Melbourne University Student Union defends right to protest

The University of Melbourne Student Union has taken an important stand in support of protest rights, condemning the victimisation of student protesters by university management and Victoria Police.

On 4 August, the union’s student council passed a motion “[opposing] Victoria Police’s crackdown on activists protesting the bigoted Liberals behind the Menzies Institute” and committed $500 “as a contribution towards the students’ fines and as an expression of solidarity”. 

This comes after several students received fines totalling more than $3,000 for alleged “riotous behaviour” during an impromptu protest in March against the Robert Menzies Institute. In a move that marks a dangerous precedent for collaboration between university management and Victoria Police, activists believe that management singled out individual students and forwarded their details to the police.

 The Robert Menzies Institute is a Liberal Party think tank that opened on campus in November 2021. Although pitched as “non-partisan”, its board is stacked with Liberal Party luminaries like Peta Credlin, Georgina Downer and David Kemp, and it was bankrolled by the former Liberal federal government to the tune of $7 million. Its purpose is to sanitise and celebrate the reactionary legacy of Liberal Party architect Robert Menzies. 

Students have protested the Menzies Institute from the outset and built a widely popular activist campaign against it, endorsed by the undergraduate student union, the Graduate Student Association and the National Tertiary Education Union. In doing so, they have stood in the best tradition of radical student unionism, whether Melbourne University students turning their union building into a refuge for draft dodgers opposed to the Vietnam War or University of New South Wales students protesting against the college on their campus of Opus Dei, which financed fascist regimes in Spain and Chile.

Management at Melbourne University willingly worked with Liberal Party figures to set up the Menzies Institute. For them, the Liberal Party is just another private bidder for university property and intellectual clout, along with large weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, from which management accepted $13 billion in 2016 to open a research centre for the development of military technology.

Partnerships like these with big corporations and their parliamentary servants reveal the hypocrisy of Melbourne University’s progressive facade. For all that management boasts about its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people, this has not stopped it from opening a shrine to a ruling-class racist in cooperation with conservative culture warriors like Peta Credlin.

University management’s likely collaboration with Victoria Police demonstrates just how committed it is to working with reactionaries and repressing dissent. Staff and students were given no opportunity to object to the institute, the university negotiating it through backroom deals with the Liberal Party. Now, by voluntarily revealing the details of some protesters to the police, university management is seeking to intimidate students from expressing their collective political opposition in the best way available to them: through protest.

Protest everywhere is increasingly under attack. New South Wales recently introduced a bill that threatens protesters with up to $20,000 in fines and up to two years’ prison time for blocking traffic or marching on roads. Meanwhile, the Labor government in Victoria has also passed its own anti-protest laws designed to prevent climate activists from obstructing the destruction of native forests.

In the face of these new anti-protest laws, the decision of student unions to take a stand in support of protest rights is particularly important. Attacks on protesters at any level, including on campus, should be opposed as a necessary part of combating the injustices of the state and the system it serves.

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