The most educated generation of young people in history is producing passionate and tech-savvy socialist activists fighting for the rights of workers and the marginalised. By Claire Connelly.

A new era of socialist activism

Young protestors occupy a busy street.
A housing protest led by young socialists in Melbourne.
Credit: Supplied

For Dashie Prasad, a 25-year-old union organiser, activism literally started at home.

Prasad left Fiji with their extended family at the age of four, under an immigration program that offered their father mining work. They settled in Australia only to find that work was gone.

“That job was taken off the table and given to a younger person. And so it was a bit of a shock moment for us.”

Prasad’s parents navigated a labyrinthine visa system with various factory jobs, until their father was injured. Their mother, who was raising three children and caring for her disabled mother-in-law, requalified as a teacher. Prasad’s father now has a business as a driving instructor.

Prasad says their values were shaped by their family’s struggle to start a new life in Sydney’s western suburbs. And their later conflict, when Prasad came out as queer, reinforced that the personal is political. “Through a bunch of that struggle, we were able to have very honest and very serious conversations about the political state of the world.”

Prasad learnt the best way to build connection with community was through solidarity and understanding of personal struggles. “One of the biggest issues is not being patronising, like meeting people where they are and then they’ll meet you where you’re at,” they say.

The marriage equality plebiscite and #MeToo were the formative experiences of Prasad’s generation, which is harnessing gender rights, racial equality and sexuality as part of a reimagined socialism. It’s rooted in an acute awareness that young people today are in a far more precarious economic position than generations before them. They see the evidence everywhere: unaffordable housing, student debt soaring with inflation, systemic poverty and discrimination against First Nations people, and the recurring floods, bushfires and mass extinctions of the climate crisis, while the Labor government contemplates as many as 116 proposals for fossil-fuel projects.

Young voters are responding by shifting further to the left. The popularity of Greens leader Adam Bandt among 18- to 34-year-olds recently surpassed that of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, according to the latest Guardian Essential poll. And a study this year commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs and Canada’s Fraser Institute showed half of that demographic in Australia now supported socialism as the ideal economic system.

“The fact that everything produced in society is in the hands of a tiny minority that makes decisions about everything – what’s produced, how it’s produced, whether it’s sustainable or not, how much to charge for it – that has never been more apparent than now, in a cost-of-living crisis where wages are going backwards while corporate profits have massively increased,” says Cherish Kuehlmann, 23, education officer for the student representative council at UNSW Sydney and an activist with the Get a Room campaign.

“Welfare, rent caps, expanding public housing, cancelling or freezing student debt – these are things people really need, right now. You say there’s no money for it, yet you’re injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into weapons nobody asked for,” says Kuehlmann, who describes herself as a revolutionary socialist and has been organising protests in Sydney in support of rent caps and higher taxes on corporations to fund public housing.

“I have family members that sleep in tin shacks, on bloody mattresses on dirt floors,” says 26-year old Ruby Wharton, who is a proud Gomeroi Kooma woman, and daughter and granddaughter of First Nations activists. But the term sits uneasily with her. “Activism is a word that I feel really funny about, purely because it’s just such a personal experience, I guess. The things that I do in terms of community organising, it’s a matter of importance, of survival.”

She says she is fighting for health and quality of life for all impoverished communities, and a share in the country’s wealth, with a portion of GDP allocated to reparations: “It’s not something that can be exclusively applied to First Nations people. It’s something that can be accessible to everybody.”

Dr Ariadne Vromen, a professor of public administration at the Australian National University, says today’s young adults are “sophisticated political thinkers”, more educated than any previous generation of young people. More of them attend university, they consume more media and can spread their message further, driving philosophical shifts. Vromen says social platforms such as TikTok are a means of engaging and educating while creating support networks that can transcend online spaces.

Dashie Prasad found common cause with a socially conservative former schoolmate via their posts about Palestine. “We had a really great chat, a really honest conversation about her struggles as a young Palestinian woman in Australia, having to worry about her family back home, and me as a queer person in Australia, worrying about my community here, and also queer people across the world, facing violence.”

They eventually worked together on a car convoy to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, as part of a localised community campaign pushing to close detention centres and free refugees.

In an economy increasingly driven by piecemeal “gigs”, these activists are drawn to the socialist foundations of workers’ rights. And not only because they’ve watched progressive policies by previous Labor governments stagnate under their successors and be unwound by the Coalition – they also see flaws in the neoliberal framework in which those policies were conceived.

Four decades after the Prices and Incomes Accord – the signature achievement of the Hawke–Keating government – these activists are calling for a new grand bargain. The seven accords signed with unions between 1983 and 1991 helped pave the way for Medicare and compulsory superannuation, as well as improvements in education, training, childcare and social security – the “social wage”. But they also curbed workplace-level industrial campaigning, says Xavier Dupé, 26, the National Union of Students education officer and a student at La Trobe University. He says the accord era marked a historic defeat for the Australian working class. “The ALP co-opted one of the most powerful union movements in the world … ending free education, selling off public assets, generally undermining the welfare state … creating the obscene inequality we see today.”

The Howard government’s industrial relations reforms – many of which were perpetuated by the Rudd–Gillard Labor governments – made action even more difficult, and Melbourne University professor of Australian history Sean Scalmer says unions have “struggled to respond to the changing economy and changing society, in the context of that highly difficult legal environment”. A union can’t enter a workplace without giving written notice to the employer, industrial action is illegal outside a defined bargaining period, and they can’t pursue agreements spanning more than one enterprise, unlike the industry-wide deals that are routine in countries such as Germany, Scalmer says. Moreover, the Fair Work Commission can suspend an industrial action that might cause “significant economic harm” to employers or employees, endanger someone’s life or safety, or cause “significant damage” to a part of the Australian economy.

“We need a union movement that … pushes to advance workers’ interests and social justice, regardless of the impact on the Labor Party or corporate profits,” Dupé says.

Cherish Kuehlmann sees an opportunity to “rebuild a fighting union movement”, citing the New South Wales nurses strike in March last year in which thousands of nurses flouted a ban to demand pay rises and improved staffing ratios. The state government subsequently approved bonuses, raised a salary cap and committed to more recruitment.

But civil disobedience comes at a high price. Nurses in Western Australia took similar action in the past year – the state branch of the Nursing Federation was threatened with deregistration by the WA Labor government and now faces a $350,000 fine. South Australia, NSW, Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland have all passed anti-protest legislation imposing severe penalties on even those engaging in peaceful action, including anywhere from three months to two years in prison and fines ranging from $6000 to $50,000.

Kuehlmann herself was the subject of a midnight arrest and detention by NSW Police Force in February for her involvement in a protest at the Reserve Bank of Australia. She was charged with a single count of unlawful entry to enclosed land during the protest at Martin Place. Her bail conditions initially prevented her from being within two kilometres of Sydney Town Hall but were thrown out by a magistrate who recognised her “democratic right” to attend future protests.

Far from discouraging her from participating in further action, Kuehlmann says the experience “only made me more determined to keep up the fight”.

It is important for progressives to engage with government “in a sign of good faith”, says Prasad, who has lobbied and petitioned extensively on issues related to the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as higher education reform, climate change and carceral justice, among others. But Prasad concedes their efforts are strategic, too – to show their base that engagement has been attempted, without success. “Movements aren’t won on lobbying or by meeting with government,” they say. “Governments make change because they’re pushed from the outside.”

“We’ve always been of the position, fuck around and find out,” Ruby Wharton says. She points out the law didn’t stop the Black Lives Matter protests from going ahead during Covid, and while the anti-protest laws are “frightening”, she shares the philosophy of her father, Wayne “Coco” Wharton: we have an obligation to be subject to one another in solidarity.

“We have to dare to stand on the shoulders of those who did the exact same thing in their day, in their movements … We have to be brave and have a legacy. If your legacy is listening to the government and then wondering how you can advocate, you’re already doing yourself a disservice,” she says.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got support and you’ve got community who will be there to back you up. That’s what our movements are about.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2023 as "Left f ield".

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