A mass haka at the end of the Waikato Uni occupation in 2000.
The following interview is with Joe Carolan, Socialist Aotearoa member and the leader of an occupation at Waikato University in 2000.
Could you give me a brief explanation of how you came to be involved in the Fightback campaign for free education?
I’d been active in the student movement in Ireland when I’d been in college there. And I had to go to Northern Ireland there was no free education in the south. So a lot of people who were from poorer backgrounds went to university in Northern Ireland which was still like the UK, a welfare state. Where it was free, even though it was under Thatcher. And Thatcher tried to start the ball rolling on privatising education and bringing in fees. My mum had warned me when I went to Northern Ireland, don’t get involved in politics.
Within about 4 weeks I was part of an occupation in the University of Ulster in Colhrane with people from the Labour Party, Sinn Fein, lots of different socialist groups and anarchists. We occupied for three weeks until we were evicted by the RUC violently. But that was pretty good. And then a year later I was part of a united left team with republicans and socialists that took over the administration and we put up signs in Irish and English and shit like that. So I’d had an experience of direct action and political organising in my time in the north of Ireland to defend free education. And then when I was an activist later on in the Republic we won a campaign for free education and the elimination of fees in the mid-90s. So although it had come too late for me I thought it was just a principle and education had helped pull my family out from a working class- my grandfather was a builder and my other grandfather was a coalman and both died in their mid-50s through hard work. So education was something that was pretty important to the family.
So I came to New Zealand about four days before the battle of Seattle, November 99. And I think the battle in Seattle really re-energised a lot of the left. Up until then we’d been involved in a lot of single issue campaigns but it really showed people, a lot of people that direct action could get the goods. So in New Zealand at that time there was the election of the Labour-Alliance Government, and this was after a whole decade, since 84 to 99 of neo-liberalism being rammed down people’s throats, and huge attacks on the education system. So just before the election of the Labour Alliance Government there was a massive occupation down in Canterbury and I think there was 3,4000 students involved in that. Couple of whom I’d met, people like Dave Colyer, so one of the demands that the movement had, that the student movement had was directed at the Labour Party and supported by its junior coalition partner, the Alliance Party which was for free education.
So we had a list of ten demands, abolition of fees, restore grants to liveable grants that students could survive on, cancellation of debt and really questioning why inter-generational solidarity had being broken. And that was what a left wing government should bring in. So I think it was in the early days of the Labour Alliance government that the student movement tried to continue putting the pressure on the Government to deliver on its promises, and a united group called Fightback the campaign for free education by students from Canterbury, Otago, Waitako and Auckland unis, and a number of the ITs as well, some of the polytechs we organised too. Like over in Waikato a guy called Hayden and the Maori students were really, really strong. And we did a couple of national huis, we did one down in Wellington, we had another one in Hamilton, we had another one in Auckland and it really built a network of student leaders all around the country. So our intention was to win the demands for free education through direct action and occupations.
What was your experience of the occupation?
Well we heard the stuff from the people in Canterbury, who had organised the big occupation there. And we didn’t really have a group or anything in it was just me and Heather who had gone from Hamilton. So we came back and set up a stall during o’week for the fightback campaign and we got about 180 people to join on that day and we also built a socialist branch from out of that as well, about 20 people in the Waikato.
So pretty soon, we had got into the student media, who did a feature demanding free education, we were given an office by the student union to run the campaign from and we also started liaising with the staff at Waikato Uni to support us, so when we went to occupy the registry which was the nerve centre where all the finance was done for the university, the staff had actually left the doors open for us and mysteriously disappeared, so kind of like unofficial strike action in support of us. So we actually took the building unopposed, and then locked it down. This was part of a wave of occupations which was planned throughout New Zealand. There was a smaller occupation down in Canterbury, there was an attempt in Wellington, also there was a big fight in Auckland Uni where the cops had been involved, and the cops and the policing was pretty hardline in Auckland at the time, there were a lot of students picked out for their ethnic background, Maori and PI students, punk rock students. And pulled by the nose and beaten by the cops, so Auckland was much more of a fight to occupy the clocktower or whatever targets they had and it was quite vicious.
So our occupation was one of the most successful on that day of action in that we got about 350 students to it and that we held the building for four or five days, which gave it a lot of media exposure and really put it out there to Labour what side were they one and unfortunately we found out what side they were on.
What was the effect of the occupation on the students who participated in it?
I think a lot of people had never been involved in any kind of form of direct action before, leading up to us we did a couple of other things like students weren’t getting their grants on time from WINZ, so we marched on the WINZ office, we had about 500 people on that march, it was really aggressive and loud and Hamilton had never seen anything before like it. So it was kind of that bring Seattle to your town, was the message of the movement at the time. And we fucking put WINZ under siege, and we hit them up again when they weren’t giving out accommodation supplements, we built a cardboard city with a few hundred students who blocked WINZ overnight. So those types of supportive actions helped build towards the big one which was the occupation itself.
At the stage the Labour Alliance government was very new, so a lot of people were willing to give Labour a chance, that was the political climate we were dealing in. New Zealand had shifted to the left, so there was a massive vote for Labour, the Alliance and the Greens, so people reckoned “Yeah, yeah free education that’s good, but maybe they need more time to win it through”. And certainly a lot of people who had supported the Alliance in Hamilton looked to us as sort of the direct action wing, to keep the Government honest.
But I think looking back on it now, Labour started the way they meant to go on. They were committed to running capitalism in New Zealand, and to running the market in third level education so perhaps we weren’t hard enough on Labour at that time.
"And we fucking put WINZ under siege"
Did people shift left during the occupation? Do you have good stories from the occupation?
Yeah the occupation was quite good fun. A lot of people still to this day would look back and go fuck that’s the way to do it. We broke into the office of the Vice Chancellor and spray painted it day-glo colours and had trance music in there so that was called the Spice Chancellors.
We had a band up on the roof, so a lot of the indy rock scene from Hamilton, which there has always been a good lot of, actually got political and came and played music. And I think the Blair Witch Project was out at the time, so we scared ourselves shitless watching that. People were quite on edge waiting for the police to storm the building, because people had had reports of what had happened in Auckland and we thought that the cops would get hardline with us.
There came a crunch point then where we were talking to the other groups around the country, and it was pretty apparent that we’d taken control of our building but they hadn’t been as successful. So carloads of students came down from Auckland and people came up from Welly, so it just goes to show that maybe not every social movement is necessarily succesful in the bigger cities, sometimes you have your breakthrough in the smaller cities. But then the question is what do you do to lead it, to spread it. We had a further big hui in Wellington and one in Lake Taupo. So it was quite good for actually radicalising a lot of the student left around the country and the Fightback network had around 4-500 people nationally at one stage.
I think then that you need a political solution, at that time we weren’t building a party like say the Mana Movement so you had quite a lot of smaller left wing groups but there was no sense of do we need an alternative or not. And I suppose people had some illusions in the Alliance that they would, with a bit of pressure from the outside, to deliver the goods in parliament. But obviously Labour was more committed to the market than free education.
Along the way we organised various forums. We had Steve Maharey and we really lampooned him as a fucking neo-liberal. Some of the posters were “He had free education but you can’t”. “Hard labour” was one of the slogans. We had Richard Prebble come down and we debated him until he was shaking, so the idea that these hard ass neo-liberals who fucked up New Zealand between 1984 and 1999 were untouchable, we threatened that you know? But I still think at the time, looking back in it, New Zealand still had illusions in the politics of Labour and the Alliance and that with a few more years they would have delivered the goods. Nine years later Labour was toughed out, we’ve got National in now, they had nine years to fix it but their politics and their politics today is still not committed to delivering what should be rights not privileges, like free education to the people.