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Dear Violent Student Protesters: you’re harming, not helping your cause.

Treasurer Joe Hockey.

 
University students across the country have protested against the federal budget’s cuts to higher education, following a call by the National Union of Students for a day of protest action.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Education Minister Christopher Pyne were forced to cancel a scheduled visit to Geelong’s Deakin University due to security concerns.

Their cancellation follows various demonstrations in the past week directed at Coalition politicians, with Julie Bishop and Sophie Mirabella being targeted while visiting Sydney University and Melbourne University respectively.
Jamila Rizvi wrote previously…

Ain’t nobody a fan of the budget.

If you’ve opened a newspaper, turned on a TV, been on social media or read a website this week, then you will know the Abbott Government’s first budget is about as popular as Vegemite 2.0.

The Coalition’s polling numbers are in free fall, opinion editors are falling over themselves to say Abbott and Hockey have played this wrong and we’ve seen practically universal negative coverage in the media.

Most of it has been civil, except for two university protests, which reportedly descended from peaceful dissent into mob-like intimidation.

The result being that these campaigners have achieved the exact opposite of what they intended – they’ve turned negative headlines about the budget into stories that frame dissenters as the bad guys.

At Sydney University on Friday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had to be removed from the building by security after reportedly being ‘jostled’ and ‘abused’ by protesters. Video footage from the event is patchy but does show the Foreign Minister’s path to the exit being blocked, and her person being tightly surrounded by a group of protesters yelling loudly at her.

It’s an ugly scene.

Similarly, at Melbourne University yesterday a lecture being delivered by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella was interrupted and Mirabella was apparently ‘mobbed’ by protestors. Police were called to eject people from the room before Mirabella was able to return (to applause from the remaining audience) and continue her speech. There are fresh reports today that Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne have cancelled a speaking event at Deakin University in Geelong because of planned protests.

Now, I am as incensed as the next person about this budget.

I think that by limiting the access of young people to unemployment benefits it will mean more 20-somethings sleeping rough. I think putting a financial barrier between low income earners and a doctor’s appointment will only increase the strain on our hospital system – because most illness is preventable by seeking medical attention quickly.

Students at Melbourne Uni protesting during Sophie Mirabella’s visit.

I think deregulating the university sector is a scary step towards a system that admits students according to the size of their parent’s wallets, not the scope of their individual abilities.

I think the ABC and SBS shouldn’t have to be scrambling and scraping to bring us the quality original programing we all want to watch.

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And I think the blatant disrespect the Abbott Government has shown for the Australian voting public by breaking so many promises less than a year since the election, is appalling.

In short? I agree with much of what the protesters at Sydney and Melbourne University are arguing for.

But the way they’ve gone about making that argument makes me cringe.

First, the behaviour of those protestors whose actions moved from peaceful to threatening, was wildly inappropriate. There is a line when it comes to fighting for your rights. And forming a group intentionally designed to physically intimidate or verbally abuse someone, crosses that line.

Second, it’s counterproductive.

A protest can be a highly effective way of getting your point across; attracting the attention of the media, rallying people to a cause and providing a visual demonstration of your frustration and anger. But that’s not what these protestors did.

They committed a disservice to the cause they are fighting for. They made it harder for the Australian public to rally around their argument, not easier. They gave the media a story that framed the Government as reasonable and those who don’t like the budget as a violent mob.

When faced with this criticism, I suspect many of the protestors would argue that the wrongs committed in this budget are too great; that more desperate and immediately impactful action is needed.

They might say that violent protests have a long tradition in history and that this is a circumstance where more forceful tactics are justified.

Well, with all due respect, that is just plain wrong.

This is not an instance of state power versus people power. This is a mob of protesters using their physical strength and numbers to intimidate and terrify an individual. And whether than individual is a former member of parliament, the foreign minister or just an ordinary citizen – that is not okay.

Many of us are angry and frustrated about this budget. Like the leader of the Opposition, we fear for the colder, harsher, meaner Australian society that will likely come with it. But luckily for us, we live in a democracy.

So we get to express our frustration in the press, through peaceful demonstrations (like the national March in May last Sunday), with grassroots campaigning, on social media, by appealing to the better natures of our parliamentarians… And ultimately, at the ballot box.

Physically intimidating someone for their political opinion should never be a goal; it’s not something to work towards; it’s not something to be proud of or to celebrate at the pub when the hustle is over. And when you’ve got facts and fairness on your side, it shouldn’t ever be regarded as necessary.

Political disclaimer: Jamila Rizvi previously worked for both the Rudd and Gillard Governments. She also attended more than her fair share of (peaceful!) university protests.