A brief history of Australian war resistance (rough draft)

At some point this will be a more edited, full and multimedia document. I’m not sure when that will be though, so I thought I’d put it out as is for now. Compiled for the centenary of the conscription referendum, 28/10/16

Of course, the first (mostly unacknowledged) war to take place in Australia was the invasion of white settlers and the resistance of aboriginal people. At the time, probably few considered this a “war” or opposition to it “resistance to war”. And yet many people, both white and aboriginal, put great effort into a peaceful and just solution to this conflict. I don’t here have a record of it, but that too is a piece of Australian history that deserves to be reclaimed.

A quick disclaimer: this is far from a comprehensive list. This list compiles some war resistance but there has been plenty more which also deserves to be remembered. Also, I am conscious making this list of the fallacy of “great men of history” – that we attribute changes in history to the actions of a select few gifted and influential (and mostly male) individuals. In some ways the nature of putting together this list means you have to stick to people who had a broad impact since I am not talking about a localised history. But in reading this list it should be remembered that no individual; no matter how courageous, intelligent or charismatic; ever acts in a vacuum and that for every action here there are scores of smaller unrecorded ones by everyday people that enabled it to happen. So with that out of the way…


When Great Britain join the Crimean war to help the Ottoman Empire fight Russia, there are meetings in Australia to raise funds supporting the British war effort. Some Australians speak up against the support, including Presbyterian minister, politician and republican John Dunmore Lang. Lang addressed one patriotic meeting saying he “did not ask whether the war is just or not because in either case the colony has nothing to do with it”. He went on to warn that by supporting Britain, Australia would potentially “transfer the Pacific Ocean, never before the seat of war, into the battle-field for the nations of Europe.”

Over the rest of the decade, Lang would remain an outspoken advocate of Australian neutrality in war. In 1858 he wrote “will any man tell me that it can ever be the duty of an Australian patriot to seek to involve his adopted country, with its millions of inhabitants, in the calamities of war whenever, in the complicated maze of European politics, Great Britain chooses to go to war with France, or any other great power, as we know she has done too often, and without the slightest necessity, already?”


Britain’s attempts to put down an indigenous Sudanese rebellion led Mustafa Ahmed (aka “The Mahdi”) lead only to defeat and the capture of General Charles Gordon. When Gordon is killed a colonial army is formed to go to Sudan.

700 troops from New South Wales are sent without consulting parliament by the attorney-general and acting premier WB Dalley. There is some dissent to the illegality of Dalley’s action, and in the Victorian parliament, member for Collingwood James Mirams said “I say unhesitatingly that this country did wrong, absolutely wrong, when it offered to send a contingent to engage in such a miserable, such a mean, such a contemptible, and such an unholy fight.”

The Australian War Memorial records: “the send-off was described as the most festive occasion in the colony’s history. Support was not, however, universal, and many viewed the proceedings with indifference or even hostility. The nationalist Bulletin ridiculed the contingent both before and after its return. Meetings intended to launch a patriotic fund and endorse the government’s action were poorly attended in many working-class suburbs, and many of those who turned up voted against the fund. In some country centres there was a significant anti-war response, while miners in rural districts were said to be in “fierce opposition”.”


Peter Airey, writing under the nom de plume Peter Luftig, wrote this in the Bulletin in response to proposed Australian involvement in the first Boer War:

Rub-a-dub-dub says the loud beating drum,

Country’s in danger, so come along, come.

Rifle on shoulder, the brave boys and tall

Bushman and farmer and miner come all.

But where is Sir Fat Paunch? Oh where does he stay?

Can the first in the feast, be the last in the fray?

Grip what you get and get what you can,

Is the battle cry of the businessman!


16,000 Australian troops go to South Africa to fight Afrikaners in the second Boer War.

The Australian Anti-War League forms during the war, protesting the war and the British pioneering use of concentration camps in South Africa. The Bulletin calls the war “a wanton act of blood and rapine”, and unions oppose the war as a capitalist venture.

In parliaments around the country (there is not a central Australian parliament until 1901), the war is hotly debated. In Queensland former premier Boyd Dunlop Morehead in parliament declares sympathy with the Boers and denounced the war as “the lust for gold and diamonds”. Labour opposition leader Anderson Dawson claimed “Our hospitals are starved; our libraries are being starved; and nearly all of our public institutions are being starved at the present time and the reason given by members of the Government is that we cannot afford to do any more, and yet they can afford to spend buckets of money in sending a mob of swashbucklers to South Africa to show off their uniforms.”

1914-19 WWI

Resistance to the first world war is widespread, but especially takes off when Labor PM Billy Hughes returns to Australia from Europe in 1916. Hughes declares that Australia is not pulling its weight in the war and that it will be needed to introduce conscription. With the unions against conscription, Hughes is unable to pass his desired law even through his own party, so he takes the issue of compulsory military service, for possibly the first time in the world, to a popular vote.

Australia already has conscription for war on the home front, and so the referendum question is somewhat convoluted: “Are you in favour of the government having, in this grave emergency, the same compulsory powers over citizens in regard to requiring their military service, for the term of this war, outside the Commonwealth, as it now has in regard to military service within the Commonwealth?”

The referendum sets into motion a massive and bitter campaign battle. Women on targeted by propaganda from both sides and on the anti side organisations like The Womens Peace Army and WILPF form. A favourite song of women against the war is an American tune called I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier. The song is made illegal under the War Precautions Act, but still sung at rallies and distributed as sheet music.

Some Christian groups like the Quakers and Melbourne catholic archbishop Daniel Mannix were outspoken against the war. Many Irish catholics, angered by the execution of the Easter Rising leaders, campaign against fighting a war for Imperial Britain. The unions and radicals like the IWW are the strongest anti-conscription force, launching strikes and printing propaganda despite extraordinarily repressive laws that make any anti-war material illegal.

Tom Barker of the IWW goes to jail for this famous poster, while future wartime PM John Curtin does a stint in prison for speaking at a demonstration. Papers like banned conscription paper The Ballarat Evening Echo avoids government seizure when railway workers smuggle it into Melbourne in their coal piles. In Melbourne it is snuck into horse stables from which 60,000 copies are distributed daily.

On October 28, 82% of the nation turn out to vote (voting was not yet compulsory – 73% had voted in the last federal election), and the result is a victory, by 52-48, for the no side.

The result comes as somewhat of a shock for the pro-conscriptionists. Overwhelmingly most media, governments, churches and generally “respectable” society had all been pro-conscription. Anticipating a yes vote, many men had already been forced to enlist. The troops, known as “Hugheseliers”, caused some commotion in the week leading up to the election when they marched through Sydney’s city in uniform exhorting bystanders to “vote no”.

Hughes responded by leaving the Labor party and forming with the opposition the Nationalist Party. After a sizeable election win in 1917, he tried again in December for a conscription referendum. Again the no vote won, this time by a bigger margin.

Again there is a heated campaign. A group of 12 IWW organisers are framed for burning down a warehouse and sent to prison for 12 years. After four years of their sentence there is a government enquiry and they are released.

A women’s organisation in Brisbane call a meeting at the School of Arts to support conscription.Margaret Thorp, a 25-year-old Quaker pacifist, rose to reject conscription and point out the futility of this attempt to overturn the recent national referendum. Her comments “precipitated an uproar”, a woman tried to force her out of the room, she was set upon by others, and “the gathering resolved itself into a seething mass of struggling women”.

Thorp gamely struggled on to the platform but other women surged up and knocked her down. She was rolled on the floor, kicked, punched and scratched, finally thrown out of the hall. Undeterred, she returned with a policeman who said she had a right to address a public meeting, made two more attempts to speak but was pushed out again as the national anthem chimed in above the uproar. Once more she reappeared but was still unable to get a hearing. The resolution of the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League was carried, conscription advocates “hurling the vilest insults at the ‘antis’”. An undaunted Thorp called for three cheers for no conscription and finally withdrew from the meeting.

The anti-war movement in WWI was large, varied and powerful. It grew out of an Australia which in its formative years was committed to radical egalitarianism, democracy and individual freedom.


Mary Gilmore, later to feature on Australia’s $10 note, wrote this during the war:

Must the young blood for ever flow?
Shall the wide wounds no closing know?
Is hate the only lantern of the stars,
And honour bastard but to scars?
And yet, the equal sun looks down
On kingly head and broken clown,
And sees, not friend and foe, but man and man,
As when these years began.


Returned soldier and Victoria Cross recipient Hugo “Jimmy” Throssell appears at Peace Day celebrations in Northam, Western Australia. He took the stage next to the West Australian Premier and received loud applause which turned to awkward silence when he began his speech, entitled “Why the war made me a socialist.”

He told of searching for his brother through trenches full of dead bodies, and described the war as futile and an imperialist venture. Throssell’s wife (and later successful writer) Katharine Susannah Pritchard recorded “you could have heard a pin drop. Jim himself was ghastly, his face all torn with emotion. It was terrible – but magnificent.”


The “Temple Of Peace” at Toowong cemetery is unveiled on December 6. Constructed by Richard Ramo, the temple looks much like a war memorial and in fact sits less than 50 metres from the ANZAC memorial.

Thousands of people attended the unveiling of the temple, where Ramo addressed the crowd, describing the temple as “a tribute to the dead, an exhortation to the living, a memorial for the victims of the lust of war, and an indictment against the rapacity and life-destroying agencies engendered by modern capitalism.”

The inscriptions of inside the temple – claiming that Ramo had three sons die in the first world war – seem to be untrue, though his motivation for doing so remains unclear.


Compulsory military training which had been Australian government policy since 1911 is abolished in 1929 with the return to power of the Labor Party.

When Frank Brennan as federal Attorney-General went to Geneva at the head of a delegation to the League of Nations, he said: “We have drawn our pen through the schedule of military expenditure with unprecedented firmness. We have reversed a policy which has subsisted in Australia for 25 years of compelling the youth to learn the art of war.”‘


Melbourne newspaper The Age complained about a lack of public support for the army in August, saying “There is a much stronger local pride in the foot-ball team than there is in the district military unit. Many sporting and social organisations can rely upon more generous support in

any enterprise than the drill hall.”


While history now records that Australia went to World War II to fight fascism, anti-war activism in the 1930’s was not aimed at Australian aggression towards fascists but rather its support. Robert Menzies, who was briefly PM in 1939 for the start of the war (and later Australia’s longest serving PM) had a year earlier gone on an official visit to Germany. He returned saying “it is a great thing for Germany to have arms.” Even after war was declared he expressed his “great admiration for the Nazi organisation of Germany” and said “we must not destroy Hitlerism, or talk about shooting Hitler.” Menzies also supported Japan’s invasion of China, and labelled opposition to it “inciting a provocative act against a friendly power.”

The Australian working class though had opposed fascism since the early 30’s, when unions and communists were the first targets of horrific repression and violence in Germany.


The Committee Against War and Fascism plan a national congress and organise for Jewish Czech journalist Egon Kisch to come as guest speaker. Kisch was an anti-war activist and communist in Germany who for his writing had been sent to concentration camps and had his books banned by Hitler.

When his ship the Strathaird arrived at Fremantle, it was boarded by immigration officers refusing Kisch entry to Australia and detaining him on the ship. On arrival in Melbourne though, Kisch jumped five metres from the ship to the pier. He broke his leg and was promptly arrested and returned to the ship. Meanwhile, lawyers launch a habeus corpus case on his behalf.

When the high court found that Kisch’s exclusion had been illegal, the Australian government changed strategy. Under the White Australia policy, “Any person who when asked to do so fails to write out a dictation passage of fifty words in a European language directed by the officer” would not be admitted. Kisch demonstrated his ability to speak a number of European languages, so eventually was asked to write the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic.

Another anti-war activist, Irishman Gerald Griffin, was also refused entry by the same means after being given the test in Dutch. Griffin then re-entered Australia under an assumed name and toured the country speaking at events unannounced.

Kisch’s right to enter Australia was again taken to the high court, where his refusal was again ruled illegitimate as Scottish Gaelic was not a valid European language under the act, plus the officer who gave the test could not himself speak Gaelic.

Prime Minister Joseph Lyons again detained Kisch, appealing to the British parliament to overrule the Australian court. Kisch was sentenced to three months prison for being an illegal migrant. This was again overruled by the Australian high court, this time because the department of immigration could not rule against someone who was already in the country.

By this time Egon Kisch had been given immense free publicity, and he travelled around the country speaking to thousands of people about fascism and the need for workers to resist it.


During Armistice Day commemorations members of the Victorian committee against war and fascism lay their own wreath pledging to do our utmost to prevent the imperialist war which now threatens.” The wreath is quickly removed by the police who deem it “offensive”.


Weeks after the Kristallnacht pogrom devastates Jewish communities across Germany, aboriginal people led by William Cooper march from Footscray to the German consulate. Cooper has recently been part of the “Day Of Mourning” and has no citizenship rights in his own country, but leads what has been called by the Yad Vesham Holocaust Museum “the only private protest against the Germans following Kristallnacht. The group is unable to present its petition to the German consulate, but Cooper decries “the cruel persecution of the Jewish people”.


Following the Japanese invasion of China, wharfies at Port Kembla in Wollongong refuse to load crude “pig” iron onto ships bound for Japan. They declare “success for the Japanese militarists in China will inspire them to further attacks on peaceful people including Australia.”

To break the ban, attorney-general Robert Menzies introduces a bill called the “Transport Workers Act” in which the government is able to hand out licences for working on the wharves to scabs willing to load the iron.

While Chinese people send food down from Sydney to support the strikers, Menzies travels to Wollongong to find his car blocked multiple times, his hotel picketed and a strike closing down all ten local coal mines. Menzies acquires the nickname “Pig Iron Bob”.


Unions and others hold massive outdoor meetings across Australia to protest Robert Menzies’ attempts to set up a national draft register for the coming war. Young men burn their draft cards whilst others fill out forms in the name of Menzies, Franco, Hitler, Stalin, Chamberlain, Blind Freddie and other notable figures.


Again conscription is a big political issue during wartime. As in World War One, conscripts are required to fight on Australian territory but not be sent overseas. Unlike World War One, this means conscript militia (“chocolate soldiers” as they were derisively called by the AIF soldiers) were forced to fight the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

After much heated debate in parliament, Prime Minister John Curtin (who had gone to jail for anti conscription activities in WWI) eventually successfully introduced a bill to the effect of what Hughes had tried to do in WWI – That in addition to Australian soil, conscipt could also be sent to “such other territories in the South-west Pacific area as the Governor-General proclaims as being territory associated with the defence of Australia.”

In the end, this bill was passed but never enacted. Conscript militia were not sent to fight overseas. And once again, opposition of trade unions and working class to conscription was the main reason.

Labor Transport Minister E.J. Ward, a veteran of the anti-conscription campaign in WWI, said in parliament “Today, honorable members opposite are parading their patriotism. I believe that you could not find a bigger group of Quislings in any country in the world. . .” He spoke, not for the first or last time, of Menzies’ behaviour in the first world war, when Menzies had declined to join the AIF although he was an officer in the Melbourne University Rifles. Could Menzies now support a motion which took away the individual’s right not to offer his services for war? He named other opponents across the floor who might, he suggested, be in the army now—among them Harold Holt, withdrawn from the AIF by Menzies in 1940 to be a minister. “The need for his services as a Minister no longer exists”. Ward remarked. “We may rightly ask this man to explain why he did not return to the Army.”


Brisbane factory worker and Baptist lay preacher Phil Hancox is sent to prison for six moths for refusing to take the oath for service in defence forces. Conscientious objectors were allowed to refuse to fight but legally had to register for non-combatant work.

Hancox was imprisoned at the Boggo Rd and Palen Creek gaols with about 30 other conscientious objectors, many of them Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses often would receive longer sentences or be asked to take the oath of allegiance again the day after their release as they were at the time considered a subversive organisation.

As primary producers could apply for exemption to conscription, in Brisbane two Quaker families set up a farm at Slacks Creek — which was then a country area well outside Brisbane. Called Paxton farm (Pax is the Latin for ‘peace’) it provided young people with the opportunity to work on a farm as an alternative to conscription. 


At the San Francisco conference for the formation of the United Nations, Australia is represented by Labor politician and former High Court Justice H.V. “Doc” Evatt.

The conference was called, and the charter already drafted, by the Great Powers: USA, Great Britain, France, the USSR and China. Evatt was prominent in challenging the power of these nations by negotiating a bloc of smaller nations to introduce amendments. American writer Cornelia Meigs wrote that Evatt was the generally acknowledged leader of the whole strength of the Smaller Powers … He had come armed and girded with relentless determination to see that the rights of the lesser nations did not disappear under the shadow of the greater ones.

Evatt had addressed the UN at San Francisco saying that no peace ‘can be permanent unless it has an adequate basis in economic justice… Real stability in the post-war world can be achieved only by carefully building an organisation that will do its utmost to assure the peoples of the world a full opportunity of living in freedom from want, as well as in freedom from external aggression’.

When the UN adoped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1948, Evatt signed in the document as President of the UN General Assembly, having been elected earlier that year. Australia had been one of the countries campaigning hardest for the creation of the document, and was one of the first countries to urge that economic and social rights should be included in the Declaration.


Australian Wilfred Burchett becomes the first Western journalist to report on the fallout from the atomic bombing in Hiroshima.

Arriving in Japan a week after the blast, Burchett travelled 400 miles alone from Tokyo to Hiroshima. When he arrived he saw “most terrible and frightening desolation in four years of war”.

Burchett became the first person to report on the effects of radiation poisoning, which was at the time being denied by the US military – “people are still dying, mysteriously and horribly — people who were uninjured by the cataclysm — from an unknown something which I can only describe as atomic plague.”

Despite attempts by Allied officials to censor the story, it appeared in London’s Daily Expess under the title “I Write This as a Warning to the World.”

Burchett would later also write about the effects of the Vietnam war on the North Vietnamese. Of his war reporting, he later wrote “My loyalty was to my own convictions and my readers. This demanded freedom from any discipline except that of getting the facts on important issues back to the sort of people likely to act — often at great self-sacrifice — on the information they received.”


The Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) was invaded by the Japanese during world war II. With Japan’s surrender, Indonesian independence is declared on August 17th, 1945.

When the Dutch arrive to take back the archipelago by force, Australian maritime trade unions take action in support of Indonesian self-determination. They set back Dutch ships intending to transport military arms and personnel from Australian ports, through a series of boycotts called “black bans”. Once the boycott was established in a few major ports, it quickly spread to other related industry unions such as boilermakers, engineers, iron-workers, ship painters and dockers, carpenters, storemen, clerks and tug crews.

During a protest of waterside workers in Sydney on September 28 outside the Dutch shipping companies and diplomatic offices, leaflets were distributed reading: “Dutch soldiers and officers should not get transport. No Dutch munitions should be touched. Repairs on Dutch ships, etc., must not be done. Dutch ships must not get coal. Tugs must not be made available to Dutch ships. Food, stores, etc., must not be provided to Dutch ships, offices, canteens or personnel. Dutch officers and seamen should not be taken to and from ships. In fact everything Dutch is black.”


A group of Sydney clergymen sign a “Declaration on World Peace”, saying War is a denial of everything for which we live – of our beliefs and of every creative urge. On all sides there is a yearning for the peace which can permit the flowering of all that is best. We suggest that a broad, representative section of the people in every city, town and country centre meet and discuss ways and means of winning the peace and saving humanity.

That led to the organisation of the Convention on Peace and War in September of that year. The convention was endorsed by a number of prominent Australians including clergy, academics, artists and even former Australian soccer and rugby league captains.

The event was accused in media and by PM Robert Menzies in parliament of being a communist front, with a resulting media blackout and refusal by a number of venues to accept the convention.

In the end 1000 people gathered for the five day convention in Sydney and then held a series of report back meetings and rallies around the country in October. The political persecution though meant there was not another national peace gathering for six years.

In 1965 Australia joins the US in Vietnam fighting against communist Viet Cong forces. The army is partially made up of conscripts. By the time Australia pulls out of the war in 1972, almost 60,000 troops from the country have been sent.

The campaign against the war began with Australians opposing the US presence in Vietnam supporting an undemocratic and repressive regime in South Vietnam against a communist one in what was essentially a civil war. As conscription became a bigger issue, much of the campaign was against the government forcing young men to go to war.


The anti-war cause receives help from an unexpected source when the Vice Squad guarantees publicity for anti-Vietnam literature by declaring it “obscene”. After Victorian police seized the American Atrocities in Vietnam pamphlet, booksellers had thousands of copies brought down from Sydney. As the Australian commented days later: “this action by the Victorian police provides a degree of advertisement beyond the dreams (and the pockets) of the Vietnam Action Committee. Another group notes that a pamphlet called How not to join the army “has become a financial asset to us… a bunch of slowly yellowing roneoed paper in the corridor upstairs suddenly became in the Government eyes the source of all dangerous criminal activity against the state and the army.”


Save our Sons (SOS), a non-sectarian anti-conscription group, is founded by fifteen Sydney women. Focused on challenging conscription of under-18s, they fought for the rights of conscientious objectors and draft resisters, by organising public meetings, rallies, teach-ins and protests and publishing and disseminating information. These women received much negative publicity, lost their jobs, were condemned as hysterical and were abused, assaulted, arrested and jailed. “We would be handing out leaflets to all the young men that turned up, sort of saying, “You don’t have to go through these gates. You don’t have to do this. There are alternatives.” Sometimes we’d get jeered at and we’d be told to, sort of, “Go home and get your husband’s dinner.”


Unions take action against the sending of Australian troops to Vietnam, including a 24 hour wharfie strike in Sydney that stops 37 ships from leaving the harbour.


US President Lyndon Baines Johnson tours Australia. PM Harold Holt declares Australia would go “all the way with LBJ” in Vietnam, but his public appearances are met with protests, especially in Sydney where Johnson is in a motorcade with NSW premier Bob Askin, where a number of anti-war protesters lie down under or in front of the car. Askin’s instructions are to “run the bastards over”.


Three army conscripts run for parliament in the federal election on an anti-war platform, since the law says those running for office are exempt from being forced to serve. When they fail to receive the required number of votes, they are forced to re-enlist. One, Brian King, refuses to do so and is sent to jail for 60 days.


Direct action against the war becomes more heated, with sit-ins, blockades of army barracks and draft offices, and protests outside American consulates. Resistance to the draft also grows, with a number of groups circulating material encouraging young men to refuse to register or to resist callups.

From mid-1969, some 8,000 people, including many academics (led by Professors Charles Birch and Charles Martin), politicians, writers (including Patrick White), unionists, students and church leaders, signed up to Committee of Defiance statements urging young men not to register for national service and risking 1 year’s gaol themselves under the Crimes Act.

A number of Australians go to prison for draft resistance. One, Geoff Mullens, tells the jury at his trial “I am not a machine. I am not to be used as others will [in this war]. I can, as Bertrand Russell asked, ‘remember my humanity’. If you cannot, I pity you”

An underground network for draft resisters is also set up to enable them to avoid arrest, often making public appearances then escaping. At Melbourne University in September 1971, four draft resisters announced in advance that we were going to take up sanctuary at the union building. On the third day of taking up residence in the Student Union, 150 Commonwealth police staged a dawn raid. Obstructed by a nonviolent blockade of supporters linking arms, the police failed to catch any of the resisters.

Other notable events included the spontaneous release of “scarlet pimpernel” resister, Mike Matteson, by 800 Sydney University students, on April 24 1971, using bolt cutters to free him from being handcuffed to two Commonwealth policemen; and Matteson’s successful escape from an ABC studio as he was being interviewed on “This Day Tonight” at the same time as the Attorney General, Ivor Greenwood, who immediately ordered police to the studio to arrest him.

1969 also saw the release of at the time the most successful Australian anti-war song ever. Written by Johnny Young and performed by Ronnie Burns, Smiley peaked at #3 in the national chart, including the chorus Smiley
You’re off to the Asian War
And we won’t see you smile no more

In the early 70’s, the moratorium movement saw mass demonstrations against the war, with up to 200,000 people across the country disrupting cities in marches and sit-ins. With the anti-war movement having grown from radical fringes to the mainstream, the Labor party won the 1972 election on a platform that included the withdrawal of troops.

The effects of the Vietnam war on young men who had been forced to go was also the subject of protest. Two of Australia’s most famous and iconic anti-war songs focussed on the experiences of soldiers in Vietnam – Redgum’s A Walk In The Light Green (Only 19) and Cold Chisel’s Khe Sanh.


Three weeks after East Timor declares its independence from Portugal, it is invaded (with the tacit support of Australia) by Indonesian military.

The East Timorese people’s only link with the outside world is a radio transmitter in Darwin that picks up their communications. “Radio Maubere” would then share reports with the world.

The Australian government repeatedly try to shut down the transmitter, forcing the Timor supporters into “cat and mouse” games. The transmitter is stored in a van that drives to hidden bush locations, and at one point a new transmitter is needed to be smuggled in to occupied Timor. Brian Manning was one of the people who for years snuck around transmitting the signals. His son later said “the Indonesians were in there to systematically reduce the population by any means necessary. So these people were just killing people, and these stories had to get out.”


The USS Truxtun arrives in Melbourne and is greeted by thousands of wharfies walking off the job as part of a black ban on US military visits. Without the assistance of union tugboats and forced to navigate around a flotilla of protesters, the boat finally docks and the crew is met by a demonstration of over 1,000 people.

Over the next decade, visits from US warships are regularly protested and disrupted at ports around the country, with blockade flotillas, ships daubed with paint or blood, banner drops and even attempts at dropping paint bombs from a hang glider.


Export of Australian uranium to nuclear weapon states like Iran (then still under the West-supported power of the Shah) is met with mass protests and disruption. Uranium from Queensland mine Mary Kathleen is exported through Brisbane, where hundreds of people repeatedly block the port or rally in the city. Street marches are at the time illegal in Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland, meaning any protester can be (and often is) arrested.


Perth residents and ex-Navy personnel Bill and Lorraine Ethel remortgage their home and buy a sailboat. Dubbing the boat the “Pacific Peacemaker”, they (along with their three young children and some other crew members) set sail for the US West Coast where they attempt to disrupt the launch of the first USS Trident nuclear submarine.


The Building Workers Industrial Union places a black ban on the construction of nuclear shelters, condemning those recently advertised in national newspapers as “seekingto exploit for profit the current arms race”.


National feminist peace coalition “Women for Survival” co-ordinates a two week vigil in November at the Joint Defence Space Research Facility at Pine Gap. The vigil aimed to show solidarity with women’s peace camps at Greenham Common (UK) and Comiso (Italy) and to bring to public attention the secrecy of the US Base. The protest draws 800 women to central Australia in the summer heat. On November 13th women scrambled over the fence and held a Boston Tea Party on the green lawns of the Base, leading to mass arrests of 111 women who each gave their name as ‘Karen Silkwood’, the murdered American nuclear whistleblower.


Women hold alternative ANZAC Day comemorations in all capital cities to remember women affected by wars. In Sydney the cenotaph is graffitied with the slogan “Even heroes rape in war” and “Lest we forget the women raped in wars”.


In the December federal election, the Nuclear Disarmament Party run for senate in all states. High profile NSW candidate Peter Garrett polls 9.6% of the vote but fails to win a seat due to adverse preferences. In Western Australia though, peace activist Jo Vallentine is elected.

Vallentine would remain in the senate through the next two elections but resigned due to ill health in 1991. During her time as a senator she was arrested in 1987 trespassing at Pine Gap. After leaving politics she has carried on with peace activism, and in 2015 was arrested at the gates of Shoalwater Bay with the “Quaker grannies”.

In Perth, ten people are arrested by police for painting “human shadows” on the footpath as part of an international action to mark the fortieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.


With the Pine Gap US inteligence base undergoing an overhaul, protestors delay the landing of Galaxy C-5 transport planes from landing by riding bikes onto the runway. When the plane does eventually land it is smeared in orange paint.


With Pine Gap’s decade long lease up for renewal, peace activists, aboriginal traditional owners and anti-colonial activists from Pacific nation Kanaky gather in the desert. Mass trespass actions lead to the arrest of over 100 people.


A qualified lawyer going by the name Citizen Limbo in 1987 trespassed on Pine Gap. After being fined $250 he appealed to the Supreme Court claiming he had not had a fair hearing. For the appeal he issued summonses to PM Bob Hawke, US head of Pine Gap Glen Kerr and Australian deputy-head of Pine Gap Peter Woodruff. When they failed to appear he demanded warrants be put out for their arrest. The court rejected the warrants and dismissed the appeal, later handing Citizen Limbo a $30,000 bill for court costs.


There are protests across the country against Australia’s involvement in the Gulf War. In Fremantle, a cannon at the war monument is painted pink with purple polka dots. In Melbourne, 27 swimmers form a peace sign in the water before moving to the bow of the HMAS Westralia to attempt to stop the ship from leaving. In Brisbane NO BLOOD FOR OIL is written in human blood on the wall of the defence recruitment centre.


On 23 August, while HMAS Adelaide was about to depart Perth for the Gulf, Leading Seaman (LS) Terry Jones leaves the ship without lawful excuse. While being absent without leave, Jones stated:

I am not a coward and I would be prepared to fight for my country, but I am taking a political stand because this is not our war, we are just following the Americans. I am prepared to die to defend my country but not to protect United States oil lines.

Jones is court-martialled and convicted of absenting himself without leave. He was reduced in rank, forfeited 4 days’ pay, and received a 21-day suspended sentence. He was discharged at his own request thereafter.


On January 1st; Australian Ciaron O’Reilly, along with New Zealander Moana Cole and Americans Sue Franknel and Bill Strait, enter the Griffis air force base in New York state where planes are stored ready to be deployed to Iraq. They call themselves the ANZUS ploughshares (named after the military treaty of their three home countries and the tradition of disarming weapons inspired by a biblical prophecy of “swords beaten into ploughshares).

Bill and Sue pour blood over a B-52 bomber and crack the fuselage with a hammer. Ciaron and Moana meanwhile write on the runway ‘No more bombing of children — Hiroshima, Vietnam, Middle East or anywhere else. Love your enemies. Isaiah strikes again.” They take to the runway with hammers, ripping up the tarmac.

For destruction of government property, the group are sentenced to a year in prison.


In November, the Australia International Defence Exhibition arms fair is held in Canberra. Over 1,000 protesters blockade the exhibition with pickets, sit-ins, tripods and car wrecks. At one point, with police seemingly about to violently break up the protest, the crowd begins a spontaneous singalong of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. The defence exhibition is never held again.


Peace activists mark the anniversary of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor with annual protests at the Canungra Land Warfare Centre in South-East Queensland, where the Australian military conducts military training with Indonesian troops.

Actions include funeral processions carrying coffins, photographic exhibitions, the destruction of papier mache rifles and a reprint of flyers Australia had distributed to East Timorese in WWII entitled Your Friends Will Not Forget You.

Many are arrested in the actions, peaking at 19 in 1997.


In response to French testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific, massive protest rallies are held  around Australia. In Sydney 40,000 people rally at the French consulate. There is also a widespread boycott of French products like wine and cheese, even postal workers refusing to deliver French mail.

The Australian government takes part along with other Pacific nations in an International Court of Justice case led by New Zealand to intervene in French testing. The case (like a similar case Australia and had brought in 1974) is rejected.


On the 53rd anniversary of the Nagasaki bombing, Ciaron O’Reilly and Treena Lenthall enter the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Kakadu national park, Northern Territory. On a mine excavator they spray paint the words “Nagasaki”, “Horoshima”, “Chernobyl” and a town in Iraq that had been poisoned by depleted uranium. They cut the cables of the machine and smash the ignition with a hammer.

They identify the action as part of the Ploughshares tradition of disarmament actions. In court they show as evidence David Bradbury’s film “Jabiluka” about the campaign of the Mirrar traditional owners to stop the mine. They are found guilty, sent to prison and ordered to pay over $6,000 in damages.


As the Iraq war looms, Australia participates in a worldwide wave of demonstrations against the Iraq war, with at least 200, 000 protesters taking to the streets in Sydney as well as large protests in other cities and regional areas. An 82-year-old protester said “I’ve been through one war and that was enough,” she said. “I’m dead against wars, and especially this one.”

Women in Byron Bay and Sydney join with women around the worl in “baring witness” for peace. In Byron, over 750 naked women with their bodies spell out the words “NO WAR” with a heart shape around it on a hillside. Several weeks later in Sydney, a group of over 300 spell out the same words on a football field.


On March 18, the day the first bombs fell on Iraq, Dave Burgess and Will Saunders climb one of the wings of the opera house and paint NO WAR in giant red letters.

They are arrested and later sentenced to 9 months of weekend detention and forced to pay $150,000 in restitution. The image of the defaced opera house though lives on in snow domes and graffiti tributes.

A culture-jamming group called The Lonely Station defaces a number of billboards against the war.


Launceston man Barry Jessup attempts a citizen’s arrest of Prime Minister John Howard as he enters his hotel. Jessup grabs Howard by the coat sleeve and announces he is arresting him for crimes against humanity in Iraq. Jessup is charged with disorderly conduct and eventually given a 12 month good behaviour bond.


Malcolm Kendall-Smith, an Australian born Medical Officer in the British Royal Air Force, refuses to attend training for his deployment to Iraq, saying he “would not be complicit in an act of aggression”. Kendall-Smith had previously applied for an early release from the military which had been refused.

He was court-martialled for refusing to attend training, where he was sentenced to eight months imprisonment, fined 20,000 pounds and discharged from the army. The Judge-Advocate told him “Those who wear the Queen’s uniform cannot pick and choose which orders they will obey.”


Visiting American peace activist Scott Parkin is deported as a “threat to national security” despite never being charged with any crime and a history of non-violent protest. In response, peace groups around the country hold protests, including a “mass deportation” where activists turn up to the Melbourne federal police office with packed suitcases offering to be deported for having taken part in protests. Attorney-general Phillip Ruddock is confronted at a speaking engagement by activists in Gandhi masks and handcuffs.


Adele Goldie, Donna Mulhearn, Jim Dowling and Bryan Law; under the name Christians Against ALL Terrorism; enter Pine Gap in white lab coats for a “citizen’s inspection” of the secretive US spy base.

The four are arrested and become the first people ever charged under the 50 year old Defence (Special Undertakings) Act. For trespass on the base they face up to seven years imprisonment.

When the judge awards only fines rather than prison sentences, the prosecution appeals to the High Court. The government ends up with further embarrassment though when the defendants counter appeal and have their charges dismissed on the grounds that the prosecution have to prove Pine Gap is indeed a “defence facility”.

2005-2015, Rockhampton

With the introduction of biennial joint training exercises between the Australian and US militaries, peace activists begin a tradition of “peace pilgrimages”, trespassing on the Shoalwater Bay training area and disrupting the training exercises.

Over the years there have been over 50 arrests at the exercises, with actions including mock funeral processions, frisbee games (as opposed to “war games”), the planting of a “peace shrine” on the base (which unbeknownst to the army, is still there) and Quaker grannies serving morning tea.


On the 5th anniversary of the Iraq invasion, a new group is formed comprised of military veterans opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stand Fast announces they denounce these wars because soldiers are ordinary people, too many of whom have died or returned with psychological scars. They also aimed to debunk the myth that “If you’re against the war, you’re against the troops.”


Wikileaks, an organisation started by Australian computer hacker and activist Julian Assange, releases to the public a cache of nearly 400,000 field reports from the US war in Iraq, later revealed to have been leaked by US intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.

The files include the infamous video dubbed “Collateral Murder”, depicting a US helicopter gunning down Reuters journalists and then the unarmed bystanders who came to check on their bodies. It also documents thousands of civilian deaths that had not been publicly reported, and failure by US authorities to act on reports of abuse by Iraq forces and US contractors.


In 2010, four Christian peace activists enter the secretive Swan Island SAS base in Victoria. Coming across a switchboard, they turn off the power and then hit the emergency stop button on a satelite dish.

They are arrested and charged with trespass. When the court later dismisses their charges, they respond by that afternoon returning to the base and blocking the entrance, leading to another nine arrests.

The event becomes an annual “peace convergence”, with activists regularly blocking the gate and trespassing on the base. In 2014, four activists trespassing on the base are assaulted by SAS personnel, leading to an internal defence investigation.

2011, Rockhampton

Bryan Law announces months before the Talisman Sabre exercises that he is intending to damage an attack helicopter in the tradition of “ploughshares actions”. The announcement causes quite a stir in Rockhampton, and for several months Bryan is covered and often condemned in the local news.

When the exercises arrive, Bryan crosses the tarmac at Rockhampton airport and, using a garden mattock, punches a hole in an Australian Euro-Tiger attack helicopter. A television crew is on hand to film the whole thing.

Bryan is charged with malicious damage, but dies before his scheduled trial in 2013. His friend Graeme Dunstan though, who drove him to the airport and helped him open the gate, faces the same charges. After three and a half days in court in which he represented himself, Graeme is eventually found guilty, given a two year suspended prison sentence and ordered to pay $160,000 in damages.

Brisbane, 2011

The 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan passes by with hardly a mention – by this stage it has been going on longer than Australia’s involvement in the first and second world wars combined. In Brisbane, four peace activists mark the anniversary with a vigil at the Enoggera Barracks to show their continuing resistance to the war. After blocking the entrance gates for over an hour, the four are arrested. They are later found guilty in court despite producing as evidence the Geneva Convention on rules of warfare.

Alice Springs, 2016

Several hundred peace activists converge in Alice Springs to protest the 50th anniversary of the Pine Gap lease being signed. Amongst various protest actions, six “peace pilgrims” walk on to the Pine Gap base to conduct a musical lament for the deaths caused there.


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2 responses to “A brief history of Australian war resistance (rough draft)

  1. Addison Road Community Centre Honour Roll for Peace Opening Ceremony (Sydney).

    We just came across this incredible image of our front gates in a book! The pillars you can see in the photo are where the Honour Roll is being mounted. The Save Our Sons movement pictured here held anti-conscription protests all throughout the Vietnam war, and are an inspiration for commemorating the role of peace heroes!

    This Friday the 28th of October marks 100 years since Australia voted ‘No’ in a plebiscite on conscription.

    Activities for the day include:
    Antiwar and peace activists forum: 12pm-5pm (Gumbramurra Hall)
    Unveiling of the Honour Roll for Peace: 6pm-7 pm (front entrance)
    Pemulway exhibition: 7pm (Stirrup Gallery)
    Denis Kevans Memorial Benefit Concert for the Agent Orange Justice Campaign: 7.30pm-10pm (Gumbramurra Hall)
    More info on the Anti-Conscription Centenary Week can be found here:



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