Source: Self-published pamphlet, October 24, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
Australia’s national capital, Canberra, is a product of a political compromise at the time of federation between the two major colonies, New South Wales and Victoria. The deal was that the Australian Capital Territory was to be independent of any state and the location was chosen so as to be not too distant from Victoria.
In practice, Canberra is now part of the Sydney-Illawarra-ACT axis, which is the commercial heartland of Australia.
The architect mainly responsible for the place, Walter Burley Griffin, was a closet theosophist, and is said to have designed the new city, which is a completely artificial capital like Brasilia, according to occult principles, and there have been several erudite books on that subject.
I’ve been arrested at several demonstrations in Canberra, starting with the first Australian sit-down against the Vietnam War in May 1965, at which 15 students and myself, then a book buyer in a department store, were arrested at a Student Labor Federation protest at Garema Place, in the centre of the city.
I was also pinched a couple of years later in scuffles outside the South Vietnamese embassy during the visit of the dictator Ky, in 1967. I’m familiar with the inside of Canberra Jail. When I first started demonstrating in Canberra in 1965, the population of the place was about 120,000. Now it’s about 370,000 if you add the large suburb of Queanbeyan, a country town that is just in NSW, not the ACT.
The ACT has the highest education level in Australia. About 45 per cent of adults have a university degree, and it is a city of fairly high incomes. Nevertheless, politically it’s pretty leftist. It votes overwhelmingly Labor, and the Greens get a very large vote as well. The conservatives usually come nowhere much, electorally.
It’s a clean, sterile kind of place with fairly high youth unemployment because there aren’t too many entry-level jobs. One consequence of this is a drug problem.
The commonwealth parliament was recalled for two days for a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Representatives to listen to President Bush one day and the Premier of the Chinese Stalinist dictatorship the next, today (Friday).
Following Wednesday evening’s successful demonstration in Sydney, about 200 bleary-eyed rebels turned up at 6am on Thursday to pile into four buses for the three and a half hour journey to Canberra. We had a slightly easier time of it than the four buses from Melbourne, which faced a 10-hour trip.
In Canberra, the locals, who are pretty well organised, were already holding a mass meeting on the lawn in the approaches to Parliament House. Attempts by the coppers to push us away from the House had clearly broken down a bit and the demonstration was reasonably close to the building.
Catholic Bishop Pat Power, Labor MP Carmen Lawrence and Greens Senators Brown and Nettle all spoke. There were about 4000-5000 people at the mass meeting at its height.
When the meeting concluded after Bush arrived the inevitable Canberra long march started and about 3000 of the demonstrators set off up the hill, along Embassy Row, to the US embassy and ultimately to the Prime Minister’s Lodge, where the select barbeque for the visiting imperial leader was being held.
I’d forgotten my past experience with Canberra long marches. They are an activity for which it’s better to be young and sturdy. My companion and I, and a few older rebels tended to puff along behind the very militant demonstration, and we caught up at the major confrontations.
There was a certain amount of rebellious competition between the different socialist groups, with their red flags and their generals and colonels directing operations.
The coppers gave up trying to stop us marching on the street because it was impossible, and the ridiculous plastic orange barriers set up to keep people away from Parliament House, the US embassy and the Lodge were trampled over quite easily.
The Canberra coppers are, compared with Sydney police, a bit more laid back, there aren’t quite as many of them, and they don’t use the intimidating mounted police, which have become normal recently in Sydney. There were maybe 400 police and they were quite efficient at maintaining a last line of defence at the embassy and the Lodge. The inevitable pushing and shoving was intense, but no one was seriously hurt on either side.
The media and the police commander later tried to beat up stories that some of the demonstrators pulled up the stakes holding the ridiculous plastic barriers to use as weapons, but I didn’t see anything like that and the five people pinched weren’t charged with anything like serious assault, only with minor street offences.
The militant demonstration went on for a couple of hours, and eventually we marched back down the various hills to the lawn outside Parliament House, where the demonstration quietly dissolved into exhausted lying on the lawn for a while, and the interstate contingents eventually went back to the buses.
From the point of view of myself and my companion, the big problem was physical exhaustion from the long march and Canberra’s paucity of official places to have a piss. I sneaked behind bushes a couple of times, but my companion, being a woman, was ultimately forced to invade the premises of the national protection services, slipping in behind some people with a swipe card, and using the disabled facility, which was the only one open, and then sneak out again, quickly, hoping not to be pinched as a potential terrorist.
From a health point of view, I wish there was a major demonstration twice a week. The Wednesday event in Sydney went on for nearly four hours, and the Canberra long march took about two and a half hours. I woke up this morning a bit stiff, extremely sunburned, but invigorated.
Inside the parliament the first development was that 46 Labor MPs, including almost all from the left and some from the right, endorsed a letter laying out in a careful way the opposition of the parliamentary Labor Party to Bush’s Iraq adventure. It was framed in a clearly Social Democratic way, accepted the US alliance, etc, but it was a clear statement of opposition to the military adventure in Iraq.
Tanya Plibersek, its originator, made a point of delivering it to Condoleeza Rice in the parliament. Between nine and 17 of the Labor MPs (nine, 13 and 17 were the numbers mentioned in different media reports) refused to stand up or applaud Bush. Harry Quick, who did not stand, also wore a white armband and a number of the Laborites who stood didn’t applaud Bush’s speech.
In his lengthy speech, Labor leader Simon Crean was at pains to endorse the US alliance. Nevertheless, he also courteously but at some length explained Labor’s opposition to the Iraq intervention in the form it took.
The whole event, however, was stolen by the courageous and effective protest of Greens Senators Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle, who vigorously interjected during Bush’s speech and Nettle pushed forward in an attempt to reach Bush with a petition of opposition to the war. She was blocked by a flying wedge of reactionary politicians.
The Australian bourgeois media have gone ape about this very effective Green protest in the parliament. The bourgeoisie is fuming.
Immediately afterwards, Liberal hardman Tony Abbot moved the suspension of the two Greens from the parliament for 24 hours, and according to one paper this morning it was carried on the vote of the government, so it’s not clear if any Laborites voted for the suspension, but that may become clear in the next day or so.
A startled Bush made the best of a bad situation by an off-the-cuff remark about not minding free speech, but the Australian ruling class clearly does mind free speech, especially of the determined Nettle and Brown variety.
Travelling back to Sydney on the bus, a number of us attempted a balance sheet of the two days’ events, after we’d slept for a couple of hours of the trip from sheer exhaustion. The necessary conclusions are:
Taken together, all of these things contribute to building a mass movement. In addition, on a final, personal note, for this 66 year-old battle-scarred rebel, marching and demonstrating is good for both mental and physical health.
While all this was going on, a smaller political battle has been proceeding in Sydney. The peace prize sponsored by the NSW government and Sydney City Council, which has in the past been awarded to the likes of Mary Robinson and Nelson Mandela, was this year awarded to Hanan Ashrawi, the courageous representative of the Palestinian people.
The bourgeois media have gone nuts about this and the Zionist special interest group in Australia is particularly hostile and has been conducting a public campaign against awarding the prize to Ashrawi.
Surprisingly, the right-wing NSW Premier, Bob Carr, who has to present the prize, has dug in his heels against pressure not to present it, and has indicated he will present the prize.
He is a long-standing supporter of Israel, but he says Ashrawi is a legitimate representative of the Palestinians and he sees nothing wrong in presenting the prize, despite the public opposition of the Zionists.
The fact that Simon Crean felt obliged to explain Labor’s opposition to the Iraq invasion, and that Carr, who is a very shrewd politician, feels the need to persist in presenting the peace prize to Ashrawi is, in my view, a clear indication of a changing political mood in Australia. Meanwhile, the Australian Jewish Democratic Society has supported Carr’s stand.
LBJ sitdown was a defining event and George Bush comes to Australia