Dan O’Neill – the long march through the existing institutions

The long march through the existing institutions – Rudi Dutschke

At little while ago a friend and I were searching Wikipedia to find out the date of birth of the retired university lecturer, Dan O’Neill. Of course Wikipedia is awash with Dan O’Neill’s but no entry for the radical thinker we have known in this city for so long. This is an attempt to record some facts about a person who has seen many radical movements come and go. This short piece is by no means definitive and we call on people who wish to share comments to provide insight into both the person and the political upheavals that led Dan O’Neill and others to try to make society better and more inclusive. We include also a speech given by Dan O’Neill in the UQU Forum in September 1977. Ian Curr, Editor, Workers BushTelegraph 29 July 2021.

To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
– Matthew Arnold

Daniel Francis O’Neill (born 26th January 1938) became prominent in democratic rights struggles as an orator at the University of Queensland Union Forum in the 1960s and 1970s. Of Arab and Irish descent, O’Neill was raised a catholic attending St Joseph’s College Gregory Terrace, went to University of Queensland and, after obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree, won a scholarship to Oxford University to study literature.

Stones Corner where Dan O’Neill grew up in the 1940s and 50s

Dan’s aunties: Rose, Mona and Mary Lutvey had a dressmaking shop near Norman Creek, which was prone to flooding. I went down there one day in 2011 only to find Dan trying to dry out his huge collection of books with a hair dryer. A flash flood had hit the shop on the corner of O’Keefe and Junction streets where Dan O’Neill kept his books.

Dan’s dad was Frank ‘Bluey’ O’Neill who drove a taxi often seen parked at the Stones Corner rank. ‘Bluey’ and his wife Gladys Lutvey sent their younger sons, Michael and Errol to St James school at Coorparoo. Dan went to Gregory Terrace. Gregory Terrace has the dubious distinction of having produced more Wallabies (people who have played for Australia in Rugby) than any other school. The family lived in the same street as Queensland’s Special Branch chief, Les Hogan, with whom all three boys would become better acquainted in later life.
Frank O’Neill had no time for scabs.

Dan O’Neill being arrested during the right-to-march campaign in 1978. Mark Plunkett collection Fryer Library UQ.

Oxford
It must have hard for Dan to adjust to the culture shock of coming from a working class catholic family in Stones Corner to the commonwealth’s most prestigious and elitist university, Oxford. He suffered depression, was hospitalised but stayed long enough to be awarded a Bachelor of Literature degree. O’Neill returned to teach English at University of Queensland.

New Left
Always a voracious reader, O’Neill became interested in the radical movement known as the ‘New Left’. In the late 1960s in Brisbane the ‘Left’ comprised of a number of groups Students for Democratic Action (SDA), Revolutionary Socialist Students Alliance (RSSA), Revolutionary Socialist Alliance (RSA), Independent Marxist Group (IMG), and and the various Trotskyist groups and Maoists. The ‘old left’ , as in the Communist Party, saw class as paramount in revolutionary struggle. But the New Left broke with the old left around 1966. Dan O’Neill wrote in 1969: “(SDA) began to think beyond Vietnam to a critique of the Australian social system in terms of’ participatory democracy’, of bringing the social reality in various areas of life into line with the liberal rhetoric.” O’Neill was a member of the Catholic Newman Society and, by 1959, had become editor of the student union newspaper, Semper Floreat. Of concern to many of the radicals was the removal of FOCO ( a ‘unique cultural/political formation’ – Mitch Thompson) from Trades Hall.

Students for Democratic Action
On referendum day 1967, Sam Watson was still in high school and a member of Students for Democratic Action, and he spent the day on a polling booth campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote in favour of aboriginal people being represented on the census. “That was my first experience of electioneering. Everyone that came past thanked me for the how-to-vote card and spoke kindly to me — these were white people that I didn’t even know! The next morning the Sunday Truth had this huge banner headline saying that 92.5% of the Australian population had voted yes. That was just an incredible experience for us all and it showed what could be achieved through a political campaign.”

The revolutionary students at UQ laid claim to their working class credentials in a leaflet for the 1970 May Day (SHAC leaflet 1970, “May Day 1970 – Labour Day or Labour Party Day”: “This reaction came in spite of the history of student solidarity with worker struggles, such as support for the Brisbane Tram Strike (1968), participation in the struggle to smash penal clauses (1969), and the exposing and public ostracizing of student scabs who worked during the 1967 postal strike.” Perhaps they had forgotten that it was workers and their unions that built Trades Hall where FOCO was housed.

The University
Nevertheless O’Neill’s focus was on student power and reform of the university: “It is no accident that such movements (that is to diminish and decentralise the power of the ‘authorities’) began in the universities for they are the institutions most vital to the continuance of a complex society, the institutions that contain both the oldest and the newest historical trends, the most explosive contradictions in the whole of contemporary society.” – Dan O’Neill, SDA leaflet (1969), “Student Power“.

It remains a sad outcome for working class struggle in Queensland that the only organised mass political party to come out of the left in Brisbane on the demise of the Communist Party has been the Greens – a party with little organic connection to working class organisation. It was not so much a denial of the importance of the working class by the New Left and the political grouplets that followed, but a kind of absenteeism, a reluctance to do the hard and thankless daily grind in a less glamorous part of the struggle than the environment. Not to mention the human tendency to revel in the glory days of the Big March (1967), in the opposition to South African apartheid, and in the anti-Vietnam war Moratorium campaigns (but don’t we all?). Sam Watson put it this way: “”People like Dan O’Neil and Carol Ferrier are still very close comrades of mine. Every time I see them I kind of get a bit of a choke in the throat remembering the good old days of the 1970s.”

Not every mistake can be laid at the feet of the New Left.

Attempt by radical student leader, Brian Laver, to wrest the platform from Senator George Georges, the Trades & Labour Council’s preferred speaker at the May Moratorium in Roma Street forum in Brisbane in May 1970. It comes as no surprise that unionists held Laver back from interjecting while Georges was speaking regardless of Laver’s greivance for not being allowed speak at the precise moment he wished..

The Forum
At this time the largest student union complex in Australia became safe haven for radical ideas to be hammered out in an area known as ‘the Forum‘ just outside the refectory. O’Neill participated in ‘the Big March’ against the Nicklin government’s ban on street marches in September 1967. This was an attempt to obtain the democratic right to organise effective opposition to the Vietnam War. A large proportion of the University attended the march only to find themselves in pitched battle with police in the Roma street market area of the city where the smell of stale cabbage hung in the air. Students and staff sat down and 126 people were arrested and the rest dragged from the street by police.

O’Neill showed his ability as a critical thinker by exposing sections of the Left, particularly Trotskyite ‘groupetos‘ who claimed to have the ‘correct line’ where none existed. He resisted vanguardism, student centrism, radical chic and various other opportunist tendencies in the movement. O’Neill was a movement activist critical of the Leninist concept (and discipline) of the party. Of the Marxist thinkers, O’Neill preferred Gramsci.

Apartheid
O’Neill was one for the grand gesture. When, in 1971, anti-apartheid activists were attacked and savagely beaten by the Queensland police force, O’Neill jumped up on a refectory table and proposed that students and staff go on strike. Three thousand people raised their hands in support but it was never clear what the strike would mean or what it would achieve. The strike lasted 15 days but did not ever reach the entire campus (e.g. the conservative faculties of Medicine, Engineering, and Law). This strike was to be that largest mass mobilisation at the University until the 1977 right-to march movement. Whitlam defused the anti-war movement by abolishing conscription and withdrawing the troops from Vietnam in 1972.

March on the University of Queensland administration building after students had been expelled for participation in the Quang Incident in 1971. Dan O’Neill, taking notes, highlighted.

The Dismissal
After the Vietnam moratoriums in 1970 and 1971, Left political organisation in Brisbane died.  The CPA continued its steady decline. There was, however, some organisation around the anti-freeway movement and public transport. Women’s House was set up (in Roma Street) but I do not think that  was a result of political organisations taking up women’s issues. When I visited women’s house in 1975 they were very concerned (at a practical level) with getting women access to abortion which was illegal in Qld until quite recently, 2018 (I think). 

When Sir John Kerr sacked the Whitlam government in November 1975, although 15,000 people gathered in King George Square, only 1,500 people marched to Parliament House. People like former Federal Treasurer, Wayne Swan, accompanied the march but only on the footpath (perhaps with an eye to the future). 

Democratic Rights and Uranium – Keep it in the ground
“New Left identities” like B. Laver, J. Beatson, D. O’Neill and Hugh Hamilton all opposed mass defiance until, in Dan’s words: “the movement was organised, systematic, non-violent and absolutely massive”.  I first heard Dan say these words on 12th September 1977, just eight (8) days after Joh banned political marches. It was to become a regular theme in the prelude to ensuing marches on 12th & 22th September ’77. The obvious question was how to get there (the mass movement), particularly when Left organisation was at an historic low. O’Neill was afraid we would become an isolated student ghetto easily routed by Joh and his Queensland police force. However arrest lists of the early marches demonstrate that participation by workers and unemployed was greater than that of students. Unike Nantes and Sorbonne universities in France 1968 the University of Queensland was a highly conservative campus, notwithstanding the existence of the Union Forum area, student union financing both an independent radio station 4ZZZ and Semper Floreat.

In the end, the question (of whether to march) was partly resolved on 22nd October 1977 when 5,000 people turned up in the boiling sun, wanting to march, only to be frustrated for two hours by a speech by poet Judith Wright and the Campaign Against Nuclear Power (CANP) wanting us to walk around the block in two’s and three’s.

Uranium
Environmental groups like CANP were not political organisations in the sense of having coherent political ideas or programs. The CANP definitely were reluctant to defy the government. The marches were organised by the Anti-Uranium Mining Mobilisation committee. CANP was only a small part of that group. Over 100 people would attend weekly meetings of this group on Thursday nights. Similar or larger numbers would attend Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) meetings at Trade Hall on Tuesday nights during 1977 and 1978.

After a couple of abortive attempts to march on that hot afternoon of 22 October 1977, O’Neill told 5,000 people rallied in King George Square that it was time to confront the government with a movement that was ‘organised, systematic, non-violent and absolutely massive’ by marching into the valley of death, Albert Street, into the waiting arms of 1,000 Queensland police officers. What ensued in the following two hours was the largest number of arrests (418) of people defying a government in Australian history. The movement into which O’Neill had invested so much hope lasted from 4th September 1977 till July 1979. There were over 3,000 arrests that tied up the courts for months on end; yet the government survived and continued its authoritarian rule for another 10 years.

Sit down in the ‘Valley of Death’

Summer Campaign 1978
Nevertheless early in 1978, Dan O’Neill and Jane Gruchy went on a tour (the summer campaign) of Queensland equipped with speakers notes which, if not a political program, spelt out the concerns of the Left on education, mining, democracy, society, racism, women’s rights and the economy. They visited Trades Halls, Labor Party Branches and any progressive groups they could find throughout the state.

Chile Solidarity
O’Neill argued for international solidarity with the Chilean people after the military coup and murder of the elected president Salvador Allende in 1973. In 1978 O’Neill attempted to get a Chilean trade unionist on the platform at the annual May Day rally in the Exhibition grounds. He was refused by ‘the old guard’ at Trades Hall. In the year following, an alternative May Day platform was organised by the CLCC and featured speakers, Senator George Georges and Building Worker (BWIU) organiser, Joe Harris. By way of retaliation, Harris was beaten up afterwards by heavies from Trades Hall.

SEQEBTrade union support
In 1985 O’Neill gave support to 1001 sacked SEQEB workers and called for the University Senate to rescind its honorary degree of laws bestowed on the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. To no avail. Three thousand people surrounded Mayne Hall thus preventing the award being made in person. Joh was later tried for corruption whereupon a member of his party was allowed on the jury to ensure his acquittal.

O’Neill was a member of the Trade Union Support Group that organised assistance and solidarity for the SEQEB workers. At one of its Thursday meetings in the Waterside Workers Club Dan (with others including Gary MacLennan, Brian Law and Carole Ferrier) proposed a broader political group be formed and named the Queensland Coalition for Democratic Rights. This split the Left and reduced the effectiveness of both groups.

However a gradual shift led both the democratic rights and trade union movements to reform the Queensland Labor Party. Under new leadership, the Goss Labor government was elected in 1989. That government introduced the most progressive Peaceful Assembles Act in the Commonwealth. The government also redefined the electoral boundaries thus getting rid of the gerrymander. However successive Labor governments failed to reform the economy, instead selling out to mining interests and privatising Queensland Rail.

Reading and Discussion
O’Neill convenes a number of reading and discussion groups including the ‘Group of 17’. People who were taught by O’Neill attest to his ability as a teacher. He has co-written ‘Up the Right Channels‘ calling for a ‘long march through the existing institutions’.

Up the Right Channels had several aims:

1. To present detailed critiques of existing courses from Accountancy to Zoology at the University of Queens­land.

2. To record with some degree of per­manence moves for change that have taken the form of pam phlets written by students and staff since early 196!).

3. To analyse the relationship between Queensland University (and by im ­plication, many W estern universities) and W estern society.

Over a hundred (100) people were involved in making this 230 foolscap page printed book with a hideous but unmistakable pur­ple cover. By definition it was a ‘teach in’ which was particularly interested in reforming the University to make it an institution of critical thinking not a slave to industry and commerce.

Dan O’Neill speaking at Civil liberties rally in King George Square in 1967

I would appreciate any further comments or additions to this piece as I am acutely aware of my own limitations as I was involved in many of these struggles and was caught up in ‘the complicated state of despair’ (Dan’s words) that followed each defeat on that long march.

This is intended as more a discourse on the times rather than the person. The idea is to formulate a wikipedia entry that does justice to both the person and the struggles.

Ian Curr
19 July 2021

References

Monsour, Anne & Australian Lebanese Historical Society (2009). Raw kibbeh : generations of Lebanese enterprise. Australian Lebanese Historical Society, Coogee, N.S.W

Denying the faith & other stories by Erroll O’Neill

Monsour, Anne (2010). Not quite white : Lebanese and the white Australia policy 1880 to 1947. Teneriffe, Qld., Australia: Post Pressed.

It Was a Very Stimulating Period

AUSTRALIAN LEFT REVIEW— DEC., 1970-JAN., 1971

Timeline of Events of the Anti-apartheid struggle in Radical Times



3 thoughts on “Dan O’Neill – the long march through the existing institutions

  1. Updated with two (2) new sections: (a) Students for Democratic Action and (b) Class Struggle after reader’s comments. Also new images and more references added.

    Rejected by Wikipedia editors for the following reasons:
    This submission reads more like an essay than an encyclopedia article. Submissions should summarise information in secondary, reliable sources and not contain opinions or original research. Please write about the topic from a neutral point of view in an encyclopedic manner“.

    I will review the guidelines and attempt to make changes that fit their format plus to add secondary sources.

    1. Thanks Will. Yes, I have read your interview with Dan which looks more at the literary side. Mine is an attempt to look at political struggles and their significance.

      Perhaps we should try to formulate a Wikipedia entry?

      Ian

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