An interview with Melanie Barnes


Susan Austin interviewed young climate change and socialist activist Melanie Barnes.

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Mel, tell us about your journey to becoming a revolutionary socialist.

Well I grew up in a small country town in New South Wales and I was always interested in politics but there weren’t any political groups that you could get involved in there, apart from ones like the National Party and the Labor Party. So I decided to study politics at uni, and moved to Brisbane to study politics at UQ. While I was there I got involved in the huge anti-war movement that erupted in 2003 around the start of the Iraq war, and around Afghanistan as well. There were a lot of people in my classes who were going along to those rallies and helping to organize them, and I met them and got involved with them, and through that I ended up joining Resistance and the Socialist Alliance. Originally, when I went to uni, I wasn’t convinced about socialism. It took me quite a while to come around to the idea that we could change the world and that we needed to change the world if we wanted to stop things like war. But eventually through my own experience I realized that the only way that we were going to be able to make any change was to make a huge change, a revolutionary change and yeah, I haven’t looked back since then.

How would you describe the kind of change or the kind of socialism that you are striving for?

It’s definitely a democratic kind of socialism. Because so much of what we are aiming for is for ordinary people to be able to make decisions for themselves in society. So that’s at the heart of everything we do. We want to put people’s needs before corporate needs. Obviously it’s not the type of socialism of the 20th century, like Stalinism or the socialism that you saw in China or other places, but we’re definitely still inspired by the writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and we learn from all the other socialist revolutions that have taken place around the world.

How would you organize the production and distribution of goods? For example what would you say to people that worry about socialists taking away their TV or making everyone earn exactly the same wages etc.

Well that’s not going to happen. The idea isn’t to try and limit anyone. There would still be small business, personal possessions, variability in wages and all of that, but the gap between the lowest and highest wages would get smaller, essential industries would be put back in public hands and society’s resources would be managed in a much more rational way.

The idea is to make everyone much more free than they already are and to meet people’s needs. Because at the moment the majority of people in the world don’t have enough food, clean water, basic education or health-care. So that’s what we need to address. Capitalism just isn't working at the moment. But the way that we would organise things would be on a country-by-country, community-by-community basis. It would have to be profoundly democratic or else it wouldn’t work. Everybody would have to be in control of it and engaged in it.

How do you think that level of engagement would come about? At the moment, you’re more of an exception rather than the norm when it comes to young people engaging in political activism. Most people seem more interested in their own careers, in home renovations, cooking, fashion, music and things like that. How do you envisage that people will wake up and take an interest and want to exercise their democratic rights?

People do want to exercise their democratic rights. To an extent, the majority of people do take an interest in politics… not in every single issue, but there are particular issues where it really strikes a chord with people and they get really angry. I think it’s just that people don't know how to direct their anger when they do get angry. I mean they sort of seethe in their own lives, but they don’t organize together and get out and change things. That’s because I think that people don’t believe they have the power to change society and they’ve sort of lost that knowledge of working together with other people, like in a union or some other organization. We’re a lot more individualized now I think, than we used to be. But I think people do care about politics, I mean look at the huge level of support for WikiLeaks. The majority of people support WikiLeaks, its just a question of how do we organise that support effectively and actually use it to change the way the government runs?

 On your question about people being more interested in their own careers and in buying houses and that kind of thing…I don’t blame people for doing that. In society we’re taught that we are going to be happy if we are successful and success means that we have a house and a family and a good job and we can spend money on nice things. People want to be happy and that’s how they think they can achieve happiness.  Eventually they figure out that you don’t achieve it that way.

 Do you think that it’s hard to give people examples and educate people about unionism, collective action and that kind of thing? With corporate control over the mainstream media, they seem to prioritise a different version of history than a class-struggle version.

Yeah, of course they do. But people learn from their own experiences and they learn very quickly. Just look at the new generation of student activists fighting against increased university fees in the UK, or to the wave of youth-led people's power revolutions sweeping the Middle East at the moment, including the massive uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled their dictators. It’s through those struggles that people shake off all those illusions and realize quite quickly, even in the space of a couple of weeks, that they do have power and they can change things. For example, a 35-year-old Egyptian teacher told the February 5 Guardian: “People have changed. They were scared. They are no longer scared. We are not afraid of his system any longer and when we stopped being afraid we knew we would win.” But of course the media and the government are always trying to convince people that there’s no use in struggling. 

Many people, when they hear the word 'socialism', think of Stalinist Russia or China and bureaucratic dictatorships, the squashing of freedoms and the promotion of industrialisation at the expense of the environment. How is your model different and how can you convince people that it’s relevant to today? 

Yeah, people do think that when you say socialist. There is still a massive stigma about socialism. When you say you’re a socialist people think that you’re a Stalinist or a weird throw-back to the cold-war era. People think that socialism has been tried and has failed and that there needs to be a new kind of form. But at the same time, people realise that capitalism isn’t working. I don’t think that people are more convinced of capitalism these days then they used to be. Because often when you talk to people, particularly in the environment movement, they say things like: “the problem is consumerism and people have to stop buying so much and people have to stop living in such big houses; we need to change the way that society runs, we need to stop aiming for endless growth; we need to curtail the power of corporations” and that kind of thing, which are the basic ideas of what we’re saying, it’s just that they don’t call it revolution, they don’t call it socialism.   

We are very inspired by what is happening in South America which has proven itself to be very different to what happened in China and Russia and other places. In countries like Venezuela andBolivia, they’re lifting people out of poverty and it's hugely democratic and inspiring. They’re not embarking on plans of mass industrialization or anything like that, although they are in a different situation to what China and Russia were at the beginning of the 20th century.

What we are aiming to do is to popularise socialist ideas again and to convince people they are still relevant today because capitalism is still around, it hasn’t gone anywhere, so why should socialist ideas? We don’t need to re-invent the wheel, to try and formulate a whole new type of socialism or a whole new –ism. The basic ideas of socialism are still very popular, even though in Australia, with the onslaught of neo-liberal ideology over the last few decades, they seem more and more difficult to win.  

You have pretty much worked full-time at a voluntary level for the Socialist Alliance in Hobart and have done a lot of activism for the climate movement. Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you sustain your energy when you are campaigning very much against the tide?

I read books by socialist writers. Because many of the problems and troubles that we are facing now are the same as those faced by writers like Trotsky and Lenin before us and they can give you inspiration and ideas.

But also just being involved in campaigns, particularly international campaigns, makes you feel like you are in solidarity with people all around the world and that sustains me. For example climate change activists held a huge demonstration at the Copenhagen conference in December 2009 and we organized a big protest in Sydney when George Bush came to visit for APEC in 2007, not to mention the big international days of action on climate change like for If there are people all around the world like us who have a common goal, it helps you to keep going.

Also international solidarity puts into perspective the problems that we’re facing here. One of the biggest problems we face in trying to popularise our ideas is that people can seem apathetic and we can get ignored, but in countries around the world where the mass of people are struggling for democracy and for freedom, like in Honduras or Egypt, activists can get arrested or disappeared or imprisoned or shot.

Do you think that the modern internet age makes it easier to share those stories of what people are doing in other countries and to get more coordinated with international days of actions and things like that?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s easier to share information, it just makes it harder for people to take notice of the information that you’re trying to get them to take notice of, because there is so much more information out there. And it doesn’t necessarily make people more active - it can make people more aware, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into action. But it’s still a good thing. You can send photos and videos around the world of events as they happen and let people know exactly what’s going on.

In 2007 you helped to found Students Against the Pulp Mill and lead demonstrations in Hobart and Launceston where students walked out of school to protest against the pulp mill. What’s it like to lead 700 or more high school students out of class and through the streets?

That was fantastic. I think high school students are the most energetic of all activists, they have so much enthusiasm, and when they get fired up about something, they really get fired up about it. Those rallies were successful because of the students themselves, their energy… they helped to organize it and spread the word amongst their friends. The pulp mill was an issue they felt they had a really big stake in because they didn't want to see their state and the places where they lived become destroyed from the pollution from the pulp mill. They were also really annoyed about the corruption around the approval process. It was also amazing because you had all these adults telling them that they were too young to protest, that they didn’t know what they were talking about and the police on the day even told the students to go back to school, that they were being silly. You don't tell that to someone who feels so passionate about an issue! They knew exactly what they were doing there and they got really angry when people tried to tell them that they had no clue.

So it was good to help organize an event where young people had a voice for once and were able to show that they did have a clue. People complain about young people being apathetic and not caring about politics but then when they did care about politics, the police and some teachers and parents told them to stay away and shut up! Some of them had to battle their teachers and their parents to be there. That’s really courageous and inspiring and great to see. 

I guess aside from the pulp mill campaign, you are known locally for your efforts as a climate change activist in groups like the Walk Against Warming collective and Climate Action Hobart. How do you manage the frustration at seeing such a contradiction between the support among the population for action on climate change versus the governments’ seeming inability to do anything effective at all on the issue?

Yeah well we’ve seen that at these latest Cancun talks, it’s been an absolute disgrace. Ever sinceCopenhagen, governments around the world and the media have been talking down any possibility for a global agreement to be reached to reduce the world’s emissions, which was the big goal atCopenhagen and it wasn’t achieved. Governments all around the world at Cancun were calling for compromise and for reason and for incremental steps and it’s a time when we don’t need incremental steps, we need very fast action. The only government that’s been calling for that at Cancun, on the world stage, has been the Bolivian government. Also smaller countries like Micronesia and places like that around the Pacific are taking it seriously because they’re being hit hardest and soonest by it. 

As for the Australian government response - yes it is frustrating, it is incredibly frustrating - and it’s demoralizing a whole layer of activists. People have been dedicating the last 5 years or more of their life to climate change activism and it feels like we haven't come very far, even though the majority of people now support action on climate change. The government has just kept on dragging its feet and it seems like that’s the tactic, they are trying to keep us waiting for as long as possible - waiting for a report, then waiting for a conference, then waiting for another country to take action - because they don't want to actually change the fact that Australia is digging up, using and exporting huge amounts of coal.

The Qld, NSW and WA governments are all massively expanding their coal production. They are doubling the capacity of their coal ports to export coal, they’re building new railway lines for coal trains to go on, because there’s just so much money in it for a few corporations and billionaires. The government wants us to be happy with a carbon tax, which will probably be pretty low. But that’s really not enough. We can’t just introduce a carbon tax and do nothing else. We need to save our forests from being logged, we need to stop coal from being burnt and exported, we need to switch to renewable energy and we need to do a whole lot of other things.

Hundreds of thousands of climate scientists around the world are telling us that we are moving to irreversible climate change that’s going to have severe impacts on the world’s human population… and governments around the world, who are wedded to corporate rule, are just ignoring it and going along with business as usual! They are the extremists and we need to stop them! But because they’ve got all the power, it’s very difficult. We need to convince people that we can stop them. When people get so frustrated about the government not doing anything, they just give up.  A lot of people are getting exhausted and burnt out and want to retreat and just grow veggies in their home garden rather than tackle the bigger picture, so it’s a bit of a challenge.

How do you connect climate change and socialism. Is it your belief that in order to solve climate change we need to change the system or do you think we can modify capitalism?

When climate change really exploded as an issue about 5 years ago, Socialist Alliance was one of the groups that took it up really quickly. Obviously it’s an issue that we have been campaigning around for 20 or 30 years - in the pages of Green Left Weekly and Direct Action we had stories about global warming and climate change - but when it became a mainstream issue we threw a lot of our energy into helping to organize climate change groups all around the country and really trying to publicise the statements that scientists were making about how serious the situation was.

It’s something that connects with one of our fundamental beliefs – that capitalism is destroying the earth. The scientists were saying that the fact that we burn coal and oil, that we are so dependent on fossil fuels, is what’s killing the planet.

It’s the pursuit of profits above the environment that is really going to hurt us in the long run. There are a lot of people who think that we can just green up capitalism, that we can just put restrictions on the things that capitalists can do, like we can just make them stop burning coal, we can switch to renewable energy and then everything will be fine, but the truth is we can’t even get them to do that! We can’t put restrictions on them because they are way too powerful. Look how quickly the government modified its proposed mining tax!

Their ideology is that they should be free to do what they want. That’s the ideology of the free market. Climate change shows that the idea that the free market has its own inherent balance and that if it gets out of balance it will right itself, is false. When you allow profits to come second to environmental concerns, you get massive environmental destruction. We can’t run our economy and the environment on the free market as it lets us down every time. We have 10 years to act and the free market isn’t going to balance out climate change in 10 years. There’s just no way.

We need socialism if we are going to have true environmental protection, true sustainability. A socialist system would be a democracy and decisions would be under our control. Obviously that’s not a mainstream view. We work with people in climate action groups who have different ideas about this, but we try and work with everybody in these groups because we can agree on the short-term steps and that’s what’s important. As a first step, we need large groups of people taking action on the issue together, to increase awareness around climate change and pressure the government to do more.

You ran as a candidate in the 2010 Tasmanian state elections in March and then the Federal elections in August. What was it like to run as a candidate from a small left-wing party?

It was quite fun. It’s interesting that elections are meant to be the cornerstone of our democracy yet it’s so difficult for candidates to run from small parties or for individual candidates to run as Independents. You really realize when you are running in an election, how undemocratic elections actually are. We saw that quite explicitly in the state elections, because quite often the media, including the ABC who are meant to be independent, would ignore the fact that we were running. There were 4 registered political parties in Tasmania yet they would only interview 3 of them and just completely leave us out. They made the judgment that our views and ideas weren’t worth reporting. That shows how biased the media is. If it was a true democracy, everyone’s views would be represented and everyone would get an equal hearing and then people could vote for the ideas they most agreed with.

People quite often use the argument that all you need to do is run in elections and if people really support you, you’ll get elected. But to be honest, I still run into a lot of people who didn’t know we were standing and it was only on polling day when they went into the booth and they saw our name on the ballot that they realized we were running. During the elections we didn’t have enough money to run a lot of TV ads, fund big billboards or get leaflets into everyone’s letterboxes. So it makes it very difficult to get the word out that we are running. And of course when people turn up to vote they generally know who they are going to vote for or they don’t want to vote for a party they’ve never heard of and don’t know much about. So there’s huge challenges to overcome when running for a small left-wing political party.

Do you think running in elections is the best way to achieve change?

Not really, because even if you win that seat, it’s incredibly difficult to get things happening. The whole structure of government and the whole system is geared towards doing things in a particular way. You need the masses of people on your side if you want to achieve real change. It’s not even just about getting a parliamentary majority elected. Change also needs to come from outside of parliament and is much more effective and long-lasting if it comes from community groups and people on the ground. So we put effort into ongoing campaigns, not just elections. 

I heard a quote from a fabulous Cuban revolutionary, Celia Hart, the other day which was: "Being a revolutionary is the nicest and hardest thing. It is the greatest duty, but there is no cheaper way to be happy." Would you agree with that?

Yeah, that's a really beautiful quote and I really respect and admire Celia Hart. Being a revolutionary is incredibly difficult because you give up so much of your time, and you are running against the grain a lot of the time and people think that you’re crazy or they ignore you. But you get to meet the best people and to spend your time with the nicest people with the biggest hearts. And you also get the knowledge that you're helping to make the world a better place and that you’re part of a very important global movement. It makes you happy. Studies have shown that the happiest people in society are those who do things for other people and who have a purpose in life, and in being a revolutionary you have both these things. It can be tough, but it’s a good thing to do.


[Susan's interview with Melanie Barnes first appeared in Famous Reporter 43, May 2012].


Susan Austin grew up in Queensland and has settled in Hobart where she writes poetry in between working as an occupational therapist and being an eco-socialist activist. She has published poetry in various newspapers, journals and anthologies. She has won prizes in several FAW (Tas) poetry competitions, and was the judge of the 2012 WILPF Eve Masterman Peace Poetry Prize. Susan has been a featured reader in many events including the Hobart Republic Readings, The Tasmanian Living Writers' Week and the 2011 Tasmanian Poetry Festival. Her first poetry collection is Undertow (Walleah Press, October 2012). She blogs at