Democratic Rights struggle at UQ

A Heritage Walking Tour was held on 27 July 2019 from 2:30 PM – 5.30 PM at UQ Union Complex. We met at 2.30pm at Merlo’s in the Great Court and there were many speakers from different phases of the Unions life from the 1950s till the 1990s.
It was organised by Jeff Rickertt and hosted by Save the UQ Union Complex

The street march campaign (1977 – 1979)
On 4 September 1977 Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the Premier of Queensland, said the following words:

“The day of the political street march is over. Anybody who holds a street march, spontaneous or otherwise, will know that they are acting illegally. Don’t bother to apply for a permit you won’t get one. That’s Government policy now.”

On 22 September 1977 there was a march from the University of Qld. This followed an earlier march on 12 September 1977 that was stopped at the gates of the University by 300 Queensland police officers. This did not stop students from walking on the footpath to a rally of 5,000 workers on Trade Union Rights. Wharfies marched to the rally in Roma Street forum.

The 22nd September march went off campus and regathered in King George Square to attempt a march into the valley of death.

The first man arrested in Qld for demonstrating against the street march ban in 1977 was PB, a cleaner, identified by initials only who was arrested at 5.15pm on 22 Sept 1977 for disobeying a lawful direction. He was arrested by Constable Gary Hannigan, then from Sandgate CIB and to be the youngest ever detective in the Qld Special Branch. Hannigan’s dad was an Inspector of police.

IR (a student at QIT) was arrested at 5.49pm, then LB (unemployed) at 5.55pm, LM (a graduate from Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education) at 6.00pm, PA who was the Australian Union of Students representative at University of Queensland was arrested at 6.58, NN (a Student at Griffith University) at 7.03pm. The last person arrested in King George Square that night was JM ( a UQ student) who was arrested at 7.07pm.

All these people except for PB had been attending meetings at the University of Queensland of the newly formed group to fight the ban. It had been named the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee or ‘CLCC’. By that last arrest, 20 people had been arrested on the King George Square steps. Another 12 were arrested later at parliament house.

The women arrested were stripped searched in the watchouse that night in the presence of male police. Maris, a young student and member of the CLCC, organised a defence for all the arrested people in the courts and a few were acquitted. This was the beginning of 3,000 arrests of 2,000 people (some were arrested on several occasions) and court appearances which would continue unabated for 2 years – every time there was a political street march.

The democratic rights struggle is the longest single campaign of mass defiance of government in Australian history.  The longest struggle is aboriginal resistance to colonisation. From 4 September 1977 till July 1979 2,000 people were arrested, there were 3,000 arrests with the largest of 418 people being arrested in a single afternoon of 22 October 1977.

I have been asked to read out the following short passage written by Anna McCormack who was the women’s rights organiser at the University of Qld Student Union in 1977 & 1978.  Anna could not be here today … her views are supported by women who were active in that struggle which, I think, was part of the democratic rights struggle here in Queensland.

I’d like to acknowledge a group that played a positive role in progressive student politics at the Union in the 70s and later.

The group was the Women’s Rights Committee and their room was the Women’s Rights Room. There is the room (point it out) in which they met and planned women’s rights campaigns in the 70s, ironically now a Commonwealth Bank.

Interestingly, this Student Union, the University of Qld Union, was the very first student union in the country to appoint a part time paid Women’s Rights Organiser.  That was significant.  It was in 1977 and it was in recognition that women needed to be able to campaign against the disadvantages and discriminations women students experienced at that time – and still experience.  Anna who was appointed to that position in 1977 is still politically active in the Women’s Liberation Movement more than 40 years later.

The Women’s Rights Room was often a hive of activity as women planned amongst other things, a campaign to get the Student Union to adopt policy supporting women’s abortion rights.  A student referendum was held on the issue and unfortunately the women were unsuccessful at that time.  A policy of ‘no policy’ was upheld.  It would be another 40 years before those women were able to celebrate Qld abortion decriminalisation.

A campaign about women’s safety on campus raised awareness of the prevalence of sexual assault and rape on campus – it was some years, however, before the university responded.  The Women’s Rights Committee also campaigned against sexual harassment of students by some academic and teaching staff.  They campaigned successfully for the withdrawal of student union funding for a student club that printed a newsletter that incited violence against women and girls.  They successfully called for the reinstatement by the Student Union of a woman cleaner who had been sacked for no reason.  These were a few of the areas around which these women’s liberationists campaigned, sometimes with success, often without.

When the Women’s Rights Room became too small for their meetings, the women asked the Union for a larger room.  The request was refused so the women and a couple of supporters, (myself and JM), occupied the room and moved the furniture.”

I am proud to have been one of those supporters of women rights back in 1978. I think it important to actively take the side of women in political struggle.

Ian Curr
27 July 2019

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