Conference Report: Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement 1965-1975

Des Moore

On the weekend of the 22nd-23rd September 200 I, the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History conducted the highly successful Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement 1965-1975 conference at Sydney University’s Women’s College. This brought together participants to reflect on, discuss and debate ,events and issues in five main thematic areas:

  1. Anti War movement
  2. Student movement & the New Left
  3. Sexual politics: women’s liberation movement; Gay and Lesbian rights
  4. Race politics: Aboriginal rights; anti-apartheid movement
  5. The labour movement: trade unions; The Australian Labor Party

The participants gave short talks on their topics outlining the roles of their organisations. So we had Noreen Hewitt talking about the Save Our Sons group, Michael Matteson about the draft resisters, Jack Cambourn on Trade Union support and Charlie Brown on Catholics for Peace, with the session introduced and chaired by Bev Symons. Bob Gould earned the reputation of the $2 million man when he discussed his Special Branch files from his anti-war movement activities. The Second Session, chaired by Rowan Cahill, a former student activist, showed how the anti-Vietnam War struggle radicalised many students (especially through the brutality of the police) who, along with members of the “old left” formed the new left. At the end of each session folk singers, including John Dengate, Margaret Walters and John Warner, sang songs relevant to the session, such as the Sydney University Regiment song, and the Equal Pay Song after the 3rd Session.

The women’s movement was also a beneficiary from the increased questioning of the status quo brought about by the anti-Vietnam War movement. Joyce Stevens outlined some of the principles of feminism such as collective work, needing critical discussion with socialist and Marxist groups. Lyndall Ryan outlined her feelings of dissatisfaction from the ALP because of her acceptance of feminism. Although the women’s movement believed it was not fully catered for in existing left organisations the lesbian movement found that the aims of the feminist organisations (such as the WEL) did not fully meet their needs so they had to establish their own organisations. However they did get some support from humanists and civil libertarians, but even some left wing organisations regarded them as degenerates. Their early campaigning was hampered by the difficulty in getting speakers – as this immediately “outed” them, often putting their employment in jeopardy. Nevertheless, they did campaign – against the use of aversion therapy on homosexuals, in support of Penny Short (a dismissed lesbian teacher – found “medically unfit” for teaching) and against the trade union May Day Queen. Gays claimed to have introduced humour into the federal elections when one stood against Billy McMahon with slogans such as “I’ve got my eyes on Billy’s Seat” and “Vote for a Homosexual Who Lives In the Electorate”. Shane Ostenfeld detailed some of the assistance their movement received from Trade Unions, especially over police entrapment of gay teachers, mainly after 1976 when teacher unions adopted a policy calling for the abolition of all sexual discrimination.

Sunday 23rd September started with sessions on racial politics. Brian Aarons gave a background to the establishment of the Student Action for Aborigines which launched Australia’s “Freedom Rides” in 1965. Both Gary Williams and Dulcie Flower gave Aboriginal perspective on the “Freedom Rides” and their impact up to the tent embassy. They believed that the bus trip was the catalyst to many more people finding out about the living conditions of Aborigines in small country towns of NSW and Southern Queensland. Dulcie also spoke of the repressive conditions on the missions during the Protectionist era, and how activist Aborigines would get support from outsiders, usually teachers, in the campaign leading to the 1967 Commonwealth Referendum, and the repeal, in 1972 in NSW, of laws keeping them on the missions. She also mentioned that on one deputation Prime Minister Menzies offered the delegation a drink and Kath Walker immediately pointed out that if he did that in Queensland he would have been gaoled.

Meredith Burgmann spoke about how the anti-Vietnam War Movement also radicalised her and also how her reading brought her to focus on the Apartheid movement. Early in her “career” of opposing Australia’s involvement with South Africa, she and others used dye bombs to help break up swimming trials at Drummoyne pool as well as demonstrating at basketball matches and surf life-saving competitions. Peter McGregor found the Anti-Vietnam War Movement a similar inspiration and he too, used sabotage in campaigning against Springbok Tours of the early 1970s. John Myrtle explained more of the tactics, how ‘CARIS’ (Campaing Against Racism in Sport) was set up by John and Meg Brink and Hazel Jones to organise the more moderate support (from people such as the Rev. Alan Walker) who were not attracted to the acts of sabotage, they did leafleting and sought media coverage. John Myrtle also made a plea for anyone with documents pertaining to these activities to contact Jim Andrighetti at the Mitchell Library.

In the first of the labour movement sessions, Diane Fieldes gave an overview of trade union activity from the gaoling of Clary O’Shea (1969) which sparked off industrial unrest, to the growth of white collar unionism. The Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) had been a bastion of the Right Wing, in which bashing and blacklisting of militants was common until the Left won office in 1961, according to Paul True. Then the Union became involved in wider issues – about the quality of life for workers, even outside of working hours. These were the days of the Gre”en Bans. Tom McDonald of the BWIU explained the workings of the Arbitration Commission and why Unions had to continue strikes and other industrial activities, even against its decisions (such as the gaoling of O’Shea). Joe Palmada outlined the role of the Communist Party of Australia in Union activities with its emphasis on shop committees; while Barry Unsworth spoke about how ALP Governments enshrined reforms in legislation until the defeat of the Renshaw Government by the Askin Liberal Party.

The final session looked at changing ALP politics in the period. Bruce Childs and Race Mathews looked at the impact of the ALP Split of the 1950s on this period and how left-right factions behind Cairns and Whitlam were able to overcome this legacy in the 1972 election. Issues such as how to oppose the Vietnam War and still avoid an electoral drubbing, and the dropping of support for the White Australia Policy, were taken up by Graham Freudenberg, while mainly Young Labor politics of the period were outlined by Suzanne Jamieson.

I am a history teacher so I found all of these issues interesting from a professional viewpoint. However, I also lived through the period and was active in the Anti-Vietnam War movement, active in radicalising sections of the student movement (through the Trainee Teachers Association – a Branch of the N~W Teachers Federation – which was not looked at over the weekend), in the Union movement and the anti-apartheid movement, so the weekend conference renewed my knowledge of these events and gave me the opportunity to again meet former activists. I know that people say nostalgia is not as good as it used to be, but I thoroughly enjoyed the Sydney Branch of the ASSLH’s Social Protest Movements and the labor Movement 1965-1975 Conference.