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We are all leaders: Learning from the Climate Camp

In July 2008, several hundred climate change activists gathered in Newcastle for Australia's first climate camp. Anth and James supported the camp's training program and facilitation team. Anthony Kelly's draft article focuses on the decision-making processes during the week-long camp and the action during which 1000 people stopped coal trains: particularly the spokescouncils and action teams. We welcome feedback and comments.

“We need to develop a different understanding of power – where people work with each other rather than seeking to control and command. And we need to find ways of relating to each other without hierarchy and leaders.”
– Doing it without Leaders – Seeds of Change (*1)

Australia’s first national Climate Camp, held in sight of the massive coal ports of Newcastle in July this year was without doubt one the best of the many nationally organised action camps held in Australia in the past few decades. This and other Climate Camps in the UK, Europe and the United States over the past few years have developed new and unique organising models and tactical innovations that are worth examining here.

Organised by a nationally dispersed network of organisers from a spectrum of climate action groups and organisations led by Rising Tide in Newcastle, the Australia’s Climate Camp attracted over 500 people and served as the catalyst for the largest direct actions against the coal industry yet seen in this country. The camp structure and logistics worked well and functioned for the six days. There was always great food available, there was always paper in the loos, and seven or eight marquees were often full of people in workshops, plenaries and meetings in the four days leading up to the mass actions. The stretched but still functioning organising team, made up of many local activists as well as interstate organisers, had spent months developing plans for the Sunday mass action well before the camp, which meant that activists arriving in Newcastle could focus on building our resources, planning and coordinating the action teams to make the mass action as effective as possible.

The media reported one thousand of us on the Sunday 13th July, it seemed a lot less, but together we stopped a significant section of the world’s largest coal port from operating. Despite 160-odd NSW police, water canon, horses and dogs along the coal train tracks, Action teams were able to work together, disperse when needed, act with their own autonomy within the larger action structure and successfully occupy and lock-on to the coal train at multiple points.

The action on the Sunday took place over perhaps two kilometers of train line. Most arrestable teams could not be seen by others. Each had their own support and goals, but each team was able to fulfill its part in the overall action plan, and each incursion, occupation, banner drop, lock-on, and arrest was celebrated as a collective victory, a dynamic rarely seen in other dispersed affinity group actions. The NSW Police were brutal as usual, overreacting to incursions past their cordon. Pain compliance holds, grabs, punches and assaults occurred in many of the 50 or so arrests, but many more were calmed down and de-roled by experienced activists, used to nervous and over-hyped cops.

Horses were used to contain the initial march along the railway track to the Carrington coal terminal and later to try and clear the street. However, specialised Action teams, (zombies and clowns) were tasked to slow them down so they couldn’t compress the march or push us forward too fast. Spreading out the march meant spreading out the police line and thereby maximizing the opportunities for arrestable teams to get past the police and onto the train. These action teams withstood hours of slowly moving in front of police horses, with the horses literally breathing down their necks, resisting the constant threats and orders from the riders, so that others could find places between the cordons to slip through.

Each report back from the Action teams that night was met with a round of thunderous applause at the Spokescouncil. The following day, Monday, again saw several lock-ons on coal loaders, rallies through Newcastle and banner drops, each again celebrated as a shared victory. Most of the arrestees received a $400 traffic penalty for their efforts with a few copping malicious damage. Arrestees were proud as punch and as pleased as possible with the outcome. Action teams were already fundraising and the camp deliberating about legal support strategies later that night. It soon became very evident how important the action team structure was in supporting the individual arrestees. Very few, if any, of the people arrested would not have had a pretty tight crew of friends and comrades around them.

The day’s disruption of that particular coal shipment was reported as the equivalent of taking every car off Australia’s roads for a day. Bloomberg reported that coal exports from Newcastle fell by 18% in the week of the camp (*2). The 7.30 Report on ABC stated that the battle lines in Australia’s climate change debate had been re-drawn, as they showed footage of Climate Camp activists being removed from the train. One of the strategic goals of the camp was to build and empower the direct action components of the still emergent climate movement in Australia. By all accounts heard at camp and since it achieved that. Locals and coal communities in the Hunter region expressed overwhelming support for the camp and the actions, designs and plans for many more are already being discussed, national direct action e-lists being set up and hundreds of people left with a renewed vigor to organise actions against coal infrastructure or related targets.

Grassroots decision-making and organising models

Generally, large scale decision-making structures at large activist camps such as this are difficult and unwieldy, prompting concerns and debates about the level of participation, autonomy, empowerment and the level of democracy. The style and structure of decision making has been a point of constant debate within movements and struggles. From the large peace and anti-militarist mobilisations of the eighties and nineties at Pine Gap, Roxby Downs and Nurrungar to the World Economic Forum protests, Woomera, Baxter and the MUA disputes around the country, grassroots decision-making structures have been hotly argued and challenged by activists many of whom have come together for common causes but arrived from a spectrum of political traditions. Yet despite these often vitriolic debates, grassroots decision making and organising structures have a vital movement building function and a long tradition of development within Australia’s activist history.

Very few large groups in mainstream society would be inclined to involve everyone in making all or most decisions. In hierarchical organisations, decision-making is generally centralized with the most important decisions being left for the elite. However, when trying to make a decision in a large group there is a tendency amongst activist movements to simply have one large meeting with hundreds of people. Voting can be quick and easy but encourages people to play politics and group into factions. This one person, one vote model is often touted as more ‘democratic’ yet often fails to deal with the complex and inclusive level of decision making required in large scale actions and events. Activists have long recognised that contributions into a decision can be more complex and direct then via a single vote. Mass meetings can be dominated by a few confident people and a large majority of people do not have a chance to speak due to time constraints. Non-hierarchical structures have been developed that distribute decision-making amongst the activist body. Time is then required to build consensus and for the proposals to develop.

Consensus, as an alternative decision-making approach, depends on mutual understanding and trust. Ideally, consensus building is based on the ability of everyone to contribute to the discussion and this occurs best in smaller groups rather than in meetings of hundreds. A delegate system is then required to bring the developed ideas, proposals and decisions into a central forum.

Taking inspiration from the early years of anti-nuclear movement in Europe and the United States, many of Australia’s large action camps and mobilisations have attempted to utilise decentralised and dispersed decision-making structures. Taking cues from recent camps in the UK, the Climate Camp ‘08 at Newcastle adopted a similar model of Neighbourhoods, Action Teams and a central evening Spokescouncil.

The political reasons for this model are many. It’s part of our combined effort in developing viable non-hierarchical alternatives based on direct democracy: involving people in decisions is empowering, which in itself is a vital ingredient for people to take political action. Making collaborative and effective decisions increases our combined impact and political effectiveness and, at some level, movements realise that dispersed organising structures can be more difficult for the opponent to repress or co-opt by design.

Inclusion and democracy

The spectacular level and effectiveness of the blockade of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 was largely based on the degree of decentralised planning and organising that took place before and during the action.

According to Viv Sharples, “in the months leading up to the demonstrations, an Organising Collective made up of rotating spokespeople representing each Working Group made decisions by consensus about the structure, budget and logistics of the events, and ensured that Working Groups were coordinating effectively and not duplicating each other’s work. The meetings were open to all, but decision- making was limited to Working Group spokespeople.”

This distributed decision-making model, combined with a similar Action team model, allowed several thousand people from different geographical areas, backgrounds, and philosophies take nonviolent direct action together in a way that was empowering, respected differences in philosophy and tactics, and was essentially non-hierarchical.

Despite these traditions and some very clear successes and advantages of this model several common critiques and challenges appear each time a movement or campaign adopts it. We are still not well practiced in decentralised and radically flat organising structures. They only exist outside the mainstream and then often only temporarily. Few of the camp organisers or meeting facilitators had actually experienced Spokescouncils working well or at all.

Many existing critiques of affinity group structure arise because often affinity groups and spokecouncils are under-supported and poorly resourced and with little or no training. Activists generally do not put much effort into developing their effectiveness. As such they do not work well. Solidarity, a relatively newly-formed socialist group who had several members at Climate Camp, described the spokescouncil/action teams organising model as a “weakness”(*3) at the camp, excluding people and hampering democratic decision-making. They correctly point out that on the first day of the camp “it was clear from a show of hands that over half the camp were not in ‘action teams’, and were thus cut out of discussions through the spokescouncil.”

The question of participation in these action team models is a vital one. The spokescouncil model relies on people being actively involved in smaller teams who can represent their interests.

At the Climate Camp in Newcastle the action team (affinity group) structure functioned in two main ways. For logistics, camping and site related issues, people were encouraged to form into or join ‘Neighbourhoods’ (derived from the ‘barrio’ system of organising from Latin American mobilisations of the nineties). The Neighbourhood system was intended to encourage people to mingle and meet others with different levels of previous experience in activism and give people the opportunity to network locally whilst at a national event, and possibly continue working with them beyond the camp. Many Neighbourhoods formed in home states and others formed onsite as people arrived. The camp was spread out, like slices of a pie to discernable state-based or regional groups of tents and marquees. Other logistics-based or working groups like the kitchen, first aid, legal support, the children’s tent, rubbish and recycling came pre-formed and prepared to fulfill their respective functions. Only some Neighbourhoods came self-sufficient with kitchens and food but those that didn’t were able to use the large kitchen for meals as needed.

Action teams (based on the ‘affinity group’ concept) were encouraged to be formed by groups of people prior to arrival. However, organisers had anticipated that only a proportion of people would be in pre-organised Action teams so had set about deliberately and consciously to help people form them in the four days leading up to the mass action on Sunday. The regular checks during spokescouncil and other meetings in the lead up to Sunday’s main action served to identify activists who were not yet members of an action group and help them join one. New people arriving at camp were constantly encouraged to do one of the three NVDA workshops each day and thus form new Action teams within them. The Spokescouncil meetings on the second and third days deliberately broke into sections to facilitate smaller ‘Action teams’ forming out of the many people not in one as yet. By the Saturday night before the action, over 20 identified Action teams, with names and roles and ideas for actions were accounted for at the evening council.

Despite these efforts, there remained some participants, particularly those that arrived the day of the mass action were there as individuals, and not as an ‘Action team.’

Calling the Spokecouncils

The spokescouncil was developed to address issues of participation, decision-making and democracy. It enables large numbers of people to work together as democratically as possible, allowing the maximum number of opinions and ideas to be heard in an efficient way. The issues of inclusion, representation and democracy remain vitally important no matter what the model. The secret of a spokescouncil though is not at the council itself, but the level of active contribution into ideas, concepts and proposals before and in –between each spokescouncil.

How a spokescouncil works

At Climate Camp the Spokescouncil was formed on the evening of the first day. The facilitator rose and requested all ‘Spokes’ or delegates from the various Action Teams or Groups present themselves. The Spokes were asked to introduce themselves, step forward and form an inner circle in the marquee, with members of their groups sitting or standing behind them. Once all spokes were seated the facilitator asked if there were other groups not represented here. A representative from some group may be sought or if those present felt that all groups were represented within the circle then the facilitator was able to formally call the spokescouncil open.


Typically, information sharing and discussion took place within the spokescouncil but the wider circles of people were often invited to speak or contribute as needed or required.

Early on at the Camp, confusion arose as to the decision-making ability of the council. Responding to a request to change the decision making format of the camp, the facilitator responded by stating that this spokescouncil was not a decision making forum. This was not correct and generated concern about the ability of the council to actually make or change decisions already made by the organising collective prior to the camp being set up.

It was later clarified that some decisions were beyond our capacity to revisit, the location of the camp, its basic structure and the basic organising structure for instance, but other decisions were entirely within our mandate to make as a camp. This allowed us to ‘move forward’ into planning for the mass action without constantly debating the process.

The quality of the decisions often depended upon the amount of time each team had had to meet beforehand and how well each ‘spoke’ or delegate was able to represent them. Some teams were far more functioning than others but the care and commitment of the spokes who turned up each night to the council was admirable.

The spokescouncil meetings were long and involved, like all large meetings, but there were none of the usual aggressive debates or abusive meeting behaviour that so often characterises these large coalition actions. People were respectful and the culture of the camp was a one of solidarity and co-operation. Whether this was to do with the times, the level and care of the organisers, the demographic of the activists or the balance of experienced activists and organisers who were present is difficult to say. According to the post-camp surveys and anecdotally, people have come away from this camp inspired and empowered rather than totally exhausted and stressed as could be expected.


The final version of the article will include sections here on (1) representation and voice, (2) facilitation and (3) secrecy and security.

Lessons for the next Climate Camp

As a movement we need more experimentation, training and more practice in decentralised and direct forms of decision-making within our movements and groups. Activists should be used to and well versed in maintaining and working within a small affinity group structures for campaigns and actions. Increasing the pool of activists capable of facilitation of both small groups and large format spokescouncils is a vital first step.

We need to strengthen and improve the democracy in these models to withstand: a) challenges from advocates of mass meeting models b) challenges from the state (provocateurs, police etc) and c) stressors of the environment such as time/ energy / numbers.


*1 http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk
*2 http://steelguru.com/news/index/2008/07/23/NTU4NTI=/Newcastle_coal_exports_drop_by_18%2525_on_protests.html
*3 http://www.solidarity.net.au/web/newcastle-climate-camp-fosters-national-debate-and-planning-on-climate-change/

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