Being organised

they are showing
how they define
live to fight
fight to live
       – Daniel del Solar

Yesterday I was speaking with an activist who was arrested at a picket outside the Aurizon (a coal carrier) building trying to block the export of coal from Brisbane. He told me how difficult it has been to build sufficient momentum to block the coal trains. This took me back to another era where we had similar difficulties.

Anti-coal activist arrested outside Aurizon building Brisbane Friday 13 Nov 2020

The Forum
One Forum (described in Radical Times) took place on 6 Sept 1977, two days after Bjelke-Petersen banned street marches. A number of people opposed a march of defiance on the following day in solidarity with the trade union movement.

The passage in Radical Times that begins with “Eventually in September 1977, street marches in Queensland were effectively banned altogether” is quite misleading. It states that “People were outraged and, once again, took to the streets in a series of Right to March civil liberties demonstrations, leading to further police violence and arrests. … Activity in the Forum kept pace with all these events. The Forum effectively played an organizational and leadership role … Most large-scale demonstrations assembled and started out from the Forum area, most notably the massive Moratorium marches of 1970 and the anti-Springboks demonstrations during the State of Emergency in 1971.” This ignores the organised resistance to the Queensland government’s determination to mine and export uranium. The largest marches and rallies were those that focussed on this issue. Organised resistance came from elsewhere, not the forum area which was very much part of a conservative campus and a largely reformist critique of the University titled “Up the right channels“.

March in solidarity with trade unions
On 6 September 1977 the proposal to delay was backed up at the forum and subsequent meetings by various academics, some members of the Communist (CPA) and the Labor (ALP) parties, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Campaign against Nuclear Power (CANP) and the president of the Council for Civil Liberties, Derek Fielding. A formidable bunch of noes. (See video of Dan O’Neill’s speech below).

Many of these organisations came from an earlier period of opposition to the Nicklin government that banned street marches in 1967. The Queensland government attacked the right-to-march to stop the spread of opposition to the war in Vietnam. A number of the university groups had moderate and reformist goals. In 1977, many of the academics seemed oblivious to the anti-uranium struggle being waged off campus. If they were aware of it (QCCL) they still characterized the ban as a civil liberties issue. It was the solidarity and defiant actions of Friends of the Earth that organised pickets on the Brisbane wharves that had caused Bjelke-Petersen’s ban. Subsequent defiance of the ban built the movement for change.

Consider the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties (Q.C.C.L.) which was a citizens based organization rather than a trade union or political organisation. The Q.C.C.L. was formed in October 1966 in response to the concern about the protest, arrest and censorship laws. Like several other 1960s groups (SDA, RSSA) it had a strong university influence. The most active member of the QCCL in 1977 was a Brisbane solicitor Terry O’Gorman who had worked for Aboriginal Legal Aid. He came out strongly against the ban on marches from a civil rights perspective. But O’Gorman showed little interest in the right of workers to organise in their unions. The QCCL was not interested in mobilising anyone to action. It found refuge in the courts, the legal struggle.

Bearing this in mind, about 250 people attended the forum on 6th September at University of Queensland Union. Originally the meeting was to plan a march to Roma Street Forum (now Emma Miller Place) on the next day where a union rally about the Ted Zaphir case was to occur. The Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee had decided to hold its first public meeting on 15 September 1977 at the University of Queensland Union complex (Relax Block).

A small group of activists who had been trying to blockade uranium shipments from Brisbane wharves argued for a march. These people put out posters and flyers, went around the campus arguing for people to come to the forum and participate in opposition to the Bjelke-Petersen government. Sensing a big crowd a number of speakers turned up with the specific purpose of opposition to or, at least, a delay in marching. A general postponement of action. Many of these people had come from earlier organisations in the 1960s, now defunct.

Specifically the nay sayers raised objection to tactics put forward by anti-uranium activists urging a defiant march and to refuse to apply for a permit. These marches and rallies were important because they helped mobilise people down to the blockades on wharves. A certain solidarity had already begun to develop due to actions on the wharves which were organised by Friends of the Earth (or ‘Friends of the Dirt’ as Joh called them). The forum on the 6th September voted against marching.

Anti-uranium blockade Brisbane wharves August 1977police arrest picketers on railway tracks.

A number of academics from the English and Philosophy Departments argued that the ‘civil liberties’ movement needed to wait for a ‘non-violent’, ‘systematic’, and ‘absolutely massive’ march. Getting there was the problem. It took this group six weeks to change their minds, but only in part.

In the middle of the tactical debate was a key political difference. Radicals from the New Left in the 60s were concerned with civil liberties – the rights of the individual to protest or oppose censorship, a social revolt. The New Left were ill prepared for a democratic rights struggle where a savvy and wily politician, Bjelke-Petersen, had seen the need to stop the right of the anti–uranium and union movements to organise against his government. He could see the danger where many of the New Left were keen to characterise him as a populist hillbilly dictator, an ignoramus.

CANP was a grass roots organisation and had done a lot of good work in local communities to raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear power. But was it up to the task when a government was attempting to take away one of its most important organising tools, the right to assemble and the right to march.

Outside Hamilton No 4 wharf, Brisbane August 1977

On 7th September more than 400 students attempted to march from the university Queensland to the Roma Street forum but were stopped at ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ on the edge of University grounds by about 200 police.

Most of the marchers continued to the Ted Zaphir rally in the Roma Street Forum on the footpath. Ted Zaphir was a union organiser with the Transport Workers Union and was threatened by the government with criminal charges for simply doing his job.

About 200 Waterside workers (carrying their hooks) marched on the footpath in the city to the rally where about 5,000 people were massed to protest the erosion of trade union and democratic rights. Workers demanded the right to organise in unions.

The opponents of marching in defiance of the government’s ban waited till 22 October 1977 before arguing for marching ‘with our hands in the air‘ as an ‘act of civil disobedience’. Over 418 people were subsequently arrested on a hot afternoon, the largest mass arrest of people in defiance of a government in Australian history.

Sandra Bloodworth who helped edit the Campaign Against Nuclear Power (CANP) newsletter together, gave this account:

Then on 22 October, 3,500 anti-uranium protesters voted to march. The word “arrest” seemed so threatening. I was a timid, naive mother of two. But I marched and was one of the 418 who spent the night in the cells. It was the most inspiring experience I’d ever had, talking politics with socialists and experiencing solidarity.

CANP applied for a permit to march on 22 October 1977 and were refused by the Police Commissioner under the new street march ban laws. They were reluctant to challenge the government ban and sought to walk around the block in two’s and three’s. This was impractical because there were about 5,000 people in the square on a stiflingly hot October day. Police responded by arresting anyone they could get their hands on.

Report on front page of Brisbane’s Sunday Mail 23 Oct 1977

Nearly two years later, in July 1979 the Bjelke-Petersen government had the police commissioner Terry Lewis issue a permit for an anti-nuclear rally. Applying for a permit was contrary to the policy of march organisers, the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) (1977/78) and the Civil Liberties Campaign Group (CLCG) 1978/79.

The Socialist Workers Party expelled members who marched. Ironically it was one of the main objectors to marching (Peter Annear) who was one of the first people arrested on 22 September 1977. Police raided King George Square and plucked Annear from a peaceful assembly seated on the steps and trying to work out tactics for opposing the street march ban.

The 1977-79 democratic rights movement was not organised from the forum or the UQ Union forum. Only a couple of marches were organised from there. Most were organised from Trades Hall, the Waterside Workers Club and Birley Street Spring Hill (CLCC HQ). After Aug 1978, the CLCC was disbanded altogether and a campaign group with Georges Georges as its patron organised subsequent marches.

Some marches were organised jointly with the Anti-Uranium Mobilisation Committee. The Qld Labor Party opposed marching from beginning to end and even threatened to dis-endorse Georges from the Senate ticket on 11 Nov 1977.

Students and staff at the University of Qld were a small minority in supporting the marches that occurred in places far from UQ campus and the UQU forum area. A prominent co-founder of 4ZZz became President of the UQ students union and opposed marching for fear of the effect it would have on 4ZZZ broadcasting licence. His stance was supported by the 4ZZz collective. The station co-ordinator even took the step of banning the Civil Liberties show on 4ZZZ because of the strong stance it took against uranium mining and export. This was a foolhardy move given what was happening on the streets.

Campaign against Nuclear Power (CANP) contingent in the 1978 May Day march in Brisbane. The Red Contingent (12,000) outnumbered the union contingent (8,000) on that day.

Here is one of the speeches on 6 Sept 1977. It reflects some of the concerns of the 60s radicals about the way activists in the late 1970s were so fed up with the Queensland government that they wanted to march against it under the slogan “Joh Must Go“. This struggle brought in large sections of Queensland society who shared the sentiment, both in the capital and in regional Qld.

Over the summer break on 1977/78 the CLCC organised meetings throughout the state, in ALP branches, in anti-uranium and environmental groups. This was to rally opposition to the state government over women’s rights, aboriginal land rights, against uranium, for educational reform, in a word, for democratic rights. Although the campaign failed, twelve years later the government fell after itself getting rid of an ageing Bjelke-Petersen.

This led to a series of reforms introduced by the Goss Labor Party government which, while on the opposition benches in parliament, had so staunchly opposed the defiance of the right-to-march campaign of 1977-79.

Sadly, by 1989, virtually all the political organisations from the right-to-march and some of the trade unions were moribund. The SWP had morphed into the Democratic Socialist Party, a member of a Broad Left party soon to fold because of its broadness and lack of political focus. Soon after, in 1991, the CPA was liquidated by the Aarons group in Sydney., now the Search Foundation. They sold their HQ building at 291 St Pauls Terrace in Fortitude Valley to radio 4ZZZ and so nearly 100 years of workers struggle came to an end.

As one right-to-march activist put it, ‘when I came into the movement in 1977, I thought it was a beginning, when in fact it was an end.’

Ian Curr
15 Nov 2020

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