1985 SEQEB Dispute: ‘the sleep of reason is the birth of monsters’

I have been re-visiting the sound from the 1985 SEQEB dispute where over 1000 workers were sacked by the Bjelke-Petersen government. Here is what Trade Union Support Group speaker, Dan O’Neill, had to say at SEQEB dispute rally in Roma Street Forum, 11 April 1985. Dan gave this speech after Gerry Connolly had satirised the government decision by imitating Bjelke-Petersen. I recorded this on a cheap tape machine so the quality of the sound is not that good. However I have transcribed the speech below.


Dan O’Neill

It seems to me that it is a tribute to the normality of people here that they can laugh at a man who imitates Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The danger is to be seen in some way as a tribute to Joh Bjelke-Petersen.  It is the same danger that is encouraged by calling him by the name Joh.

It seems to me that he should never be called by the name Joh. Because it is too familiar with something that is really a monster … I would argue that in Petersen we have a creature that really comes out of dreams … that in Petersen it bears out the old saying that ‘the sleep of reason is the birth of monsters’.

And I make this point not just to make poetry here tonight … to me that because Petersen is already a kind of fascist before there’s ever been fascism in Australian …  he does put the facistshere in the 30s  in order to destroy all of the structures of ordinary democratic society that in almost all of us, and that is to destroy the simple things inside of people to the public today of one thing that simply has to coordinate, otherwise we can’t go on.

Now don’t make that all the fearful things that Petersen is  Because they can see that Petersen is not a part of a rear guard. He’s not simply a populist leader in the least progressive state in Australia. It’s part of the vanguard of contemporary capitalism. By which I mean  that there’s an electoral facade in Queensland with depends chiefly on the rural back block. But the real power in Queensland, is held by Petersen and people that support him and that means the mining fraction of big capital. That’s the impact that underlies the apparently ruling interest of Queensland. It can’t be said enough for this reason that Queensland is not the only place in the world in which that form of advanced capitalism with hardly any longer depends upon labour is now moving into a state of civil society that has broken decisively with democracy.

That is a real secret of this current struggle is not an isolated struggle in one union. It’s not even simply an industrial struggle. That seems to me to be simply the beginning of it.

It is really the culmination of a long process in Queensland, in which people are being destroyed for many years, not simply an individual, but as organised groups … it seems to me that long ago that destruction began with the destruction of real political parties in Queensland. It’s been done to the destruction of a professional classes in Queensland So that in issue after issue, we’ve never had any protests from organized groups of lawyers.

 It has moved on again down to a destruction of the media, so that Petersen now has absolute control over the media, and we don’t have many journalists in Queensland, who can really attack him in the way that some journalists in the rest of Australia could attack him. He has destroyed the infrastructure of a genuine press.

He has also destroyed the educational institutions in this state. If you have the  misfortune as I do to work in one of the institutions of tertiary education in this state and  God help us, if you work in secondary education, or primary education, you know, that those places are now intellectual wastelands.

And worse than that they are spiritual wastelands because people are absolutely flooded with individualism. People can no longer recognize that the need to discuss those voices and to act upon them. I think it’s gone even further than that, because the main thing that he destroyed is the ordinary decency of ordinary Queenslanders, he’s destroyed the structure of public opinion. So it is now possible to committ outrage after outrage so people don’t even perceive what is happening  … that is most crucial failure of all.

But the two most dangerous failures I am yet to mention … and the first, I think is one we can deeply sympathize. And try to get the people who are accountable for it to finally fight. And why I mean is the trade union leadership of this state, I make these remark, by hopefully in a constructive way, because it seems to me the measure  of the ferocity of Petersen, because decent men when they began to perceive how far they would have to go, and how much inconvenience to cause to ordinary Queenslanders in order to really confront that terror that of unleashed unrestrained, completely amoral and  hypocritical and completely irreligious force when they confronted that they stood back … now in the way, we can’t blame them because that is a ordinary decent human response but I think we all now know that what we’re facing is absolutely indecent. Absolutely, in many senses, inhuman, and if there is anywhere that liberals go in order to achieve the same.

And that means that we are thrust back  on the the other groups that is the rank and file of the entire workers movement. And it seems to me that the time has come, when we must recognize that there’s a rout …. that there’s been a rout in Queensland for something like 15 years, and that we are now in one of the deepest social crisis that this state has ever confronted, a political crisis, which can hardly be measured in Australian terms, because it’s more like the road to … in Latin America, it’s more like the 30s in Europe … 

And thank god that Petersen has got no control over the army  for the army. When we say that, we have to fight in the only way it’s left to us, even if it seems we are facing a dead end. And I think we shouldn’t encourage any illusions about how easy it would be because if you think he is going to repeal the legislation. I don’t think he is, I don’t think many people do.

If you think we can provoke an election and at that election, that the ALP would win I encourage you to be very skeptical about that. Somewhere down the track of things, we are only going back to very simple basics. I would argue that the simple basic thing we go back to rebuild social courage in Queensland.

When a society is so degenerated into a structural state as this society, for people to be willing to use their bodies to make a protest, to engage in direct actions and it seems to me that many, many more people should join the pickets that should be 20s and 30. There should be hundreds of people to join the pickets.

Academics conduct picket during SEQEB dispute 1985

because I don’t think we can trust in the present situation in strategies are anything devised by reason. The only thing we can touch is something as basic as solidarity and our inability at the moment to feel any kind of social love for one another.

So that is the nucleus of society. It is only by taking this step that could in the future lead to a movement that we, at this time,  we cannot build. that there will be any basis in this state to live in anything else but shame and fear. Applause.

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