Are student protests outdated in our era of communication?

University students - who should be the most connected, educated, cutting-edge communicators in our country - are still ...

University students - who should be the most connected, educated, cutting-edge communicators in our country - are still protesting like it's 1969. Photo: Anthony Johnson

The last few decades have turned our world upside down. The end of the Cold War changed politics. The advent of the internet has deluged us with a mighty, confusing, exhilarating torrent of information, bringing with it previously unimaginable ways for human beings to come together, to talk, argue, share knitting tips and to deliver to vast audiences a tiny but resonant truth about something happening in their own backyards.

How, then, can it possibly be that student protests have not changed even one little bit over that time? And how can it be, as even our phones gets smarter, that protesters are somehow getting dumber?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing there is nothing to protest against in the budget, nor that university students should not take every opportunity to explain what the full deregulation of tertiary fees in Australia will mean for parents and children.

I'm just wondering why university students – who should be the most connected, educated, cutting-edge communicators in our country – are still protesting like it's 1969.


I think that's probably about the year when the chant "No cuts! No fees! No corporate universities!" was invented, along with its idiot twin "Hey hey! Ho ho! (Insert minister's name) has got to go!".

The student invasion of Q&A a few weeks ago, in which a gaggle of Socialist Alternative protesters chanted protractedly at Christopher Pyne while trying unsuccessfully to unfurl a bedsheet on which they had daubed slogans, would have been entirely unremarkable had it been deployed against John Gorton.

Are poster paint and your parents' third-best manchester really the best tools the modern environment offers? And has any strategic thought gone into this stuff? I mean, one doesn't like to teach protesters how to suck eggs, but anyone who has ever observed Christopher Pyne for more than about 60 seconds would know that creating a vast fuss and drama in which Mr Pyne becomes the centre of attention on national television is not something he actually hates all that much.

Last week, Julie Bishop was jostled and shouted at as she made her way into a lecture hall to speak on the government's new Colombo plan. Same slogans, same daft shoving, as the Foreign Affairs Minister arrived to announce the one bit of the budget that actually involves more money for the university sector. It looked dreadful and was a complete logical non-sequitur to boot.

Or what about Sophie Mirabella, whose lecture at Melbourne University was pitch-invaded by protesters shouting about budget cuts and calling Mirabella a "racist" who "didn't deserve to exist". Eh? This is the same Sophie Mirabella who lost her seat at the last election, yes? The second-generation Greek immigrant who used to get called a "wog" at school?

Now, the right to protest in a democratic system is a very important one. And this is the most radical budget in years, so of course there will be protests; this was immediately clear the morning after, when the Prime Minister was nan-handled on Channel Ten by a pensioner and former Rudd supporter angry about the changes to the pension.

But in this magical new era of communication, there must be better ways of telling a story than "What Do We Want? No Fees! When Do We Want It? Now!". And if universities really are centres of innovation, then the best way to make that point is to be innovative, surely. To paint a picture of what universities would look like if these changes get by the Senate. To explain what goes on in a young person's mind when deciding whether to go to university, and illustrate how the prospect of a commercial-grade debt might have a different effect on a poor student than on a wealthy one. The previous government's policy of uncapping university places means we have more communications, media and film students than ever before. Why not put them to work?

Back when Tony Abbott was a student, he was an enthusiastic protester. He got a lot of attention and coverage. And he did it by creating a counterpoint; during the post-Dismissal marches, he captured attention by leading a small but vocal demonstration in defence of Sir John Kerr. At Oxford, six days after the sinking of the General Belgrano, he turned up to a campus anti-war protest with a bunch of buddies to march in defence of Margaret Thatcher.

Obviously, there are some significant differences between the young Mr Abbott and the students of the Socialist Alternative. Mr Abbott demonstrated against a prime minister who was trying to give him a free education. Today's students demonstrate against Mr Abbott in a landscape where free education is a thing of the past, with the awkward exception of Mr Abbott's youngest daughter.

They accuse him of extreme conservatism. But if conservatism is the stubborn refusal to evolve, then fighting a war of ideas with Soviet-era artillery strays awfully close to the mark.

Annabel Crabb is the host of ABC TV's Kitchen Cabinet.

Twitter: @annabelcrabb