The longest period of mass defiance in our history

So come on people let’s organise
To smash this bloody Jerk we all despise,
We can do it if the people unite and be strong
We’ll strip him of his power
He’s a bible bashing bastard and we’ve just begun to fight.
Anon. – Bjelke’s Lament

In these pages I often make the claim that the 1977–1979 street march campaign in Queensland was the longest period of mass defiance in Australian history with the exception of the Aboriginal resistance. This campaign penetrated all layers of society both in Queensland and elsewhere. Members of civil liberties coordinating committee (CLCC) toured the state to speak up for democratic rights in regional towns. The campaign went under the banner of Joh Must Go.

I have included the early chronology from 4th September till 22nd October 1977 with particular reference to the University of Queensland Union complex. I think that this site should be heritage listed because of the contribution it made to democratic rights. The latter part of the street march campaign was largely conducted from outside the University Queensland. Of course there were forums, public meetings, at least one ABC Monday conference and a variety of other events that occurred at the University union complex during the campaign. It was the starting point for participation by students in the wider political campaign waged by workers, their unions, anti-uranium and black activists, women and their organisations, gays and theirs.

Below is some evidence for my claims.

Ian Curr
18 April 2019

Chronology of democratic rights campaign in Queensland compiled by the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee.


4/9/1977 – ‘the day of the political street march is over’  – Joh Bjelke Petersen.

5/ 9/77 – Meeting in the UQ Union building in response to Petersen’s ban on political street marches. Attended by 30 people at university of Queensland. The meeting issues a press release and forms an interim committee. They call for a forum on the next day at the University of Queensland and produce a leaflet that night.

6/9/77 – 250 people attend forum at University of Queensland. The meeting plan to march to Roma street  Forum on the next day (where a union rally about the Ted Zaphir case will be in progress) and decides to hold its first public meeting on 15 September 1977 at the University of Queensland Union complex.

Brisbane – more than 400 students attempt to march from the university Queensland to the Roma Street forum but are stopped at Checkpoint Charlie on the edge of the grounds by 200 police. Most continue to the rally on the footpath. 200 Waterside workers marched on the footpath in the city to the rally with 5000 people are massed to protest the erosion of trade union and democratic rights.

Sydney 120 people demonstrate outside the Queensland government terrorist bureau and then occupy the building. Five people are arrested.

9/9/ 77 – campaign against nuclear power supplies for a permit to March in the demonstration against uranium mining. Date set for Raleigh and March on October 22, 1977.

12/9/77 – Rally and March from King George Square.

15/9/77 – Forum held at University of Queensland forum area during the day to discuss democratic rights. An evening meeting in the Relaxation Block of 700 people Civil Liberties coordinating committee is formed and a march planned for 22 September 1977.

20/9/77 – CLCC meeting at UQ votes in favour of marching on 22/9/77. A meeting of students Griffith University votes against a march on 22 September 1977.

21/9/77–Forum at Griffith Uni.

22/9/77–500 protestors march from University of Queensland forum area at 2 pm and are stopped at the edge of university by 300 police but continue to the King George Square on the footpath. 2000 people rally in King George Square. 700 uniform and 100 plainclothes police present, having been brought in to the city from the radius of 150 miles. 32 people are arrested (20 on the steps of King George square and 12 at Parliament house.) Two women are forced to strip and squat on the floor in the view of passing male police.

12/10/77– Students and staff march from UQ Forum Area to King George Square to join with others  at a rally of 1,000 people at 5pm. A request for permission to march is made to the police and refused. The meeting then decides to sit down on one half of the steps of the square and stays there confronted by 700 police for three hours. A police flying wedge enters the square to confiscate speaking equipment being used to address the crowd. Eight people arrested and three are served with a summons for using speaking equipment which was confiscated and impounded by police for two weeks at considerable cost for higher equipment.

Street marches 4 Sept 1977 – 3 Dec 1977

22/10/77–National uranium mobilisation.
Brisbane. 5000 people attend a protest rally and King George Square, 700 police present. A March into some threes on the footpath is blocked and people are arrested. A second march is attempted as an act of civil disobedience, with participants holding their hands in the air to make it clear that they not resisting arrest. Protestors are treated violently by police. A total of 418 people are arrested in the largest mass arrest in one day in Australian history.

Sydney. 20,000 protesters assemble and marched down George Street to Hyde Park in the presence of 20 police. No arrests.

Melbourne. 10,000 protesters assemble in City Square and march to trades hall. No arrests.

Toowoomba. 250 people attending rally at East Creek Park.

London. Protests is hold an anti-uranium demonstration outside the Australian high commission.

Forum – speakers and organisers
Dan O’Neil put up the name Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) in the relaxation block meeting at UQ on Thursday 15 Sept 1977 when Morris Morrissey (a law student) was the chair … this name for the group was disputed because the 1977-79 campaign  was never about civil liberties, it was about democratic rights. But the name gave continuity with the 1967 campaign when the Nicklin government banned street marches because of growing opposition to the Vietnam War. The street march campaign (1977-79) later flew under the banner of Joh Must Go. This was also the subject of a dispute. Sadly there was a loss of real organisation after the Whitlam government ended conscription in 1972.

In the relax block meeting in September 1977 where there was a real attempt to re-build organisation,  several people moved dissent in the chair and Morris resigned. Maris Element took over. Bear this in mind, at the time, Maris was an 18-year-old woman class woman thrown into the maelstrom of left wing politics which was pretty brutal and took its toll on a number of activists.

The dispute which finally led Morris to resign was whether we should defy the street march ban immediately or wait.  A forum had been held outside hours earlier which voted for a motion to delay and not confront the ban, at least not right away.

Dan O’Neil argued we should be  ‘organised systematic, non-violent and absolutely massive’. The Relax block meeting would have fallen into complete chaos without Maris’s strong role in the chair. To the chagrin of various sectarian groups, the relaxation block meeting reversed the decision taken at the forum earlier and we marched on 22 September 1977. Thirty-two were arrested … this helped build the campaign and led to the large turn-out on 22 October 1977.

During the campaign Maris Element did all the secretarial work for the CLCC (which lasted till 31 August 1978). Much of this work was done off campus at CLCC headquaters in Birley Street in Spring Hill. In late 1978 the CLCC was replaced by the Civil Liberties Campaign Group (CLCG) after it was decided to march against the Federal Budget on 31 August 1978 rather than keep the pressure on the Queensland government. Maris compiled the chronology above. I have made some amendments from my own recollection of the meetings and events so I take responsibility for their accuracy. Maris organised court appearances for those arrested, she bailed people out of the watch-house and later she did similar work for the CLCG set up by George Georges. There are many good speakers which give focus and clarity to debates, but who does the hard work of organising? In the 1967 campaign people say it was Mitch Thompson. In the 1977-79 campaign it was Maris Element. I’m talking organisation here, not activism, which is different.

May Day 1978 was the largest march in its history, over 20,000 marched through city streets to the Exhibition Grounds in Bowen Hills – 8,000 unionists and 12,000 democratic rights and anti-uranium activists. Labor opposition leader called the activists ‘a bunch of johnny-come-latelys’.

Notes by Ian Curr

Glenda and Nicki respond to the admonition by President of the ALP, Tom Burns: ‘Why don’t the women come forward?’ May Day 1978 Exhibition Grounds, Brisbane.

Banner photo: Anti-uranium demonstration 30 October 1978 in King George Square.

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