Fighting for Democratic Rights

The long march through the existing institutions – Rudi Dutschke

The democratic rights struggle of 1977-79 was the longest campaign of mass defiance in Australian history with the stated political purpose of bringing down the government (with the exception of the aboriginal resistance). It was a national campaign with trade unionists coming from interstate and getting arrested to show their opposition to the government. There were over 2,000 people arrested and more than 3,000 charges laid with the largest mass arrest of 418 people in one, hot afternoon of 22 October 1977. Queensland solidarity groups were formed interstate and overseas with a number of people arrested outside the Queensland Tourist bureau offices in Sydney.

However this street march campaign of 1977–79 developed tensions within the campaign organising groups. Here are some of the perspectives that emerged which gave rise to difficulties in the two organising groups, the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) and the Civil Liberties Campaign Group (CLCG) (Aug 1978 till July 1979). This campaign should not be confused with the earlier 1967 Civil Liberties campaign which was a response to restrictions placed on anti-war protesters by the Nicklin Government.

Marathon ManMitch Thompson running beside the front of the ‘big march’ in Roma Street in 1967. The faint hand-drawn printing on the banner reads ‘We are marching without a permit’. 126 people were arrested.


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

The democratic rights struggles in Queensland had no better orator than Daniel Francis O’Neill who cut his teeth at the Queensland University Students Union’s Forum in the 1960s and 1970s. Of Arab and Irish descent, 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 various Trotskyist, anarchist and Maoist groups.

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 that Students for Democratic Action: ” … 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 at the time 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 at this time, the 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. 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 Anti-Vietnam war Moratorium rally 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 grievance 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 restrictions on street protests on 8th 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 (some reports say 114) people were arrested and the rest dragged from the street by police.

‘The day of the political street march is over‘ – Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen on 4th September 1977

Two days after this edict was announced, Dan O’Neill gave a speech arguing for a delay in marching against the ban on street marches. The full text of his speech showed a curious mix of idealism and populism in laying out the parameters of the kind of campaign that he hoped for.

To its credit, the forum voted in favour of marching, but O’Neill’s prediction of a wall of police came true, not in Roma Street as he predicted; but with a phalanx of 300 police at Check-Point Charlie at the entrance of the University on the following. However O’Neill’s predicted repetition of the 1967 march did not eventuate, at least not on that day. On the 7th of September, just three days after the ban on marches there was to be no repetition of ‘another battle with the police in Roma Street’.

No permit was applied for, then or later; and this became a plank of the ensuing street march struggle that all that was required was a system of notification, something that later became part of the Peaceful Assembly Act 1992 that still prevails today.

Did O’Neill really think that the professions, many of whom received their training at the conservative University of Queensland, would throw their weight behind a radical Joh Must Go campaign? From the outset, chants like ‘Fight Joh, join the march’ could be heard on the streets. It did not take long for the struggle to move off campus, as the arrest lists show, students were soon outnumbered by unemployed workers and union members. The Zaphir case referred to in his speech resulted in a campaign where two hundred (200) waterside workers marched on the footpath without police intervention through the city to the rally where 5,000 people were massed to protest the erosion of trade union and democratic rights.

O’Neill was not alone in opposing marches of defiance. Derek Fielding from the Civil Liberties Council warned others that there were dangerous elements advocating violence. He claimed wrongly that a lecturer from Kelvin Grove teachers college, Gary MacLennan, an Irishman from Belfast, was one such dangerous person. This characterisation of MacLennan was false, however MacLennan was expelled with others from the Socialist Workers Party when he marched against the ban.

Fielding, the Civil Liberties Council and the Churches had fallen for the line by Bjelke-Petersen and the mainstream media that the marches were led by violent radicals when the reverse was true; the government and its police force were intent on inflicting as much harm on the demonstrators that they could get away with. Fielding should have known better because the year before, a female student was bashed by Inspector Beattie on a TEAS march. Eventually the government’s refusal to investigate violence by police led to the resignation of the police Commissioner Whitrod.

Dean George, the Anglican prelate in Brisbane, refused to speak on the same platform as the CLCC representative, Jane Gruchy, in a large public meeting in Festival Hall in 1978.

Peter Annear (AUS representative on campus and leading member of the SWP) argued for applying for a permit and negotiating with police but not to march. Ironically Annear was one of the first arrested on 12 September 1977 when police trampled and charged people sitting on the steps of King George Square. It became clear there was a long campaign to follow. The Communist Party of Australia also opposed marching, however its members and fellow travellers turned up on 22 October 1977 to do just that and some were arrested. The Queensland Labor Party was absent, denying its members any kind of option other than the ballot box. In a parliament of about 80 members there were only 10 ALP MPs.

The Trades and Labour Council did not endorse the campaign of defiance until the 3rd December 1977.

What led up to the Democratic Rights struggle of 1977-79?

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.

However 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 to the mass of students and staff at the University or even the participants what the strike’s aims were or what it would achieve. The strike lasted 15 days but did not reach the entire campus (conservative faculties of Medicine, Engineering, and Law were either unrepresented or underrepresented and took little part in the strike, the professors, staff and students preferring business-as-usual). However, at least one anti-racist, anti-apartheid group was formed in the Medical faculty, it was called Tidalik and aimed to provide assistance to aboriginal families.

This UQ strike during the South African all-white Sprinbok Tour of Australia was to be the largest mass mobilisation at the University until the 1977-79 right-to-march campaign.

Whitlam defused the anti-war movement when his Labor government abolished conscription and withdrew the troops from Vietnam in 1972.

Vice Chancellor Zelman Cowen holding a Bren gun in the Great Court circa 1975 at the end of the American war in Vietnam, happily supported the University regiment on campus during the height of the anti-Vietnam war moratorium campaign. Cowen called police on campus and set about investigating and charging radicals involved in protests against the war. His committee expelled several radicals. Cowen had a special relationship with Qld Police Comssioner Ray Whitrod, a former ASIO agent and later head of that organisation, set up to carry out surveillance on the Communist Party.

After Universities were opened up by the Whitlam government many workers class people, men and women, got to go this formerly elitist institution. However tertiary education still had hidden costs that made it necessary for students to earn a living while attending University. In 1977 a media collective put together this publication and took it around campus and interstate to relate the conditions that existed in Queensland at the time.

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.

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

Women’s Rights
Women’s House was set up (it was in Roma Street in 1975) but I do not think that was a result of political organisations taking up women’s issues. Of course the Communist Party did have a women’s collective and they (along with other women’s groups) urged people to march on International Women’s Day in 1978 where many women and some men were arrested in Roma Street.

However 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. 

A Women’s Rights committee was set up by the UQ Student Union in 1972. In 1976 Radha Rouse was the co-ordinator and had been a journalist at 4ZZZ. Radah issued the following statement in the 1976 Student Orientation handbook:

“The Women’s Rights Standing Committee is part of the Union and was set up to identify and eliminate sexism on campus. It consists of about six women who put forward the views of women on campus. They are not interested in being any· kind of vanguard for the women’s movement – they are there because of council voting requirements. We want as many women as possible to put forward their view, so come to the Women’s Liberation meetings, held weekly to discuss group strategy, personal experiences and generally raise one’s consciousness as a woman.” – Radha Rouse, Women’s House 1976.

Democratic Rights and Uranium – Keep it in the ground
In 1977 when Joh said ‘the day of the political street march is over’, “New Left identities” like Brian Laver, Jim Beatson, Dan 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 the opposition to Petersen’s edict would become an isolated student ghetto easily routed by Joh and his corrupt police force. However arrest lists of the early marches demonstrate that participation by workers and unemployed was greater than that of students. Unlike Nantes University 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 its own newspaper, 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.

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,perhaps through deference to the churches. The marches were organised by the Anti-Uranium Mining Mobilisation committee. CANP was only a small part of that group. The anti-uranium mobilization committee, consisted of the Campaign against Nuclear Power, the Civil Liberties Coordinating Committee, the Uranium moratorium, various church groups and the Friends of the Earth organization. Over 100 people would attend weekly meetings of this group on Thursday nights. Similar or larger numbers would attend the Civil Liberties Co-ordinating Committee (CLCC) meetings at Trades 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.

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

This is intended as more a discourse on the times rather than any individual.

The idea is to provide a history of the right to march campaign.

418 people arrested appear outside the South Brisbane Watchouse and Magistrates Court, 24 Oct 1977

Ian Curr
25 Jan 2022

Next up – Opportunism

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