Bob Gould, 2003

50,000 in Sydney protest against Iraq invasion

Source: Self-published pamphlet, March 21, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

A week is a long time in politics and so, sometimes, is three hours. In the rather weird phoney war atmosphere created by the early-morning probing missile attacks on Baghdad and the repeated, insulting “addresses to the nation” by Bush and Howard, with all their fake religiosity, the Sydney Walk Against the War coalition decided to call the necessary demonstration for 5pm at Sydney Town Hall.

The demonstration took place in a physical atmosphere eerily reminiscent of what it must be like in Iraq and Kuwait, because a major dust storm on the other side of the Dividing Range blew into Sydney this morning, an appropriate atmosphere for the beginning of the monstrous imperialist assault on the peoples of Iraq and the Middle East.

Obviously, the NSW Labor Council and the Walk Against the War executive had issued a practical ultimatum to the government and the police, because the police collaborated in allowing the demonstration to occupy the busy George Street traffic artery and spill over into Park and Bathurst Streets, an extremely unusual act on a busy Thursday evening, which caused traffic chaos. It’s hard to see what the coppers could have done anyway, given the sheer size of the protest.

In the atmosphere of broad popular unity against the imperialist war, cemented by the unanimous opposition of the federal Labor Party parliamentary caucus to the declaration of war, the speakers’ platform on the Town Hall steps was very diverse.

The rally was ably chaired Amanda Tattersall, Labor Council special projects officer, the speakers included Labor Council secretary John Robertson, anti-US bases committee representative Dennis Doherty, NSW Labor government deputy premier Andrew Refshauge, Arthur Chesterfield-Evens from the Australian Democrats, Ian Cohen of the Greens, leading Jewish antiwar activist Vivienne Porszolt, Maire Sheehan, the Irish-born mayor of Leichhardt municipality, the president of the National Union of Students, and Sam Wainwright from the DSP speaking for the Socialist Alliance.

All the speakers spoke well, particularly John Robertson, Sam Wainwright, the NUS representative and deputy premier Refshauge. All the speakers were greeted with immense enthusiasm.

When the march moved off, I did what I usually do, and stood where I could make an attempt at estimating the size of the crowd. I joined in at the end of the march, and marched some distance and then grabbed a cab to Circular Quay so I could count the march as it arrived there.

It took 25 minutes, for the march, occupying the whole width of George Street and moving fairly fast, to pass my observation point, and a friend with a mobile phone spoke to someone at the front of the march who said it was moving past Hunter Street, almost to the Quay, as the last people left Town Hall. By my calculations that has to be 50,000 people. The march organisers were initially saying 20,000, and the media were trying to talk it down to 10,000, but it was more like 50,000.

The marchers were an enormously diverse age range, ethnicity and social mix. There were a very large number of trade union banners from about 15 unions. There were a very large number of mass-produced Greens placards, and there were also hundreds of mass-produced Labor Party placards.

The logistics of the march were a bit of a nightmare. As on February 16, when 500,000 gathered, the organisers had obviously underestimated the likely impact of their systematic publicity about rallying at Town Hall and marching by a circuitous to First Fleet Park at Circular Quay, which is a very crowded area of an evening and is a major rail-bus-ferry interchange.

The organisers had obviously made some sort of deal with the cops not to have speakers at the Quay and to try to get the protesters to disperse as fast as possible, so a number of the organisers became speakers themselves, using the sound truck to get the protesters to disperse quickly.

In retrospect, this emphasis on dispersal was, in my view, a mistake, because thousands of the demonstrators were very reluctant to disperse and the heavy emphasis on dispersal created a rather anti-climactic atmosphere.

In my view it would have been better to have a vigorous demonstration at the Quay for another hour or so, but that’s not how it turned out.

We should all learn better for next time, but we shouldn’t allow disagreement with circumstances like this to disrupt the necessary united front, or to take away from the extraordinary energy and ingenuity with which the same group of organisers built the massive demonstration that they dispersed a little too early.

Good humour and a sense of proportion are required in the kind of extraordinary mass movement that we have all now, jointly, conjured out of the ground in opposition to this war.

Sydney is a tough, vibrant, commercially active global city, the financial capital of Australasia and to some extent one of the centres of the money markets in Asia. Marching to the Quay through the financial district we were to some extent marching into the belly of the beast of our bourgeois town.

Thousands of shoppers spontaneously joined the protest, and a lot of bus drivers whose schedules had been disrupted nevertheless honked in solidarity. However, as we marched past the evening crowds in the bars of the financial district we got some support and a bit of vocal opposition from the kind of hard-headed, ugly fund managers whose stocks had risen over the past few days on the back of the war.

It’s clear that the war is polarising Australia. We are a majority, particularly now that the ALP has come down solidly against the war, but the reaction is battling hard to reclaim some of the middle ground.

Conflict in the parliament

There has been an extended parliamentary debate this week, in which a very large number of members of the Labor caucus in both the lower house and the Senate spoke, all of them against the war. As you might expect, they spoke in a generally Laborist, social democratic framework, and many of the speeches were clearly passionately felt.

Many of the Labor MPs repeated in different ways the arguments of Robin Cook in his speech in the British House of Commons. Many also invoked Australian history. Part of the ethos of Australian Laborism is the role played by the then Labor minister of foreign affairs, Dr Herbert Evatt, in the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, and the naked display of US imperialist power involved in defying the UN goes to the heart of the traditional Australian Labor view of international affairs and the world.

A number of the Labor politicians are also, obviously, deeply angered, as we all are, by the very brutal probabilities and possibilities of the imminent war.

The extraordinary political unity against the war, which stretches from the far left through the Greens, then to the ALP, including even military buffs like Kim Beazley, and even to the Democrats and the conservative rural independent Tony Windsor, who made a very intelligent speech in the parliament against the war, creates the conditions for a huge popular antiwar movement in Australia.

We should do everything possible to make Sunday’s demonstration even larger than February 26. The problem will now be the need to find a location big enough to properly accommodate 500,000 or more people and organise sound so everything can hear the speakers. In my view, the idea of having that assembly in the Sydney Domain is unrealistic because the Domain is too small. The other possibility is to hold the rally in Park Street between the two ends of Hyde Park and to spill down into William Street, and if Sunday’s demonstration is as large as I think it will be, the Walk Against the War coalition will have to think very hard about how to make the event work without too much of an anticlimax.

The NSW elections

The important elections for the NSW parliament take place on Saturday. It’s a very unusual circumstance to be holding a state election on the third day of an unpopular imperialist war.

The very moderate Labor government of Bob Carr has been conducting a pretty right-wing populist election campaign. The polls and the pundits all predict a Labor victory against a lacklustre conservative opposition.

The polls also show a dramatic increase in the Green vote. It seems highly likely, to me, that the Green vote will be somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent, ensuring the Greens of at least three seats in the upper house, and possibly a fourth.

The Socialist Alliance is likely to get a minuscule vote — almost off the electoral radar, so to speak, because of the avalanche to the Greens on the left.

An interesting feature of the elections is the likely impact of the war on the Labor vote. The polls seem to suggest a fairly sharp rise in the Labor vote, even despite the loss of 10 per cent or so to the Greens. Labor seems to be winning support from the Liberals and Nationals.

If this trend is carried through to the elections, the Liberal-National coalition will face something close to electoral extinction. Inevitably, the NSW elections will become a kind of referendum on Howard’s war, and ironically the rather conservative, populist Labor campaign may make the ALP a relatively comfortable staging point for Tory voters uneasy about the war.

If the anguish about the war is as widespread as the polls suggest, the Tories are in deep trouble. A relatively large swing against the Tories in NSW will be a direct result of Howard’s war, although of course the Liberals will try to squirm out of it by claiming that the swing against them was because of state issues. Nobody will believe that.