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International Socialism, Winter 1978/79


Carole Ferrier & Graeme Grassie
(Brisbane IS)

The struggle for democratic rights in Australia


From International Socialism, 2:3, Winter 1978/79.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Queensland, Australia’s north-eastern state, is almost unique amongst advanced capitalist states which claim to be democratic. For the last 16 months a ban has been imposed on all street marches. It can only be seen in the context of the state of the Queensland economy and in particular of the mining and export of uranium. Australian prosperity is almost entirely dependent on the export of primary products; its manufacturing sector, traditionally orientated to the home market, is inefficient, uncompetitive and has to rely on tariffs and quotas for protection. One of the potentially most profitable exports that Australia has is that of uranium, it is already a major supplier to the world market. The maintenance of uranium mining and export is vital to ruling class interests. The opposition to it commands some substantial support from the industrial working class. Thus the uranium question is relevant to the class struggle in a way that is not paralleled elsewhere.

The Australian Labour Party (ALP) and the trade union confederation (ACTU) had, for a time, a policy of a moratorium on uranium export and mining. This was modified in early 1978 to a policy of fulfilling existing contracts and resuming production when ‘adequate safeguards’ were secured.

The real anti-uranium movement is composed of various anti-nuclear and ecological groups; in Brisbane primarily the Campaign against Nuclear Power (CANP) and the Friends of the Earth (FOE). Ecological groups in Australia are more political than their counterparts in Britain, and some FOE members participated in pickets outside the docks and recognise the central importance of working class militancy. A number of anti-uranium groups are operational inside work-places. The movement has an orientation towards building opposition to uranium mining and export within the working class, and railway workers and dockers have been involved in strike action. The movement for black land rights is also connected to the anti-uranium movement since the uranium is mined on aboriginal land.

Before September 1977, militant pickets outside the Brisbane docks had put pressure on the dockers to refuse to load the uranium. The Queensland State Government feared the power of a mass movement against uranium mining and export and wished to prevent its growth in Queensland, the state which has the only uranium mine in production. The Country Party, representing farming and mining interests, has ruled Queensland since 1957. It espouses a vigorous frontier philosophy of get-rich-quick free enterprise but in addition guarantees prices for agriculture and gives generous hand-outs to the mining multi-nationals who, in return, provide financial backing for the Party. The Liberal Party, representing manufacturing and urban middle-class interests, is very much the junior party in the coalition government.

While Country Party control is helped by economic and demographic factors; it also owes much to the autocratic and buccaneering style of its Premier, a Lutheran fundamentalist lay preacher, Johannes Bjelke-Petersen. Bjelke not only uses his position to advance his own farming and business interests but openly asserts that this is legitimate in a private enterprise economy. At least, he has the virtue of candour, unlike his hypocritical Liberal colleagues. He ensures the continuance of his party as government by so gerrymandering the electoral boundaries to the disadvantage of the city that the ALP would need 60% of the votes to form a government. The Liberal Party is thus certain to remain the junior party in the coalition.

Such a government finds it easy to identify its opponents. Hippies, gays, feminists, liberal intellectuals, aboriginals and, of course, trade unionists and communists are all seen as unwanted parasites. Thus the police force, and especially the Special Branch (the state political police) has a central role in government policy and is very visible in public life. The beating up of undesirables, planting of evidence and fairly systematic surveillance of trade union militants and left activists are an accepted if covert part of Queensland life.

The ban on street marches was just the high point of an everyday oppression. The immediate pretext given by the State Government for the ban was the clashes between police and demonstrators picketing a uranium shipment on the Brisbane docks. Bjelke-Petersen made the political bias of the ban quite clear when he said that no-one associated with a left-wing cause need bother applying for a permit to march since it would be refused.

So why did the State Government want to provoke a confrontation with – or smash – the left at this particular time and over this issue? After all there had not been a major march in Brisbane since 1972 though there had been large rallies in New South Wales and Victoria.

For the reformists of the ALP, the trade union leaders and the Communist Party, the answer was simple. The ban was ‘an electoral ploy’ to create an issue with which to win the forthcoming state election. To the straightforward question: why, with a 60 seat majority in a house of 82 seats, the government should fear losing the election, the reformists had no answer. What their line did do, however, was to enable the reformists to duck the issue when faced with the threat of a mass protest movement.

The International Socialists pointed instead to a number of interconnected factors. First, there was the importance of uranium mining to maintain Australia’s export income; the power and influence of the companies involved in uranium production, which included RTZ, General Electric and Westinghouse; the confrontation looming between the national government and the left unions over uranium export and finally the general situation of class confrontation due to the recession and the inability of the bourgeoisie to resolve this in its favour without a real show of strength.

All these factors combined with the strong statist tendencies of the Queensland government produced this particular crisis. This analysis was confirmed by the fact that the government was simultaneously prosecuting a union organiser for attempting to enforce ‘the closed shop’ and that anti-union laws were being contemplated by the government.

Thus the street march ban was no diversion but an integral part of government policy and its function in the class struggle. It was wrong, however, to overestimate the government’s strength on the issue, to treat the ban as a fait accompli, as did many reformists and radicals who asserted that the government had become fascist. This incorrect analysis allowed its proponents to underestimate the tensions created between the liberal and authoritarian sections of the ruling class and the strains it put on the coalition. To enforce the ban, if it were challenged, would require the mobilisation of hundreds if not thousands of police and thereby constitute a permanent affront to liberal consciences.

This is what determined IS’s tactical line; we had to march and confront the police and government in the streets. The forces that could and should be mobilised were all those threatened by the government’s repressive policies. We advocated a multi-issue campaign to bring down the state government, most probably by forcing the liberals into conflict with the authoritarians. Last but not least, we recognised that the decisive force in this movement must be the working class; industrial action, with partial strikes, perhaps leading to a general strike as the essential aim. To this end we began a mass campaign of factory and workplace meetings, over a hundred in the next few months, hoping that the pressure thereby generated would swing at least a section of the ALP and trade union leaders into a united front, something that could never be achieved by mere appeals.

This position rapidly gained hegemony over the most militant sections of the growing movement. As the campaign developed the CPA rapidly discredited itself by arguing for the liquidation of the democratic rights movement into the uranium campaign. The main alternative analysis to our position was put forward by the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Australian section of the Fourth International and co-thinkers of the SWP in the USA. They were not particularly interested in debating why the government had banned protest marches but they did think they knew how to build a mass movement. Their formula was simple; the more low-level the demands and the less expected of participants, the more people would come to rallies. The march ban was presented as an attack on civil liberties and the rights of the individual since this would not alienate anyone, especially members of the Liberal Party and leading church leaders. Any reference to the trial of the trade union organiser should be expunged, since the closed shop could be seen as infringement of some people’s liberty.

SWP members were forbidden to participate in marches and at rallies urged people to “go home, you have made your point”. This stance made them increasingly unpopular in the movement and finally they withdrew from the main organising committee in early 1978.

So far there have been over 2,000 arrests of marchers. Attempts have been made to bring the whole machinery of justice to a standstill through conducting long, elaborate defences. Extra magistrates have had to be brought in to try and clear the back log.

The effects of this on the ruling coalition have been to intensify the split between the Country Party and the Liberals. Important Liberals have publicly disagreed with the Country Party’s strategy which remains unaltered despite the opposition of many public figures and a general swing against them at the last state election.

The impact on the traditional leaders of the working class movement has been limited. Their faith in the parliamentary system appears to remain unshaken despite the government’s offensive. Nor did the small left wing on the Trades and Labour Council do much to help build the prospects of industrial action. However, the gap the traditional leaders left did allow the possibility of some support being gained for “ultra-leftist stunts”. As a consequence there has been an activation of a layer of the ALP’s rank and file, infuriated by their leaders’ complacency. More nails had been driven into the coffin of an already moribund Labour Party and shortly afterwards the leader resigned.

In late 1978, there was a general upsurge in working class activity in Queensland and in some of the disputes the same police that were arresting marchers also turned their attentions to the picket lines. Thus the struggle for the right to march is closely allied to the struggle against uranium, for black land rights and against mounting attacks on workers’ organisations. With massive new uranium contracts recently announced, and further anti-trade union laws in prospect, the right to demonstrate on the streets as well as to picket, rally or leaflet, – all of which cannot be done now without harassment – will become increasingly important. Unless workers’ involvement in the campaign continues to grow, these democratic rights can neither be won nor defended as the slide to the right in both the state and the national government continues.

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Last updated on 18.4.2012