“... the radical movement on (UQ) campus was more continuous and more serious both in theory and in practice than in anywhere else in Australia … what will turn out in the lens of history to be the most interesting and radical student movement … was the one that occurred in the supposed sleepy background of Queensland” – Jim Cairns, leader of the Anti-war movement in Australia and Deputy Prime Minister in the Whitlam Labor government.
We post this account of the politics of the New Left in Brisbane by two of its protagonists: Dan O’Neill, an activist and academic at UQ, and Di Zetlin, former national president of the National Tertiary Education Union, feminist, trotskyite, activist and academic.
They describe in the interview below how they witnessed the rise of youth in the anti-war movement, the critique of stalinism and imperialism, the first sparks in the liberation of women and blacks and of confrontation with the state in Queensland. They speak of the “Up the Right Channels” project of reform of the university and broader society by groups like the Students for a Democratic Society and Revolutionary Socialist Student Alliance.
The New Left movement had petered out by the time the democratic rights and anti-uranium struggles began in 1977 over the mining and export of uranium from Queensland. Key participants in the 1967 civil liberties march, who helped organise the Vietnam moratorium marches in 1970 and 1971 and who participated in the Tower Mill protests against Springbok apartheid opposed defiance of the street march ban buy Bjelke-Petersen. Both the Socialist workers party and the Communist Party opposed marching until later in the year. The Labour Party threaten to disendorse George Georges, Senator for Queensland, because of his support of street marches. Unlike the new left struggles of the late 60s and early 70s students only played a small part in the 1977 democratic rights struggle. In contrast to the antipathy to the trade union movement demonstrated by the new left the street marches were organised at meetings of the civil liberties coordinating committee in Trades Hall in 1977 and 1978.
In direct contrast to Society for Democratic Action and Revolutionary Student Socialist Action women played a dominant role in organising the street marches. The sexism of the new left was not tolerated in democratic rights struggles of 1977 and 78.
The Brisbane New Left had given rise to FOCO, the Self Management Group (SMG) that challenged the role of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Both SMG and the CPA were splintered by sectarianism and political differences. The CPA in 1971, and the SMG in 1977.
The New Left became mired in social revolution and sexism, lacking an ability to engage with black activists on the one hand, and some even retained a middle-class antipathy to workers and their unions. The question of support or otherwise for the National liberation front in Vietnam split an alliance of the New Left from a wider trade union base typified by a refusal to allow Brian Laver to speak on the podium in the May 1970 moratorium in Roma Street forum before a crowd of over 10000 people. Ironically the person who spoke in his place also supported the national liberation front in Vietnam. During the democratic rights struggle in 1978 George Georges hosted trade unionists from Vietnam at the wharfies club in Brisbane.
Unfortunately some of the photographer/s are not known, save for Grahame Garner, a seamen who documented the period with stark black and white images, many of which were later lost in a house fire. Some are shown here. – Editor, WBT
Our Radical Past: Protest in 60s and 70s Brisbane: Dan O’Neill and Di Zetlin / Oral history / Banner Image – Second Vietnam Moratorium march Brisbane 18 Sept 1970 by Grahame Garner.
Interviewee: Dan O’Neill (DO)] Interviewer: Di Zetlin (DZ)] Date: 21/03/2018
DZ: Okay Dan, so here we are back at the University of Queensland, more than 50 years after probably the deepest radicalisation that we’ve seen in Queensland’s history. I guess yours and my childhood was actually spent in the 1950s, so it was under the shadow of Hiroshima, it was under the shadow of a very stultifying and conservative little town that was pretending to be the capital city of Queensland.
But there were kind of liberalising influences going on. So there were things like, for you, having been brought up as a Catholic, the influence of Vatican II, and for me, as a woman, the possibilities that were opened up by things like the availability of the contraceptive pill, although it was inaccessible to unmarried women like me. But it was a very mixed period. So I thought we might actually start by talking about those kind of origins, of radicalism and what that period – that you’ve actually described as ‘the deep sleep’ – meant to the way in which you thought about the issues that were coming up as the 1960s emerged.
DO: Well I suppose as someone whose teen years were in the Menzies era, you know, when I look back it seems to me there were something like 23 years of a kind of a lethargy, dominated by that rather portly, self-important figure, who dominated the political environment.
But I suppose if you look at it structurally, what I think was really important – and what changed – was that the world was obviously bipolar for most people. You were under the American empire and the American empire was the realm of freedom.
And that was counterposed to a wicked Soviet empire that engrossed Eastern Europe and that it even reached out in cooperation with a changed China – and so on. And I think what began to happen was that the third world developed an independent voice, whether it was neutralism in a more moderate form or whether it was the emergence of various kinds of national liberation front. The most important one of course being the one in Vietnam. It seems to me that when I look back, that’s what began to wake me up.
It was like your allegiance didn’t necessarily have to be either with the degenerated form of supposed socialism, or with American free enterprise capitalism, you know? You could sympathise with these voices that were saying neither of those giants should be crushing our aspirations. That was the way I felt, anyway.
DZ: Yeah. And in a sense, the empire was starting to crumble from within too. Cos we were hearing things about what was happening in America with the civil rights movement and I mean I remember in particular Martin Luther King’s speech, “I have a dream”, which was in 1963. So we did get a sense that this American colossus actually had clay feet. And there was something to be gained from changing the way we thought about that bipolar world. But how is that actually reflected in your memory on campus? Because a lot of the dissent, a lot of radicalism actually came from the debates on campus.
DO: Yeah. I’d been a student here all through the 50s and I was out of the country studying overseas until early 65. So when I came back in 65, I felt that this was a pretty sleepy campus and that the senior staff in particular weren’t very aware, it seemed to me, of what was going on in the world. And a friend of mine from about 1960 who’d been in Melbourne had arrived on campus, and I was pleased to see him here, Peter Wertheim.
And Peter had been the editor of Dissent, which had been recently established, and had been part of a group around people like Vincent Buckley, the Melbourne poet and lecturer, and Bill Ginnane, who was a philosophy lecturer in Sydney. And they’d been part of the Newman Society in Melbourne, and they’d established a magazine called Prospect. And this was exciting new thinking for a lot of young Catholics that had already anticipated the themes of the second Vatican council.
So among the people that I associated with in those days – and I was a kind of rather disturbed and uneasy Catholic at that point – there was a lot of discussion not only about one’s personal life and the moral issues that were exercising a lot of Catholics, but also about the nature of the university. And I ran into other people who, out of completely different backgrounds, other staff and young postgraduates, who were worried about whether this was a very good university and what its attitude to intellectual community was and so on. So I was involved in those kind of issues, but then action on the Vietnam War began to occur in a big way and action against conscription.
But I didn’t know much about Vietnam in the beginning. But I was aware, as were a lot of other people, that the traffic regulations were being used against Vietnam protesters in a most unfair way. For example, when Lyndon Baines Johnson came to Australia, there were very enthusiastic demonstrations spilling onto the roadway and waving placards, doing exactly the things that the protesters were doing, and there were no arrests of course on that basis.
So when people began to come back and report what had gone on in central Brisbane, a whole lot of people had sympathy with their democratic rights and civil liberties and so on. So a whole discussion began to emerge that involved not only the people that I knew in the Newman Society, but also other academics and postgraduates and a group of people who were heading towards the formation of SDA, sometimes known as the Students for Democratic Action, sometimes known as the Society for Democratic Action. But they’d obviously been influenced by what was going on in the United States, by what had happened on the campus at Berkeley around people like Mario Savio and the formation of SDS.
So it was New Left thinking of this, I suppose, Left liberal kind that began to be very influential in the discussion on the campus. And I began to get involved in that.
DZ: Yeah. See I think it was absolutely fascinating, because I think there was that core realisation that the world we were living in was profoundly hypocritical.
DZ: I mean I came at it from a different trajectory, cos when I first came to the university as an undergraduate student in I think it was 65 or 66, I expected to find this place of light, liberty and learning. And instead it seemed to be a very stultifying and still very class-ridden kind of institution. I mean I came from a state high school and there were only two other people from that state high school who came to the university at the same time. And then I was actually interested in drama.
And all of the kind of theatre and all of that cultural life in Brisbane at the time was just absolutely dead. But what was emerging on campus were things like the development of the Architects’ Revues, some of the things that DramSoc were doing were challenging some of that. But the kind of underlying core was a realisation that in a sense everything we had taken to be true during the 1950s and the early 1960s was in fact open to challenge. And I mean I remember what started happening in the refectory was people used to stand up on tables and start talking about some of these issues, start talking about Vietnam or almost anything. And people would congregate around the refectory table and these discussions would take place. And that really opened my eyes to a whole range of issues that I hadn’t even thought you could discuss. And clearly the Vietnam War was absolutely central to that, because somehow this was an experience where Australian troops were committed, 18 year old boys were being called up through conscription to fight in that particular war, and what we began to understand I think was that it was actually a war that was being fought by the people against the armed might of the United States. And that gave us this sense, I think, that there is a capacity to challenge things that you see as being unjust. And to me, you know, that was what started to crystallise during 1965, 1966, leading into 1967, which was where the movement really focused on the question of civil liberties and the right to march.
Because as you pointed out, a handful of people resisting the draft would get arrested and manhandled and people celebrating the arrival of Lyndon Baines Johnson or you remember when Marshall Ky the president of Vietnam came in, I think it was very early in 67. You know, to celebrate those kinds of events was perfectly legitimate, but to challenge it was to face the possibility of repression. But it was really interesting because, as we moved into the forum area and people started using that area to express dissent, a lot of those ideas were debated openly, they were much more interesting, to be honest, than going to very stultifying lectures.
DO: Yeah, no that’s dead right. Yeah.
DZ: So a lot of us, myself included, hardly ever went to lectures. We spent our time listening to people in the forum. Where I recall almost anybody could get up and speak.
DO: Yes, no, I think that’s dead right. Just for a minute, absconding from the political side of this, I remember when I got back here in 65, the atmosphere on the campus was dominated by conservative students who were under the sway, in a way, if you tried to be political, of what at the time we called bully boys. People in faculties like engineering and so on who we used to call the greasers who really, in a way, dominated the unofficial atmosphere of the campus.
So that when you got people like Brian Laver and others getting up to speak, it was as if these guys, in defence of their own conception of tight-lipped manliness, would throw objects at people and so on and so on. Now I remember being invited, along with Peter Wertheim, to be part of the official orientation week in, I think it was 1967, early in 67. And Peter and I made speeches which were critical of the nature of the university in general, and particularly of the senior staff.
And there was a report in the Courier Mail the following day, saying that ‘junior lecturers’, a category of course that didn’t exist but which was highly favourable to a certain view of the world, ‘these junior lecturers had impudently attacked their betters, etc, etc.’ And that gave rise to a kind of mild scandal. But it led, on our part, to a quite sympathetic connection with radical students, particularly the students who were grouped around SDA.
So part of the atmosphere I think that began to emerge was a breakdown of the previous chasm, in a way, that existed between staff and students. And I must say, looking back on those four or five years, starting in 66, that my most interesting intellectual contacts and friendships were not with staff, except a few staff, but with students.
And I think that began, for me, to define a different university within the university that was characterised by the spontaneity that you referred to, where people could get up on the table and speak. And gradually the influence of conservative students and bully boys began markedly to recede. So that by the time that people were objecting to the use of the traffic regulations and a fairly full-blooded civil liberties sentiment began to emerge on campus, there was a sort of a pervading of ordinary student life by the preoccupations of what was, after all, a fairly small minority to begin with but gradually became a big minority. So that by the time the big march was held in September 1967, you had the transplanting virtually of 4000 students and many staff to the centre of the city.
But then there were only about 7000 students at the campus at that time, and I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that just about all of the rest of them who didn’t march walked on the footpath to see what was going to happen. And so you had this huge event which became the trigger of a transformed campus. Because after that big march, all bets were off. There was the opportunity to talk about any issue, and all of the issues as well as civil liberties, were now on the carpet. And lots of young people got an education that they hadn’t anticipated, you know, in thinking
about all the aspects of the integrated features of social life, personal life and institutional life in this society.
DZ: Yeah. So I remember that march on the 9th of September in 1967. It was huge. It was an amazing experience, winding our way all down Coronation Drive, all 4000 kind of students. But in fact it took a huge amount of negotiation and organisation to bring that off. I mean I remember for example sitting outside in the forum, practising methods of civil disobedience, you know, the linking arms and sitting down. I have to say, I was terrified at the time. But, I mean what’s your recollection of, cos that was a huge transformation.
DO: What led up to it?
DZ: Yeah, what led up to that? I mean how was it organised? Did people go into lectures, I mean, leaflets?
DO: Yeah I don’t know if I remember all the detail but what I do remember is that because it was a civil liberties issue, you had people involved who were in the, I think it used to be called the Civil Liberties Council or something like that, which was a fairly middle-class, professional, respectable crowd of people. And they too got involved. And there was a project of seeing if the Government would modify the traffic regulations in a way that was favourable to civil liberty.
And the Student Union got involved, the University of Queensland Union. And there were representatives from the Government and a committee that was working on possible changes and so on. And a lot of people invested hope in that. And it turned out that when they came up with their proposal, it was virtually the same as what existed. So people were very disappointed, and said that they’d march.
And I think that probably was round about July of 1967. So they went back to the drawing board and what they came up with was no better. And in a last minute attempt to assuage us, they actually conceded a permit and by that time many, many people were so annoyed about it that we actually tore the permit up before we marched and even the president of the Union, who was by no means a radical, and wore his suit and tie in the march, Frank Gardener marched in the front rank of the march. But on the way up to all this, anticipating the likelihood that we’d need to exercise non-violent, democratic action, under the guidance of people like Brian Laver, people would actually practise in the forum sitting down and linking arms.
And when we got to Roma Street and the phalanx of cops was in front of us and we were instructed to desist, that’s what we did. The whole march just sat down on a prearranged plan and linked arms. And then the coppers went through us like a big agricultural machine, hoiking people off to the side of the road. And this was a traumatic experience for a lot of people and it changed their whole feeling about what it was to live in Brisbane and in Queensland. So you had the feeling that the whole emotional atmosphere on campus had changed.
People were now very excited, very willing to talk about any kind of issues that tried to explain why a society would operate that way. And I think that what gradually emerged was a discussion that led towards such themes as to what extent was this a typical outcrop of a society that had to run hierarchically, that had to run so as to safeguard the power of the rich and the politically ascendant? And so you got people saying, “we live in a system”, you know.
“We live in a system which needs to be described” and people would begin to talk about industrial capitalism, etc, etc. So you got an atmosphere in which it became quite ordinary to draw on those two great 19th century traditions of Marxist critique of capitalism, and anarchist critique of hierarchical society. So I think that transformed a huge minority of students in such a way as to form them permanently in a new way. Like there are still stacks of people around Brisbane that you can talk to who were involved in that period, and that changed them, you know?
DZ: Yeah. And that was, I think, I mean that kind of took us into 1968 and there were huge international events during 1968. I mean it started with the Tet Offensive, which made everybody sit up and think the National Liberation Front can actually win this war.
So there was the Tet Offensive, and then in May you had, in Paris, the whole uprising in Paris which nearly brought down an advanced capitalist state. And then in September you had the Soviet troops marching into Czechoslovakia. So there were all these kind of cataclysmic events that were happening internationally. And there was, I think, there was a transformation of consciousness from that kind of civil liberties consciousness through to a much more, I mean by the end of 1968 I think most of the people in the movement were actually quite happy to describe themselves as committed to a kind of revolutionary transformation of the society in which we lived.
DO: Yeah I think that’s right. I think that’s right. I remember, like speaking of 67 and 68, I remember a meeting in I think it was January 1969 where Jim Cairns came up to talk to radical students on this campus. And my recollection is that Jim Cairns said that he thought that the radical movement on this campus was more continuous and more serious both in theory and in practice than in anywhere else in Australia. And I think one of the things that defined the movement up here was in a way that origin in civil liberties.
So that you had radical students who’d come, not out of the Marxist tradition but out of a kind of an enforced transformation of Left liberalism, and they’d come to quite radical positions in such a way as to preserve contact with masses of students who weren’t as radical as them. And I think what this did up here was to mean that the gradual change that occurred was more lasting and more credible than, for example, in Monash where you had a vigorous and radical minority explicitly calling themselves Maoists, and therefore there was a gap between them and the rest of the student body.
I mean it’s very hard I think, if you think of what students were like in the mid 60s and late 60s in fairly hungover Menzies Australia, how credible it would be to them to be suddenly converted by Maoists. It was much more possible that they would listen and be influenced by students who’d come to radicalism by the route that people had come to it here in Queensland.
You know, and given the traditional kind of contempt of Melbourne and Sydney for anything that happens in Brisbane and Queensland, it’s paradoxical I think that probably what will turn out in the lens of history to be the most interesting and radical student movement that occurred in those years was the one that occurred in the supposed sleepy background of Queensland. And the transition from the rather avuncular Nicklin to the potentially vicious Bjelke-Petersen, simply in a way solidified that radicalism by making people feel that they simply had to oppose, you know, monsters and beasts.
DZ: Yeah. But there were other things that were unique that were happening in 1968 too. Cos 1968 was when Foco was established in at the Trades Hall and that was an experiment that was absolutely unique in terms of the history of the Australian Left, partly because it reached out to the working class or young working class kids, to a rank and file of the working class, and brought them in to a kind of radical cultural experiment.
But it also challenged the orthodoxy of cultural life. I mean what was happening at Foco was that people were experimenting with film, they were experimenting with theatre. I remember I was actually involved in The Tribe which was a rather crazy, very experimental kind of theatre group that used to perform every single week at Foco. So you know we were really trying to reach out, not only to the whole student body, but we were actually trying to build bridges within the working class movement as well through engaging them in those kinds of activities that related to them. A lot of them came to listen to the rock music and we had the best bands in Australia there at the time.
DO: Yeah I agree.
DZ: But they drifted into the room that was set aside for poetry reading, for folk music. They ended up watching films that were kind of avant garde films. They watched films from the early years of the Russian revolution, they watched films from the Cuban revolution. So it was a very strange kind of experiment in a sense, but it was one that in the same way as you’re saying it was unrealistic to expect people to suddenly be converted to Maoism, I think
what Foco provided was a way in which much more culturally relevant kind of activities could be fused with the politics that were going on in the 1960s. Cos we used to send out a weekly newsletter from Foco to 3000 members. And it always had some political comment in it about what was happening, as well as advertising the activities of Foco itself. So there was a, it was a movement that was kind of opening itself outwards rather than closing itself in, I think, during that kind of period.
Maybe if I can take you to, there was a Left Action Conference held in Sydney in April of 1969. And you delivered a speech at that conference. And in that speech I think you made a number of observations, and I just want to ask you about those observations. I mean your analysis was, I think, if I’ve got the speech right, that while the working class movement was still tremendously important, it had in a sense been cushioned by the effects of arbitration and by the threat of penal powers that were in the arbitration act. So there was a sense in which your argument was that working class militancy had been muted and the argument that you presented was one in which this idea of the state as a kind of committee of the ruling class was, it was much more complex than that. The state was a very complex kind of phenomena.
And that at its root, in a sense, was now not just the accumulation of wealth by a ruling class, but it was also fundamentally questions of moral and value questions that really formed the heart of how the state actually operated. And in that kind of context you sketched out an argument that said that the university was fundamental to the production of these new values of what capitalism actually required in the late 20th century, and that therefore students and in a sense the dispossessed were going to be the centre of what constituted a true kind of radical movement. So I don’t know if you recall that speech, or how you feel about that particular speech now, but it seems to me in retrospect that that kind of set out the trajectory of certainly your involvement for the next couple of years in 1969 and 1970.
DO: No, I do remember that speech. But as to how I got to that way of thinking, I want to go back to the point you made about Foco. That Foco could exist seems to me was the result of a process that occurred in radicalism on this campus and as far as I’m aware didn’t occur as well on other campuses. Like Foco was one expression of the fact that the radicalism that emerged had roots in what I’d think of as moral and cultural radicalism, that the people who became political radicals or many of the influential ones here arrived at that process by thinking about the nature of their life in this sort of society. So I think it always had the potential to include cultural radicalism. And part of that was that from the very beginning of the movement here it had a university component. A component that said how should a university operate and what’s the relationship of a university to the society of which it’s a part? Should it be simply the source of intellectual person power for the existing economy? And a whole lot of us said resoundingly no it shouldn’t. And we began to organise around those intuitions. And that led eventually to something that superficially is not like Foco but I think shares the same impulses as Foco, and what I mean is that over the summer of 69 and 70, a hundred people got together through weekly meetings and sketched out a critique of this university and of universities in general in respect of how they operated or failed to operate as intellectual communities and fountains of critique, and also in relation to the society.
And that eventually took form as a book called Up the Right Channels. And as far as I know, this was the only student movement in Australia that took that form of a quite serious investigation of the roots of cultural life in the institution of the university. Which we argued had been formed way the hell back in the Middle Ages and it was a great cultural innovation that was in danger of being submerged by a new concept of the university, the concept that’s come to complete flowering now, where there’s hardly any kind of respect for intellectual community and critique.
So what I suppose I was preoccupied with all along was how do people form the consciousness that makes them go along with the society that produces un-freedom, that produces injustice, that produces a kind of almost like a cultural genocide on an ongoing basis? And it meant looking at the formation of views of the world and one way in which views of the world get formed is through the whole educational system. You get a kid at the age of five, then you go into secondary school and university and that’s one whole aspect of their formation. But another is all the means of mass communication, you know, the mass media etc, etc.
So if you were going to analyse how industrial capitalist society works in the late 20th century and looking forward into this century, it meant you’re not looking simply at a political, economic ongoing event, but you’re looking at something totally integrated which includes peoples’ whole kind of comportment in the world.
And I suppose part of the influence there was thinkers like Marcuse and Gramsci, you know, Marcuse’s book One Dimensional Man and Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, that we all live in a kind of hegemony and it’s not all concentrated in the command post, but there are kind of trenches all the way through the society and the job for radicals is to produce what he calls counter-hegemony and so on. See, and I think that was what the process of the movement here and its preoccupations had led me to think. So that when I became more and more Marxist, it was also a Marxism inflected by the sort of anarchism that I think is presented even today by thinkers like Noam Chomsky.
DZ: So during the summer of 1969 and 70, there were a hundred or so students who were engaged with you and with others in developing both a critique of the university, of what they were studying, of how they were studying and how the university, in fact, functioned. And in July 1970 that resulted in the publication of this book which is called Up the Right Channels, which brought together all those critiques. Can you remember what the main themes of that publication were? What you were trying to achieve with it?
DO: Yeah. I can remember how it originated. It didn’t begin as a book. I wrote a fairly long pamphlet and distributed it around the place, saying that I thought we needed to have people writing critiques of their own disciplines and of their own departments, the content that was taught, the way it was taught, the way the department was run and so on. And that if people wrote these critiques they could be run off and form the basis for further meetings so that…
What I was interested in was somehow dealing with the strategy and tactics of a movement towards student/staff management of the university, not on abstract democratic grounds but on the grounds that if you had an institution whose point was to constitute an intellectual community that produced knowledge and produced critique, then the production of that material required a different organisation from the present organisation which was hierarchical and managerial.
That is, it actually required that the people who did the teaching and learning should be those who organised the way in which the teaching and the learning should occur. Now it turned out that when we got about four or five, no probably more, about 12 or 13 of these critiques and people came together to discuss them, by word of mouth other people thought “that’s a good idea” and so gradually the thing grew, more or less like a snowball. And I remember we were at a particular house on what used to be called St Lucia Road, which is now 22 Schonell Drive…
DZ: I remember that house.
DO: …and there were meetings every week in which people brought their critiques and they were discussed and so on. And then we thought this should take a more permanent form and we also got as well as the critiques we got overall long articles written by different people about the nature of the university and what should the university’s relationship be to the society and so on. So eventually we had the makings of a fairly big book. And we went about producing that book and we got the cooperation of Bruce Petty who had brilliant cartoons and one of them was on the theme of taking things up the right channels.
DZ: And that became the title.
DO: And that became the title. Yeah.
DZ: That activity and that publication actually did transform the nature of the university for a while. I mean I can remember that in a significant number of departments, the governance of those departments actually changed so the students became involved in actual decision
making about the way in which the university actually worked. So it wasn’t just an abstract idea. It was something that was translated into practice. At least for a period of time.
DZ: But I suppose we shouldn’t forget that 1970 was also the year of the big moratoriums around Vietnam too.
DZ: I mean that was a major focus of 1970. And I think what’s interesting about that, looking back on it, is that in a sense there was a bit of a different dynamic with the moratorium movement. There was a much more direct engagement of the trade union movement and including at least the Left of the Labor Party was very prominent in the organisation of the moratorium movement. So the kind of politics that you were talking about earlier, which were very much based on the university, were actually starting to shift a little bit, weren’t they? And I mean I do recall the big moratorium demonstration which was, if I’m not wrong, May 1970. Where Brian Laver was actually excluded from the speaker’s platform.
DO: That’s right.
DZ: So you started to get fairly significant debates in a sense opening in the movement that were perhaps more divisive than they had been in the previous period. Do you…
DZ: …I mean how do you feel about that? Was that part of your recollection?
DO: Yeah okay alright. I thought that the two things were always concurrent. To go back to your point about the university issues. It seemed to me that at every point, there was a kind of parallel between the internal critique and the wider issues in the bigger society. For example, I remember that in the English department, which was my department, it seems incredible now when I look back on it, but there was a committee of about a hundred people, 50 of whom were students, and about 50 or maybe fewer were staff. And that was the de facto controlling body of the English department, you know?
Like it wasn’t legally the way it was written into the statutes of the university, but for a long time the university was run that way. Until a lot of staff began to object and withdraw their support and so on. Alright, that seemed to me at every point to be a move in the direction of workers’ control and economic democracy.
But then if you look at the continuance of the Vietnam issue, I think you’re dead right that with the moratoria, you had no longer students being the undisputed leadership of radicalism in Australia.
But you had very influential, quite establishment figures in one sense, like Jim Cairns and Tom Uren and up here George Georges and we began to have quite fruitful interconnection with them. And then in that incident you talked about where Laver was held back from speaking, I suppose that, I don’t know, Laver would have put it down to the Communist Party of Australia inhibiting him. And I think he said at one point something like the CPA is well behind the movement. Far behind.
DZ: Yeah. Yeah.
DO: Alright. In so far as that led to a discussion of differences between organisations, I think by that time SDA had transformed itself into the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Alliance, so it had become much more Marxist than it had begun.
And people within RSSA began to have differences of opinion on questions like strategy and tactics. So that they inherited the problem that had been there since 1917, about how do you organise the revolutionary movement? Do you need a revolutionary party or don’t you?
And in that argument, I probably fell on a different side from you in that I probably believed that a revolutionary party was no longer a relevant kind of strategic option in the present nature of industrial capitalism. And I remember there was a split in RSSA and some people formed a new organisation called the Revolutionary Socialist Party, RSP, and others kind of became what they called independent Marxists, and others I think became, now what was it called?
The Socialist Labor Group or something like that. So you got these splits beginning to occur on basically I think on strategic questions and from my point of view, the disadvantage of that was that people were in a way beginning to take the basic theory for granted as if you didn’t need to talk about that, but you did urgently need to talk about how to make it all happen.
And that seems to me to be a recipe for people becoming mutually alienated and no longer discussing in a really living way what are the ideals and the fundamental aims of the movement. And then I think, this may be just a personal opinion about this of course, I think the election of the Whitlam government then in a way put the cap on that failure to take seriously the fundamental radical aims that had animated us from late 1966.
DZ: I suppose looking back on what was happening as those splits developed in the movement there was one event that was really decisive for me and that was May 1969 when there were about 300 mainly students carrying red and black flags that disrupted the May Day march. And for me at the time I realised that that was something that the trade union movement would react very negatively towards, and because I’d been involved in Foco I was actually overseas at the time.
But I remember thinking to myself that this had gone beyond the bounds of what we were trying to establish in terms of solidarity within the movement. It kind of breached that principle to me. And I thought it was inevitable that Foco would be closed down by the trade union movement as a result of that. I mean I think Foco may have ended anyway, because you can’t have those radical experiments with the amount of energy that was put into it for too long a period of time.
But what that really raised to me is that I thought that some of the ideas that people were kind of bandying around about being revolutionaries and it all started to seem somewhat vacuous to me. That it didn’t have a substantive intellectual content. And that’s why I felt as though you had to go a lot deeper into the question of the kind of history of revolutions and the way in which revolutions were actually consolidated and so that actually led me into becoming a Trotskyist.
I hope not of the worst sectarian kind, but I have to admit that during that period I really felt as though we had to go a lot deeper into our analysis of history and argument and rely on some of those kind of predecessors in a sense to actually take the movement forward. In many senses I think I was wrong, but in other ways I still think that you couldn’t perpetually have the idea of a kind of spontaneous anarchist-driven movement.
That my feeling was that the history of the working class movement was such that it demonstrated that levels of organisation were actually necessary to make advances in society. So that’s where I think the splits actually started to occur. But there were splits in other directions too, because in the early 1970s that was when you started to get the active emergence of a kind of feminist movement.
DO: That’s true.
DZ: That was quite critical of many of the activities of the Left as it had been constituted. So that, and our response to racism I think were two issues that really challenged a lot of people.
DO: I think I can remember writing an article round about probably 1973 or 4 in which I argued that our movement had failed to integrate into itself three issues, and one was feminism, and the other was racism, and the other was the coming ecological catastrophe.
That our theory wasn’t sufficiently comprehensive to include all those issues. And I remember having been on sabbatical leave for the whole of the year of 1972, and in the beginning of that year I went to a big anti-Vietnam conference in Versailles, and then I visited some American radicals in Philadelphia. And then I’d been in Paris for about two months and got involved in some actions there and experienced tear gas for the first time. And then 10 of 15
in Italy, and then in Mexico, where I went to an organisation that was run by Ivan Illich, who did the critique of schooling and so on. So all those were kind of in my view still valid radical experiences, but when I came back to Brisbane at the end of 72, I became really depressed because I sort of went around to all the haunts of the movement, most of the radical houses and so on, and felt that the whole thing had sort of collapsed.
And everywhere there was this kind of mutual alienation of people who’d before felt a whole lot of solidarity. And the split for example between RSSA and RSP had transformed itself into a further series of splits. And there were a whole lot of kind of quasi-anarchist organisations that were beginning to criticise the Vietnamese National Liberation Front for being Marxist Leninist and so on. So that the whole debate had widened into a sea of different positions but it was as if everybody had lost the heart to actually cooperate in a big direct action movement. It was like we didn’t know how to do that anymore.
And I remember in a way retreating into private life to some extent, cos I remember having written an article for a book that was called, I think, The Australian New Left somewhat earlier, and I’d argued there that if you weren’t engaged in the full-bodied attempt at liberation, then the existing kind of fall-back positions were things that had a very long history going back into the ancient world, like stoicism, epicureanism and cynicism. And they were actually serious viewpoints on the world and how to survive in the world.
And it seemed to me that people had actually retreated into those positions after the election of the Whitlam government, which had siphoned off some radicals into Labor bureaucracies, so that there was this rather kind of hopeful form of reformism that had completely kind of siphoned off those previous radical energies that had fantasised revolution, etc. So it was all obviously premature when you look at it in retrospect, and if there was ever going to be absolutely radical structural change, whether you want to call that revolution or not, we’d obviously seen the mere beginnings of it. And now when you look at the world we seem to have inherited, there’s this terrible feeling that the other side has won, all down the line. [laughter]
DZ: I mean before you get to that period of 72 though, there were the events of 1971, which I think were very, well at one level they were very disturbing because you had, it was all focused around the Springbok tour. And so what happened in a sense was you had that declaration of the state of emergency, Joh Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency so a football match could go ahead, for God’s sake.
DO: That’s right.
DZ: And there was a demonstration outside the Tower Mill. Whitrod was the Police Commissioner. But the police were actually basically in revolt against Whitrod in many respects, so they ignored any attempt to handle that demonstration with kid gloves, and students were pushed and shoved down into the gardens behind the Tower Mill. It was a very, probably the most violent demonstration that I recall. I mean I actually wasn’t there cos I had a small baby at the time, but certainly in terms of talking to people it was an absolutely brutal kind of event. So I mean where do you think that particular episode fits in this kind of history?
DO: Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. From one point of view it was a savage reminder that the issue in Queensland has always been, the primary issue on which to mobilise has always been civil liberties, you know? Like this was another example of what had occurred in 67 and what was later to occur in 77, and that is that there was a regime here that never took seriously the notion that people had civil liberties or democratic rights. And in that context when it became dramatically evident that you couldn’t demonstrate except at the cost of life and limb on the streets, the university issue got activated again and we pulled off that strike at the University of Queensland. And I remember that in that strike, if I’m, I think I’m correct, that Brian Laver wouldn’t get involved in it because he said that it wasn’t putting forward the relevant claim for student/staff control of the university. So here you had events that in one sense might say, ‘you people were talking about the
transformation of single issues into a critique of the whole society and into the hope for a coming revolution, but here’s this issue which is just about civil liberties, and that’s remained the dominant issue.’ And I think in one way it was a peculiarly Queensland issue, because people down south were appalled at our incapacity to do the things that they took for granted. I don’t know if that’s an adequate answer to your question about where it fits in. But it seems to me that that was the state of the case, and what we didn’t know anything about and became aware of subsequently after the Fitzgerald Inquiry was the depth of corruption in Queensland. So that the inability of Whitrod to make the police respect civil liberties was part of the whole thing about Terry Lewis and the brown paper bags and all that.
DZ: I think you’re absolutely right, that we didn’t understand that what was behind the police action in the Springbok tour was a whole back current of police corruption and that only became evident much later in the piece. But the other thing that occurs to me is that that was really the occasion, the declaration of the state of emergency and the way in which the police handled the Tower Mill demonstration, and the subsequent strike at the university, that was the time at which Liberals had to start standing up in defence of civil liberties. So that was the period during which, for example, Derek Fielding came out and publicly supported the strike, because his argument was that the state of emergency was such an appalling act that inconvenience to the university of a strike by students and some staff was a very small price to pay. So although it was a rather strange event, it seemed to me that it actually kind of unleashed both the momentum that finally led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry and in a sense a schism within the conservative side of Queensland politics that meant that Liberals became increasingly uncomfortable with the Bjelke-Petersen government. So I’m not sure how you feel about that, but that was the way in which it felt to me at the time, that changes were starting to, cracks were starting to emerge in the establishment, as it were.
DO: Yeah I think that’s probably right. You know, like how did the, what used to be called the Country Party, finally get enough power to operate in its own right? And I think it was sort of in a way that the party that had previously been rooted in what some people called agrarian socialism was now rooted in its relationship to the mining fraction of capital, you know, so that you had a new way of analysing the forces that you’re opposed to. But it was like the real nerve of the opposition now wasn’t a socialist movement or a radical or a revolutionary movement, but an insistence on the need for a certain kind of liberalism. And I suppose looking forward to what emerged during the right to march crisis and then after that the SEQEB dispute, it was like we had fairly big movements that were no longer flattering themselves that they were on the way to a radical transformation of the society. You know, but were insisting in a way on ordinary decency and all the values prized by traditional soft, small-l liberalism.
DZ: In a way that takes us up to 1976 when Joh very famously declared that the day of the street march is over. So almost exactly 10 years since the earlier demonstrations.
DO: Yeah that’s right.
DZ: You were one of the first to, in a sense, go back to the podium and declare that this was something that had to be protested about. And it was protested about, very vigorously. Throughout the end of 1976 really through to 1978. But what you’re saying is that the movement then was different to the earlier movement.
DO: Yeah I thought so, because it wasn’t a university-led movement I don’t think. It had all sorts of people involved. The socialist Left of the ALP was involved. And out of a kind of a sense of maybe a sentimental sense of continuity, I remember that we insisted that the organising committee be known as the Civil Liberties Coordinating Committee, which had been the name of the main committee back in the 1967 days. But I think there was a fairly big change in that. Maybe it’s partly that a lot of the protesters were now, what, in their mid-
30s rather than in their 20s or late teens. And there was a different sense of where it fitted into one’s life and so on.
DZ: So you think the sense of revolutionary transformation had become very muted in the way…
DO: Yeah I’d say so, yeah. I mean maybe there’s another peculiar Queensland thing about this, that by that time, a dogged resistance to Bjelke-Petersen had taken root. So there was still a very high level of solidarity along a big spectrum in Queensland that as far as I’m aware never existed in movements in NSW or in Victoria. Like, Petersen in a way enabled a radically feeling kind of solidarity to continue way beyond its kind of structural motivations. So that you felt as though it was almost like you lived in an internal exile here. And you had the feeling for other people characteristic of those kind of things that occur in other regimes in other places. Like one got tempted to regard what existed here as a regime, you know, rather than simply the result of a successful election by one party. It felt as though over a span of a decade or more, there’d actually been a regime in which the police were a paramilitary force.
DZ: Well the police were a paramilitary force but you also of course had the gerrymander, which meant that any prospect of having a fair election was pretty much nullified during that whole period, and then police corruption and the boldness of the police during the 1970s I think was something that was, in a sense, quite shocking. I mean in those 19…the biggest demonstration of those latter 1970s was the one that was organised around the campaign against nuclear power which was in, so it wasn’t strictly a right to march issue, but over that period there was nuclear power, and there was the right to march. And I think there was something like 2000 people arrested over a period of two years. But the level of, I mean by comparison with the 1960s the organised force of the police I think was something that was very significantly different, so that people used to talk about demonstrations going down from the steps of King George Square into Adelaide Street, which was then called the Valley of Death. [laughter] Cos you could almost guarantee that you’d be arrested, and had a very high chance of being beaten up if you ventured off those steps in the 1970s.
DO: Yeah. There’s a few things you can see on YouTube of people on those steps, you know. And it’s like you can see that they’re reluctant to jump in, you know, as a non-swimmer might be reluctant to jump into the deep end of a pool.
DZ: Yeah. Well it is the Valley of Death was actually inviting you, it was that…
DO: How many arrests? There were about 440 arrests or more on one occasion, weren’t there?
DZ: That was the campaign against nuclear power demonstration and I think it was October, in the one demonstration there were 418 people arrested.
DO: 1977 wasn’t it?
DZ: 76 or 77 I think yep. Yeah probably 77. And in fact, there were so many people arrested that they couldn’t be held in the watch house. [laughter] They had to be kind of transported all around Brisbane. Some eventually apparently ended up being held in the toilets at I think it was Holland Park. So it was, yeah. I mean that was quite extraordinary. And I think there was one right to march demonstration where there were a measly 300 demonstrators who were met by an equal number of police. So and I think part of the strategy was actually to make the cost of preventing people exercise civil liberties, you know, so high that eventually people within the state apparatus would say “this is silly, why don’t we just…”
DO: Yeah I agree. About the reorganisation of the police, so as to be much more concentrated and so on, I was one of the few people who eventually got to see Special Branch files. Remember when, at the time, when the Goss government eventually destroyed them all, or it was said they destroyed them all. And I remember the thing that surprised me most when I actually got my files, was that down the margin of the different bits in the file there were dots, and against the dots which were related to people mentioned or organisations mentioned in, let’s say, a Courier Mail article, there’d be a letter and a number, let’s say R356. And my file had a number, I forget what it was, but say it was O751. Now when you went through each bit of the file, each one of the things was meticulously arranged so that they were cross-referred. And among the things that it was cross-referred to, there was one, for example, on Zelman Cowan. Now Zelman Cowan wasn’t a radical. There was one on the University of Queensland. So somebody had put hours and hours of person hours into cross-referring all of these Special Branch files. So it was a highly professional, if futile, operation that occurred at that time.
DZ: Yeah I mean I have to say, I wonder how professional it actually was. Because I mean my recollections of Special Branch go back to the earlier 1960s period and I can remember I was living in a house with Bob Daly and Barbara Bacon and Larry Zetlin, and we used to sit outside on the front verandah on Saturday mornings having a cup of coffee and the Special Branch would drive past. And we’d wave to them. It was kind of… [laughter] It seemed to me that what, that kind of amateurishness in a sense got replaced by a much more vicious attempt to identify who were the enemies of Joh, who were the enemies of the police state, as we used to call it. So that by the 1970s you kind of got this Kafkaesque picture of Special Branch doing that kind of cross-referencing, you know, meticulous attention to details that actually didn’t matter but nevertheless were there.
DZ: One of the issues that came up in the early 1970s and really came to a head in relation to the Springbok campaign, was the way in which the movement hadn’t really adequately addressed questions of race in Australia, and in particular questions to do with the Indigenous people of Australia. So that was quite a heated debate during the Springbok tour. How was that reflected in Brisbane in the Springbok organisation and what came afterwards?
DO: Yeah. Well I remember hearing a report of an absolutely excoriating speech by Paul Coe in Sydney in the context of the Springbok tour, more or less saying isn’t it hypocritical that you people are so worried about racism in South Africa and you don’t manifest the same anxiety about racism here? Now when the strike occurred at the University of Queensland, black radicals in Queensland, in Brisbane came out to the university and there was a lot of contact between them and white radicals on campus. And I’ve got a memory that Gary Foley and Paul Coe came up at some stage. But there were also people like Dennis Walker and Sam Watson and the Watson family and so on. And because of that consciousness of possible hypocrisy, one of the things that happened immediately after all these events in 71 was that we called a big racism, a national racism conference that was held on this campus in late, I think it must have been late 71 or early 72.
DZ: Early 72, yeah.
DO: So that that had a fruitful kind of effect in bringing about connections between black and white radicals, ultimately.
DZ: Okay. Now if we can just move on to kind of wrapping it up. We’ve covered two decades of radicalism in Brisbane. If you had to talk about what were the best things that
came out of that, and what were the worst things, what do you think you’d actually say about it?
DO: Well I think, to begin with the worst things, I suppose. I think you could say that there were certain illusions that people got tied up in. And that we didn’t realise the extent to which our own personal immaturity affected the things that we did. And one of the bad things obviously about that whole burst of radicalism was the kind of almost taken for granted sexism of the movement. I remember at the time that the strike was on, we had anticipated that a lot of the people who usually did the typing would still be doing it.
DZ: They were all women, weren’t they?
DO: Yeah they were all women. And they categorically refused. So they were taking the issue of what was then called Women’s Liberation more seriously than the issue that we were all excited about. So there’s that. And then there was the lack of prescience in respect of the developing environmental problems. But if I go to the good side of it, I think that what happened was that even though we didn’t have a strong theoretical perspective on the nature of the society when we began, what developed was the instinct for a vision of a society that was franker, more open, more communal, and it wasn’t a vision that was rooted in intellectual notions. It was rooted in an ongoing kind of reformation of people’s identities, where they learned how to interact with one another in a far more spontaneous and personal way. What it reminded me of was having read the Sunday Times special report on the May events in Paris, there was a Penguin that came out. And I remember one part of it in which it talked about how people would spend hours simply talking to one another on street corners and so on, as if they were making up for the lost time in which they’d regarded one another with individualistic, mutual suspicion, etc. I remember a period, I suppose it went on for about three years, in which you had this feeling that people had been suddenly revealed to one another in a fresh way. As if a hard skin had been taken off you and you felt that the world could be a wonderful place in which you could learn about what it was to live more openly and more communally. And I suppose that didn’t last forever, but it lasted long enough I think for people to make certain life choices that they then stuck to. So there are a stack of people even now, when I run into them, either people in Brisbane or people who used to be in Brisbane, and when I run into them it feels different from when I run into other people, because we went through all that together.
DZ: Okay. I suppose from my point of view, I mean I think that idea of personal transformation that comes about through the kind of really heavy engagement in both practice and intellectual endeavour at the same time, I mean I think that was one of the enduring changes. But I think there are ways in which the movement actually did change Queensland society for the better. I mean I don’t think we got what we wanted in terms of transformation. But I don’t think Queensland could ever quite go back to the days of 1967 and before that. I think what the movement actually did do is in a sense grab Brisbane and slowly kind of taught it to crawl into a much more modern kind of society. And ultimately there were changes, both in terms of things like the Fitzgerald Inquiry, the election of Labor governments. I mean those weren’t things that we deliberately sought to achieve, but they were things that helped to change Queensland, in a sense, during subsequent years. And I think the foundations were kind of laid in the fact that people were prepared to confront the authoritarianism of the Queensland that we lived in through the 1960s and the 1970s.
DO: Yeah so that the next generation probably had better starting points than the generation that had lived through the 50s and so on.
DZ: Funnily enough, I can remember a conversation with my eldest daughter in which she regretted the fact that she didn’t feel as though she had a movement like we actually had. Which I dragged her through, rather unwittingly, as a small child. But my response to her
was exactly that. “But you know, you’re now in a position where you can change society in ways that don’t actually need that kind of movement that we had to, in a sense, create”. New spaces had been opened up in which it was possible for, in her case, a young woman to think about how she could contribute to changing society in ways that simply weren’t open to someone like me without that kind of struggle that characterised the movement in the 60s and 70s.
DO: So things could look as though they were going to be better until the ecological catastrophe stuffs us all. [laughter]
DZ: Yes, well. There are still fights on that front.
DZ: Well it’s been an amazing experience, Dan, talking to you about all these issues 50 years after they happened. And I think in a way a testament to the strength of the movement that you and I can still sit here after 50 years and extract meaning from those events. So thanks very much for joining me. It’s been, from my point of view, a very enlightening conversation about struggles that we both went through.
DO: Yeah and I could say exactly the same, Di. I don’t think I could have remembered these things unless I’d been provoked to do so by your very intelligent questions and comments.
Transcription is exacting work and we acknowledge that occasional errors may occur. Please also consult the original documents when undertaking research using this material.
© The State of Queensland (State Library of Queensland) 2018
This transcript is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence. You are free to copy, communicate and adapt this work, so long as you attribute the State Library of Queensland.