will be between those who'll fight to keep things more-or-less as they are, and those who are realistic about the need for a rapid transition towards a more equitable and sustainable way of life.
Personally, I’m looking forward to the coming year. I’m apprehensive about the council election campaign, because I anticipate a lot of negative attacks from the mainstream media and conservative commentators, but also excited about the opportunities for change. I’m channelling the grief and anger I’ve been feeling into activism and community capacity-building, because it feels nourishing and valuable and empowering.
We mustn’t be naïve about the opponents we’re up against or the nefariously effective tactics they’ll employ.
But we need to hold on to hope, and seize joy wherever we can find it. Sinking into despair won’t stop the world burning.
Happy(?) new year fellow change-makers!
I gave this speech at our Cracks in the Concrete Ideas Fiesta on 27 August, 2016. It's interesting to look back on it now and think about how relevant these ideas still are three years later...
The modern metropolis is the engine room of consumption and competitive capitalism. It shapes every aspect of our lives, including the broader environment beyond the city outskirts. It’s a temple to individualistic greed and mind-numbing bureaucracy.
But it’s also the crucible of counter-culture and resistance. Of innovation and creativity. Of collective action and spirited dissent.
If we yearn for cultural and political evolution, for a democratic, egalitarian, more caring, more sustainable society, that transformation must surely begin here in the city.
We know that lasting social change starts locally, and comes from the bottom up.
The great global challenges and battles of our generation will be fought and won on the streets of unassuming cities like Brisbane.
The struggles for Aboriginal sovereignty and refugee rights are struggles over who controls the metropolis, and who is permitted to live in it.
The struggle for action on climate change is a struggle for sustainable architecture, for renewable energy and tree-lined streets, for local food networks, public transport, bike lanes and pedestrian safety.
The struggle against neoliberalism is a struggle for the decommodification and deregulation of public space, for democratic, collective control of urban planning, for the triumph of local worker-owned businesses over corporate chain stores, for public housing, and for the treatment of shelter as a human right and not a commodity.
The struggle for a less selfish, less racist, less sexist, less ableist society is a struggle for the sanctity and preservation of diverse urban communities, for stronger renters’ rights, for building designs that don’t separate and squeeze us into lonely little concrete boxes, for community centres, homeless shelters and the free exchange of ideas between strangers that isn’t mediated through facebook algorithms or the mass media.
A more utopian Brisbane feels tantalisingly within reach. We can all draw it in our minds. Street art instead of grey concrete. Music and poetry instead of jackhammers. Weekday afternoons spent with friends at barbeques by the river instead of sitting at an office desk under fluorescent lights. Smooth, efficient public transport, and every shop and apartment powered by renewable energy. A beautiful, green city, where fruit trees line the footpaths and car fumes are a distant memory. And where you don’t have to stare at your laptop screen for ten minutes waiting for the next episode to buffer.
We already have the technology. We already have the knowledge and resources.
But the barriers to change seem tall and imposing.
Developers and lobbyists massage the planning system like playdough, manipulating its rules and codes to suit their bottom line. Well-meaning politicians and public servants feel shackled by bureaucracy, and struggle to imagine a world beyond spreadsheets and media soundbites.
The only mechanisms we have to engage with the system are time-consuming, demoralising and highly bureaucratised. We fill out forms, permit applications, petitions and surveys like prayers to an invisible god, dimly aware that positive outcomes are only likely when our interests as residents happen to coincide with those of the corporate sector. Even when those in power agree with the need for change, they take far too long to implement it. I’m sure many of us in this room can think of examples where an urgently needed bike lane or wheelchair ramp could have been installed in a matter of weeks, but instead took years.
We can vote for the good guys each election, but while power remains centralised in city hall, parliament house, and the top-floor offices of big banks and corporations, the needs and perspectives of ordinary citizens will be little more than an afterthought. If there’s profit to be made from influencing the political system, those at the top of the hierarchy will always be susceptible to corruption.
Our long-term goal must be to decentralise power and give local communities greater control over their own neighbourhoods.
The few months I’ve been a city councillor have emphasised for me that if we spend long hours writing policy submissions and lobbying those in power, we can achieve modest incremental policy gains on some issues. However, such reforms are vulnerable to being overturned if they tend to conflict with the interests of the big end of town.
Building designs that discourage people from interacting with their neighbours and the public sphere further undermine the formation of diverse social networks that can challenge neoliberalism. Smaller households, and the lack of shared communal spaces mean many of us are no longer practising the social skills of negotiation, cooperation and collaboration that are crucial for addressing the great challenges facing our world. We might be living more densely, but we’re not necessarily living in communities.
Deeper, lasting change requires a more radical approach. It requires a social movement. And here in Brisbane, the floodwaters are already rising. People are hungry for change. The frustration at how little control we have over our city, even over our own streets, is palpable.
Those of us who are passionate about these issues need to see and understand ourselves as being part of the next chapter in the story of radical Brisbane. Our long, proud historical lineage of social activism stretches back well beyond the Bjelke-Petersen years.
Brisbane is a radical city. Underneath the sanitised public squares, tacky corporate billboards and materialistic apathy, there remains a strong cultural memory of cynicism towards the establishment, scepticism of power hierarchies and anti-elitism. In particular, there’s a solid track record of ordinary citizens defending their rights to use public space and exercise more control over the future of their neighbourhoods. I’ve had 90-year-old women with pearls and posh accents pull me aside at community events and say conspiratorially that it’s about time Brisbane had a couple of proper sit-ins.
When positive change comes about as a result of collective action, neoliberal attempts to subsequently undo or reverse that change are significantly less likely to succeed than if change was driven primarily by well-meaning bureaucrats and policy wonks.
The challenge for us now is to identify forms of collective action that are strategically effective, and have a reasonable chance of success. There’s little to be gained from burning people out on unwinnable campaigns. But we should also think laterally about how we define success. For example, a blockade that’s ultimately broken up by the police can still help remind the government and corporate developers that it will cost them more to ignore and marginalise residents than it will to work with us.
Sometimes the battle is worth fighting, if only because to stand by and do nothing would encourage the corporate sector to become even greedier and more exploitative. But crucially, these collective responses to neoliberalism must be fun, and must embody the ideals and values we’re fighting for.
In every campaign we organise, we have to be mindful of the long-term goals we’re working towards. Emma Goldman, the Russian anarchist and feminist, is commonly credited as saying “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.” It’s a glorious sentiment, but I think her exact words are even more potent. She said, “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.”
This is the sentiment we need to hold in our minds as we seek to free Brisbane from the clenched claws of corporate capitalism.
So where are the openings and opportunities for a right to the city campaign here in Brisbane? Clearly housing affordability is a major issue. If the apartment boom starts to wind down, the next frontier will not be stopping unsustainable mega-projects, but fighting to ensure that new apartments are rented out cheaply rather than left sitting empty.
The cost of housing is a major barrier against more Brisbanites taking action for positive change. Many of our friends and family members are too busy working to pay the mortgage or the rent to get involved in community gardens, refugee support networks, or political discussion forums. Actions which challenge the systemic treatment of housing as a commodity, while simultaneously providing free or cheap housing for people on lower incomes, offer a trajectory out of neoliberal capitalism.
Currently in Brisbane, there seems to be a need for a well-organised non-profit real estate agency to match those who require affordable housing or workspaces with owners who don’t mind dropping their rent for a good cause. I think there’s also a need for a squatting campaign that could render visible the immoral social injustice of governments and councils leaving publicly-owned housing unoccupied.
A direct action campaign targeted at the Queens Wharf mega-casino would help unite residents from across the city and across the political divide. Using direct action to support existing community campaigns against unsustainable road-widening projects would assert our right to greater local control over infrastructure spending.
Perhaps most importantly, a positive campaign to use and activate public space would reinforce our claim to determine for ourselves how these spaces are used, and would resist the commodification and coercive state control of the public sphere.
If the political system is not yielding positive long-term outcomes for our city, and is denying ordinary residents genuine input on key decisions, then it is neither democratic, nor socially just. If we accept that the corporate sector is undemocratically manipulating the political sphere, direct action becomes one of the few meaningful options left open to us.
We Brisbanites are powerful people. But we need to recognise that seeking advance written permission from the police to hold a non-disruptive footpath protest is not civil disobedience, and amounts to little more than ripples in a stagnant pool.
We have the ability, and an urgent need, to transform Brisbane into a more sustainable, more equitable city. The climate is already changing. The housing affordability crisis is already disrupting our communities. We can’t afford to wait for the next election cycle.