Rallies had their chants

I recently attended the AYCC’s Power Shift 2013, a youth climate summit held in Melbourne from July 13-15. Around 1200 young people from around Australia converged there to hear from inspirational speakers, learn from expert campaigners, and take part in a mass action on the final day.

This was my fourth Power Shift and the first since I helped to organise and run Power Shift 2011 in Brisbane. So it was a strange experience for me to be outside the tent. I was able to observe and appreciate how much things had improved in the last two years. The Power Shift was much more mature: not only were the delegates older and more experienced, the tone of the whole thing had shifted from ‘pep rally’ to ‘strategic convergence’. It also reflected the AYCC’s development as an organisation, in both the polished execution of the event and the strategic linkages between Power Shift’s itinerary and the AYCC’s election campaign. It was a wonderful thing to be part of.

Except for the mass action on July 15 which was totally a missed opportunity.

Power Shift runs according to a formula which includes a mass action on the final day. In 2009 this was a massive flashmob on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. 2010’s regional Power Shifts featured percussion ensembles and marching; 2011 ended with a Lip Dub and flashmob. Taking action as a group is intended to empower delegates and inspire them to get more active on climate change. Power Shift is about the power of young people to make change and the final action is meant to prove this point, to enable participants to use – and thus realise – their own power.

So how did Power Shift 2013’s action stack up?

Around noon on July 15 maybe a thousand young people poured from Melbourne Town Hall into the nearby City Square. There they hosted Australia’s first ‘Youth Climate Cabinet’. Holding placards explaining each individual’s motivation for acting on climate change, they listened while AYCC speakers delivered faux cabinet speeches about the importance of climate change, young people, and various of the AYCC’s policy asks for the upcoming Federal Election. In awe they watched as ‘the legislation’ (a mighty banner with the AYCC’s policy platform) was unveilled and then borne along Swanston and Bourke Streets to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices. There was chanting, there were photos, there were many postcards delivered to onlookers. “Ahah!” thought the hive-mind, “this is what power looks like. We’re really showing them.”

young people rallying behind an aycc banner declaring "aim higher on climate, our future is your mandate"

Our future is their mandate, our demands are currently their political poison pill.

The problem is that this action didn’t take us any closer to solving the climate crisis. It didn’t make a mark on the political landscape, and it was a misstep on the road to an effective grassroots movement with the skills to compel political action.

The challenge for Australia’s climate movement isn’t that too few people care about the issue, but that those who do care – and this is many, many Australians – don’t care enough. It’s not a vote-shifting issue for enough of us, and this is why politicians feel comfortable paying lip service to the issue and making slick political compromises that fail to create adequate change.

We can use Bill Moyer’s ‘Movement Action Plan’, as discussed in Doing Democracy, to help us understand this. The climate movement is in Stage 6, “Majority Public Opinion”. The movement, in this stage, “transforms from protest in crisis to long-term struggle with powerholders to win public majority to oppose official policies and consider positive alternatives”, and the goal is to “win over and involve majority of the public.” By now the Australian public is aware that climate change is an issue and that people care about it, and a public rally does little to build upon this. What is needed is a more grassroots approach, something that can change the makeup of the electorate, voter by voter. What is needed is citizens, “grounded in the centre of society”, to make the movement a mainstream force. What is needed can’t be done in 2 hours during an afternoon in Melbourne.

Thus my concern is firstly that the action was ineffective and secondly that it implicitly promoted an ineffective and unavailable method of campaigning. Power Shift left delegates with the impression that walking in the streets and yelling is currently an important tactic in pursuing climate action – which is wrong. Further, rallying is not even a tactic delegates can utilise once back home and trying to take action in small groups. The action was the very opposite of empowering: by promoting the use of an outdated tactic it decreased the strategic capacity of activists, and it left them without experience of tactics they could deploy independently.

Instead everybody should have gone doorknocking.

The AYCC could have organised 40 team leaders to each go with 25 Power Shift delegates to strategic areas in Melbourne. They go out in pairs, take clipboards, and begin knocking on doors and talking to voters about the importance of electing politicians who are acting to end the age of coal and gas. With about 2 hours of doorknocking, a pair of volunteers working together can contact 40 households. On July 15, the AYCC could have reached literally 20,000 voters.

Not only could the AYCC have had more interactions, each interaction would have been of a higher-quality. Speaking on The Flaming Sword of Justice, Becky Bond of CREDO described how their grassroots movement was able to successfully bring down several Tea Party conservatives in the 2012 US election, emphasising that the more personal and human the interaction was, the more influence it had on voters. This is especially worth noting when you have the sort of broad-and-shallow support I discussed before. This level of support can be improved upon only by investing in quality interactions. So, while The Age did circulate an image of the protest to its multitudinous readership, this had piddling influence compared with the potential impact of a volunteer at the door, described by Bond as the “single most effective thing”.

After doorknocking, hundreds of delegates would have reconvened in Melbourne Town Hall, effervescent with stories of the encounters they’d had – the old person who’d offered them tea, the single parent who wanted a safe environment for his daughter, the Liberal voter who was reconsidering her vote after meeting such a passionate young person. That day the AYCC could have launched a game-changing election campaign. Each participant would be inspired after seeing directly and first-hand the difference they could make. They’d have learnt a hard skill that they could then use in the field in a group of even just 6 volunteers. They’d be equipped to create change.

But this isn’t what happened.

In fairness, virtually everybody I spoke to loved the action. Compared to a flashmob, it felt more weighty, less childish. People felt great after taking part. They loved marching in the streets. They loved the collective experience of taking action. People felt powerful.

But, though participants might have felt powerful, they hadn’t changed anything.

In July last year, the AYCC concluded its Repower Finale with a day of action in which volunteers in small groups competed to creatively promote the upcoming campaign, “Youth Decide”. The streets of Melbourne were bespeckled with blue shirts as AYCC volunteers sang, chanted, chalked, and danced. A few weeks later I met somebody who had come across these volunteers. He had no idea what Youth Decide was – he just knew that a bunch of people had been shouting about something.

In just a small number of years the AYCC has grown immensely in size and strategic capacity. It has been a huge asset to Australia’s climate movement and has incubated sensational campaigners who will play a vital role in winning action on climate change. And Power Shift 2013 was part of this story, of the growth of the AYCC, of the ongoing growth of the climate movement, of another conference-load of young people given the chance to accept a purpose and work against the climate crisis.

The ‘Youth Climate Cabinet’, the rally: they were part of this. But an opportunity was missed. An opportunity was missed to deeply influence – on the very day of July 15 – thousands of voters. An opportunity was missed to deeply influence hundreds of young people who could have gone on to change their community – door by door and street by street. An opportunity was missed to put clipboards in hands, shoes on streets, and knuckles on doors.

Power Shift 2013 showed that the AYCC has come a long way. But if you’re wondering where it should go now, the answer is next door.

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