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Work – A personal history

A friend once gave me a definition of “vocation” as “where your abilities meet the world’s needs”. I think she said it was from one of those new agey pop psychology writers, though google attributes it to Aristotle. But whoever said it, that definition has never left me and I have yet to ever hear a better definition of what it means to do meaningful work.

Some people will always argue they are the exception, but I still think it’s safe to say that the employment of most of us does not meet this definition. Most work neither uses our abilities nor meets the world’s needs very well; some of it is actively destructive towards society and the planet. In the end the reason for this is that the logic that governs our world is not abilities, not needs, but purely profit.

And so work – that human impulse to contribute something towards making a better world – is deformed into the slow dripping water torture of pointless jobs, endless bureaucracy, demeaning bosses, fear of losing your job, and plain old exploitation that is given the cruelly ironic name of “making a living”.

I am of the belief that work can be rescued and reformed into something fulfilling, rewarding and useful – something that inspires us rather than drains us, a place where our abilities meet the world’s needs. And in this article I’m going to share a few shifts in how we perceive work that might help us get there. I’m also going to share examples of how I’ve tried to put them into practice.

I do this not to boast about my own achievements or because I believe everyone should do the same (after all, that definition would suggest that what a fulfilling vocation looks like should be different for every person); I do it because most of what I write here is already written in other places. And yet jobs are getting more oppressive and monotonous. Theory is good, but we also need practical ways to try to change how we work.

When I was younger I enjoyed work – I liked my first job (at a fast food chain) much more than I did the school work which was supposedly going to guarantee me a better future. The tangible results of working together as a team to serve customers were more rewarding than the abstract idea of studying things I wasn’t really interested in with a view to some future employment (things I was interested in I studied obsessively – didn’t help my marks!). I worked hard at it too. It seems hard to believe given how my life has turned out, but at the end of my first year of paid employment I had a fancy certificate saying I was “employee of the year”.

Other jobs I had as a young adult included working at a supermarket and working as a labourer for tradesmen. Especially labour work gave me another reason to enjoy work – under the traditional gender roles I had grown up around, there is something very manly about getting up early, doing hard physical work, getting dirty and going home tired.

But still these jobs didn’t fulfil me in the way a true vocation should. I didn’t at that stage have an inkling of what my vocation might be, but I intuitively recognised this when I turned down a couple of opportunities for apprenticeships in different trades. The only reason I needed was imagining myself in ten years time completely bored and wondering why I was still doing this job. These jobs didn’t especially use my natural abilities very well (even that idea of masculinity, as powerful as it was, belonged to someone else not me); and I didn’t really feel like I was contributing much to any great need in the world.

A couple of years out of high school I ended up studying again. Theology was the degree, job prospects extremely limited. Not only that, but within touching distance of getting my degree I stopped studying, impatient to do something else. I was a self-defeating careerist. Yet I was getting closer to discerning a true vocation – theology was what I was interested in and could prepare me for what I wanted to do in the future. Plus having youth allowance cover most of my expenses meant that the building site I worked on for most of my time studying – the new building of the Sydney church I was part of – I could do mostly for free, only invoicing them for my hours worked when I had run out of money.

Now unpaid work is not something I always recommend – especially if someone somewhere is making a profit off your labour. The current prevalence of unpaid internships is just another addition to the list of terrible things about work. But the problem with paid work is that just because somebody is paying you money (and let’s be absolutely clear here – as a worker, you make money for your employers, not the other way around), it is assumed that this work is automatically your top priority and every other part of your life should revolve around the hours they want you to work. Plus regardless of your abilities, you do things the way your boss tells you too, again because they are paying you. There are all kinds of ways we try to match our abilities with the world’s needs, all kinds of things that could be considered work. But there is usually only one standard by which we measure their importance – money.

In the end the reason we do this is because we need money to survive. This is what I discovered once I stopped studying and went back to work. I wanted to change the world, to change my life and to try different ways of doing both. But I had to pay for rent (not cheap in Sydney) and food, and so ended up juggling a variety of jobs in an attempt to have enough money to get by without having my life taken over by a full-time job.

It was hard, and often if a short-term job dried up I didn’t make enough to pay the rent. Which was a bit demoralising. But meeting people who shared my desire to live beyond just making a living, I discovered that you could eat for free from the bins of supermarkets. And that you could avoid rent by shacking up in abandoned houses. I already knew that most things we are told we need we don’t really – an idea was germinating in my head.

I remember the day I decided I was going to quit money. There was a protest by the asylum seekers locked up at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. A detainee had committed suicide, and it sparked the rest to burn furniture and climb on the roof in protest. A group of us went out to Villawood to show our solidarity and to talk about their situation with locals and interested observers. When the protesters said they were going for another day, we decided we would too. Except that night my job called, asking me to work the next day. I couldn’t say no either – because I needed to pay rent and because saying no might mean I got less shifts in the future (unbelievably, there was no roster – we were expected to wait by the phone for a call to work and to be available when it came).

shelf-stackThat next day, as I stacked supermarket shelves, I resolved that no longer would economics dictate work for me. Within a few months, I had given away most of my possessions, moved out of my rented house and quit my jobs. I was free to do the work that mattered to me.

That change, at 24 years old, is one of the defining moments of my life and certainly a key point in my exploration of what it means to do meaningful work. Freed of economic needs and cultural norms; I could begin the process of figuring out how to meet my abilities with the world’s needs.

An early discovery was that despite all those years of cursing the alarm clock and longing for days off, I actually really liked and needed work. As I hit the road and explored new cities, I found myself searching for the connection with others that comes from achieving something together, for the feeling of fulfilment that comes from contributing something to the world. I could live very comfortably off the waste of our society and do very little; yet I would quickly, in whatever city I ended up in, amass a steady schedule of volunteering at different things. I jumped at the chance to participate in working bees. Often without much of a home of my own to maintain, I would clean the houses of my friends, usually much to their bemusement.

With that discovery made, I also began to look at work in a different way; and to believe that maybe the distinction between work and leisure need not be as defined as we make it. As the rhetoric of “self-care” becomes more and more widespread, the work/leisure distinction is becoming stronger than ever. We are told we need to set aside “me-time” – to do activities we find fun and relaxing away from other responsibilities. I certainly don’t dispute this, especially as new technology enables employment to colonise more and more of our lives. But the problem is that most self-care literature doesn’t question the single most destructive thing for all of our selves – that economics is continually given priority over human needs. I believe in self-care, but think it should include critiquing the kind of work we do, and asking why we find it so draining.

Long before I gave up money I developed a habit of staying behind after events I attended to help pack up. It was helpful to to others, but it was also an excellent way to meet others and it transformed my own role from passive consumer to active participant. Now I could make a lifestyle of it – I did hard physical work, sat through marathon political meetings, played music for people, or hung out cooking with my friends. Which were work? Did it matter? I was under no compulsion to do any of them, I maybe saw some value in them; but still I did these things because for whatever reason, I enjoyed them.

Thinking about this, an interesting example that especially comes to mind is Food Not Bombs. A world wide movement of communal cookups that serve food for free in public places, I have regularly done Food Not Bombs in various cities for many years now. Like a lot of things that rely on volunteer labour, Food Not Bombs is famous for burning out its participants. Certainly in Brisbane it was for a long time a real struggle to get a functional collective going that could do all the work required to make it happen. In fact, for several years, I pretty much single-handedly kept Brisbane Food Not Bombs going – every week I would dumpster-dive food on a Thursday night, bring it to the kitchen on a Friday afternoon, cook meals (usually with a few helpers, though not always), serve it up on the street and then clean up afterwards. When I left town for a while, it would stop happening. I don’t say this to boast – I’m much more proud of my achievement now that we have an actual sustainable collective. The point of this example is that I managed to feed countless people, use food that would otherwise have been wasted, and offer an example of a non-money based way of relating to others. And I managed to do this not because it was successful (it was the source of much despair), or because I was under any compulsion to do it. The reason I kept coming back every Friday (and still do) was in the end because I enjoyed doing it.

Erasing the distinction between work and leisure opens up all kinds of possibilities – what is work anyway? Because our usual definition – the thing you get paid to do – obviously no longer applied. That definition fails for multiple reasons anyway – as the feminist movement has long pointed out, not all work which enables economic growth is paid anyway, and for a long time women have been expected to do the home labour that allows men to go to work without being paid for it. But another interesting point is that some people do for free what others get paid for. So why is one “work” and the other not? To use myself again as an example, I play music for fun and because I love music. Occasionally I get paid for it, but mostly not. I think of music as a fairly self-indulgent activity, but the reality is that many people get paid for making music. Same goes for writing, playing sport, even reading to try to understand the world. I will argue that all these things are worth doing, although not because the fact that someone somewhere gets paid for it gives them some kind of legitimacy. No, something is worth doing if you feel it contributes something to the world, in whatever way. Isn’t that the purpose of work?

So the horizons of work are thrown wide open. You can see why I struggled when I’d meet people and they’d invariably ask “what do you do?” This question always frustrated me anyway, because when we ask each other “what we do”, it always implies their paid employment, whether or not that is where their true passions or skills lie. For many people it’s their most hated part of life! Coming back again to that definition of where our abilities meet the world’s needs, to achieve that requires investigation of what our abilities actually are – something which the economic impetus of employment rarely allows us to do. Not only are our work options limited to those things which can make money for someone, we are expected to specialise in one task – the basis of capitalist exchange.

For some people, specialising in one task is perfect. But for many of us, we have diverse skills and diverse interests. Finding fulfilling work is easier if it involves a variety of tasks. Not only that, but to discover our skills often requires the time, freedom and support to try new things. One of the earliest things I started doing after quitting money was to get a pen and write. I had never really written creatively before as an adult, but I enjoyed it and other people seemed to enjoy reading what I wrote. They would even thank me for new insights I had given them – in a tiny way, my abilities were filling a need. Yet what I wrote offered no commercial potential, and I didn’t feel that writing was especially my calling any more than other things were. In other words, without the freedom to experiment, I never could have discovered this part of my vocation. Similarly, I simply fell into doing radio journalism because there was a need for people at 4ZZZ in Brisbane. I had never really seen myself as a journalist, but it has subsequently become a huge part of my life, and something I think I am reasonably good at – as well as being something there is an undeniable need for.

“What I do” has always been very varied, and I doubt I’m alone in preferring it that way. In fact, truly trying to match our abilities with the world’s needs probably means changing tasks as we discover new sides of ourselves and the needs of the world around us shift. A rigid, specialised workforce causes issues when technological or societal changes make some jobs obsolete. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Over two years after I had left the paid workforce, I got a call from a friend. He is the boss of a disability support organisation, and he told me they had a new paid role open up, and I was the person they thought should fill it. For all the reasons I have already mentioned, I was very hesitant to take it up. I hadn’t missed paid employment, nor had I missed the complications that having money to your name brings. Plus I liked being a crazy example of someone trying to live a very different way. But the work was something I thought worthwhile (I had been doing a pretty similar job as a volunteer for quite a while anyway) and they seemed to think I had something particular to offer the task. Half a day a week was hardly the most strenuous workload either, and I figured the money could come in handy. So with much consternation (I did the job for two months before I even filled out the paperwork for pay, and even then it took my boss telling me his supervisors were on his back about it), I re-entered the world of paid employment.

For three and a half years now I have worked in that job. I believe I’ve contributed something to the world, and to be honest that money has come in handy. But I have continued to treat that job as only part of a broader oeuvre of work that I do, and my employers have supported me in that way too – giving me time off when I have asked for it, and not been fussed when they get a letter from the government saying my criminal record has changed and they need to re-evaluate whether I am morally fit for the job.

I mention this especially because obviously not everyone wants to live the kind of lifestyle that allowed me to experiment with work. But this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for those that don’t. There are unlimited ways we can change our lives and our society to pursue a more meaningful way of doing work. As many ways as there are imaginations in the world. I have lived communally in a way that can support each other to follow their vocation whether it makes money or not; on a broader scale ideas like the Universal Basic Income could enable us to rethink what it means to work. Technological changes are meant to enable us to work less; the stress, debt levels and number of completely useless jobs that fill our society are a good reminder that they mostly haven’t done that. In the end, technology is as enslaved to economics as humans are, and when we rectify that it could radically change our society.

Despite all this, people continue to do work because they believe in it, regardless of profits. People volunteer for causes they believe in. Open source programmers develop computer software for the world to use freely with no financial reward or other recognition. While politicians entrench the status quo that pays their (hefty) bills, grassroots volunteer movements are usually the force for change that betters our society. Even our most basic needs point the way to new possibilities – people come home from their paid jobs and grow food or build shelter and transport for fun. It’s my belief that these cracks in the economic system is where a lot of the most important work is done.

As for me, I still do support work, and radio, and Food Not Bombs. Still play music and write. I paint banners, organise public events and plan political campaigns. I still help out at church, try to be a good friend and a friendly person to people I meet. Me and my housemates open up our house to people who need somewhere to stay or someone to talk to, and occasionally deal with the complications that come from that. I do all these things plus whatever other opportunities come up; and I do them all as well as I can because I believe my ability to do those tasks meets a need in the world.

As I was writing this, I talked to my friend about the ideas. She wasn’t so enthusiastic. She protested that this definition of vocation is entirely self-enforced, and in her experience (and mine too, let’s be honest), people are often happy to sponge off others without doing an equal share of the work.

This is a valid point. Human selfishness is an inescapable fact whose power should never be underestimated. But whether that justifies our current system is another question. The idea of capitalism as a meritocracy is a blatant lie. We in the west constantly sponge off the cheap labour and resource exploitation of the majority of the world’s population. That we have more money than people of the developing world is due entirely to accident of birth, not because we work harder (we don’t, in case you were wondering). No one sponges more than the CEO who earns 50 times the amount of the employees in his company who do the actual productive work.

The idea of work as abilities meeting needs should be read as a multi-faceted critique of overwork, pointless jobs, exploitation of others and the expectation that you can do nothing and someone else will do the work. It is a motto for taking personal responsibility of our own lives and the world around us. It is an invitation to become workers, not just products.

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Boredom in the court

written October 2014 (and promptly forgotten until recently).

I’m sitting in a courtroom at the Brisbane Magistrates Court. The matter at hand is over a few hundred dollars in fines given out regarding the lighting of the sacred fire at the Musgrave Park aboriginal embassy.

The embassy has had some dramatic moments in its time, but the incident we’re talking about here wasn’t really one of them – the embassy lighting the fire as a ceremonial formality at a small meeting, the council extinguishing it out of pure pettiness.

The court hearing now is even less distinguished. Present in the room is the defendant, the prosecution and defence lawyers, witness on the stand, the magistrate and clerk, and myself and one other supporter.

The magistrate is literally falling asleep in his chair, closing his eyes for minutes at a time, yawning and at times swinging around on his chair. His interactions with the lawyers mostly seem to be snappily asking when the whole thing will be over. The clerk is looking nearly as bored as she stares at the computer screen – I have no idea what she is looking at on there. The walls are drab and brown, the light fluorescent and the atmosphere less than electric.

The prosecution lawyer is trying to build his case by extracting from the witness a statement that the fire in question, though it had once carried the coals from the original Canberra tent embassy, was no longer sacred because it had been put out and re-lit.

musgrave-fireThis displays a lack of understanding of ritual, symbol and traditional religions. What makes a fire sacred is not how long the coals have been continuously burning; it is what it symbolises that makes it sacred. I remember once having a conversation with a whitefella who lived at another aboriginal embassy. He had worried that the fire would accidentally be left to go out. The elder replied that the fire went out all the time, but the real fire was what burned in our hearts.

But more importantly, the question is what role does the court have in determining what is sacred? I can’t think of anywhere less sacred. Even that bible that sits on the witness stand is the opposite of true symbolism – it is just a worthless prop where the actual contents of the book mean nothing. The pages of court copies of the bible could all be blank and no one would ever know.

For all its mighty imagery and glamour, our courts seem to me to often be concerned with semantics – endlessly digging out different laws and sub-laws, building entire legal arguments not on the actions in question and their consequences but on one specific word in the law. If people can afford a good lawyer they can get off virtually anything by arguing some trivial detail; but people who can’t afford a good lawyer are told they won’t be represented by legal aid unless they plead guilty – regardless of whether they actually did it or not.

A friend told me once about a time they were at the magistrates court waiting to have their matter heard. There were over 150 people waiting in there, and so the police prosecutor walked into the waiting room and declared that there was a “special” for that day – if you had a minor charge and plead guilty you would be fined $150 plus $100 court costs and you could walk out. This is pretty much my experience of our justice system – judges file away people like they file away papers. Read out the charge, give a punishment, sign the sheet and walk out.

Plea bargains are very common in our court system, but to me these represent the opposite of justice – the chance to not actually deal with what really happened in court is dangled as an incentive for people to plead guilty, often to something they may not have actually done. Especially when people have been held in remand and will be released with no further punishment than the time already served, it sustains a system of not actually dealing with the issues, yet the lawyers and judges all still get paid for doing their job.

Aboriginal people understand better than anyone the hypocrisy of the law. As a race they are maybe the most incarcerated people in the world, often for completely trivial offences; while the theft of their land and murder of their people goes unquestioned. Over the sad history of white domination of aboriginal people in this country, every new horrific development has been signed in by the law.

And not much ever changes in that regard. Wars, climate change and massive financial inequality go unchallenged, while our courts are full of people busted with drugs or not co-operating with police. Or people who actually have committed significant acts that affect other people; but who rather than dealing with the real-life consequences of their actions go through an endless rigmarole of bureaucracy and then finally pay a fine or do time or end up with some other condition completely unrelated to the crime of which they are accused.

Of course, often our court plays a very important role in defending human and environmental rights when they are threatened by politicians and businesses. But even this process is one that is hidden from understanding from the rest of the general public – veiled in a cocoon of law-speak inaccessible to most of us, to in the end provide a verdict that seems to be pretty much common sense.

Back at the court, and the magistrate and both lawyers are trying to work out what a “statutory instrument” is. The magistrate sighs, adjourns the court, and walks out. I don’t know what a statutory instrument is either, but I also don’t care or pretend that it has anything to do with whether a group of aboriginal activists should be allowed to light a small fire when they meet together.

And this is the real problem with the law – the law enforcers (in this case the council) can take an action and fine someone no matter how inconsequential their actions are, and the only recourse people have is to take it to a mind-bogglingly confusing court case a year and a half later.

As we see governments rushing to give more powers to police and intelligence organisations, it’s important that we remember how the law mostly works – those in power do what they want, and if the person on the receiving end is wealthy or persistent or lucky enough to challenge it then they might one day have the court agree with them; although most likely by that point the damage has already been done. The system works, but for who?

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My top 10 songs of 2016

Another year, more great music released. Here are 10 songs I loved for various reasons:

Spindles – Revolution

I had a long wait between first hearing this song and it finally being recorded. But at one point shortly after its release, I reckon I listened to this song at least once a day for about three weeks. I craved it. I thought about writing an essay based on the lyrics.

Spindles had other great songs (no official release yet beyond a few internet uploads) and played some fantastic shows – from the little library at Jura Books to the wide open desert at Roxby Downs. But if I have to pick one song it’s still this one.

 

Dispossessed – Thronebreaker

2016 was a huge year for Dispossessed. At the start of the year I was hearing favourable murmurs about this new band out of Sydney. In March when I saw them I agreed they were great but was surprised at how young they were. Since then the band has lost members, had all their gear stolen, had one of their members be the subject of a public shaming campaign by the Daily Mail. They’ve also toured, gained loads of mainstream press attention, and released a fantastic album. Vice called them “the most important band in Australia.” I think it’s just great to see a proudly multi-racial and political band from western Sydney smashing it.

 

Camp Cope – Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams

I first saw songwriter Georgia Maq play a few years ago. I don’t know how old she was at the time, but she looked like she could have needed parental supervision to go to her own gigs. Camp Cope bassist Kelly I have similarly seen around the place since she was very young – I think her first musical effort was with all-femme scremo outfit Palmar Grasp.

So what a pleasure then to discover Camp Cope’s debut album – showcasing some great songwriting from Georgia MAq aided by wonderful melodic bass playing from Kelly. If I’m being totally honest, a few of the songs are still a little too teenage angsty to really resonate with me. But this one – linking the experience of sexism with 9-11 conspiracies in a way only the internet generation can – is just brilliant.

 

Curse Ov Dialect – Greed

I can’t say I’m really in the loop these days when it comes to new music, but one thing that helps me find out about new releases is scrolling through the new additions folder at 4ZZZ community radio. And that was how, at the start of the year, I made the unexpected discovery that legendary Melbourne hip hop crew Curse Ov Dialect had released their first album in seven years. I suppose layering all those weird samples and coming up with the tongue-twisting lyrics must take a while.

Of course, the album is fantastic and endlessly rewarding – a year on I’m still listening to it trying to work out what half the songs are about. But while Curse Ov Dialect’s beats and lyrics are dense and strange, their music is still somehow danceable and singalongable. They are also an amazing live band, which hopefully we in Brisbane will get to witness some time soon.

 

Babaganouj – Would you like me?

I’m not wilfully obscure or anything, it’s just that the music I find interesting is usually some tuneless racket that gets played in front of 50 people in a random location. As an analytical person too, I like music that has some kind of broader context beyond just sounding nice.

Indie pop is not always my preferred genre. But sometimes there’s just a band so good at what they do that I can’t resist. And that’s where Babaganouj come in – these guys just continually release glorious pop songs that light up the airwaves. This was my favourite of the year.

 

Nahko and Medicine For The People – Love letters to God

It took me way too long to discover Nahko and Medicine For The People’s last album, but by the start of the year I had it on high rotation. In April when they came out to Australia I was in Melbourne, and even discovering the show was sold out wasn’t enough to stop me from going – some desperate manoeuvring at the front door got me a ticket to a show that was all the better for having a room packed full of devoted fans.

A while later the new album came out. It didn’t quite grab me the way the previous one had; I think I would prefer the songs with a bit of a rawer production. But it’s grown on me a bit, and in this song the regular themes of Nahko’s music are all there – spirituality, forgiveness, resistance, transformation.

 

John K Samson – The oldest oak at Brookside

Like most years, in 2016 I spent many hours listening to Canadian band The Weakerthans. Unlike most years, I also got the gift of new music from Weakerthans songwriter John K Samson.

These days the instrumentation is pretty mellow (especially compared to his time playing bass in Propagandhi), and the songs are less personal – mostly now the character sketches that were always part of his songwriting but also are surely influenced by his other job of writing and publishing novels. There is a bit of an environmental message flowing through, which you can possibly pick up in this song.

I have to admit, that nasally voice and those minute lyrical observations are like a kind of comfort food to me. And his albums are like little books of stories that every time you open them you find some new detail. I couldn’t really pick a favourite song, but this tribute to an old oak tree in John’s home town of Winnipeg is one of the most immediately satisfying.

 

Carb On Carb – Eden terrors

Don’t look too closely at the release date – this album came out in 2015 but I first heard it this year. Once I had heard it though I listened to it an awful lot through the year.

It’s never hip, but I’m a bit of a sucker for emo music. Fortunately Kiwi two-piece Carb On Carb do the musical style very well while mostly avoiding the melodramatic treatment of falling in and out of love that can make the genre so punishing.

 

The Dead Maggies – Billy Hunt

I didn’t know the music of The Dead Maggies all that well when I decided in August I would hitch down to Nimbin the next day to go to their gig – it just looked like an interesting show. The next day I was picked up on the road by the Maggies’ tour van, saw them play, hung out with the band, and before you knew it I was heading down to Tasmania for the HOBOFOPO festival of folk punk organised by the band.

The Dead Maggies’ music is fun but also very informative about Tasmanian history. Like this one, about convict and serial escapee Billy Hunt who dressed in a kangaroo skin and hopped away from prison only to be shot by a hungry hunter.

 

Virginia Sook – Mandarin song

I mentioned this song in this list last year actually. It got recorded this year and also was performed at a memorable music event – my birthday party. Sitting around a fire in my backyard, a guitar was passed around and some amazing songs played – including this one.

I don’t say this to boast that I have friends who play music – I say this because I honestly believe that the music made by our friends and neighbours can be as good as what’s on the radio and the big record labels. Better even because we have an added connection to the songs and their meaning. The best birthday present I could ask for is friends sharing their musical creations. Plus this song is awesome.

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A Tasmanian pilgrimage

For a fair chunk of my recent three week stint in Tasmania, I hitched around from town to town without any real destination in mind. But between all that I made it out to a couple of the more remote parts of the state for a pilgrimage of sorts – to the Florentine Valley and the Franklin River.

The Florentine is in Tasmania’s south-west. 25km past the last town in that direction, traffic is fairly infrequent. But from 2006 to 2012 it was the site of Camp Florentine, where a group of committed environmentalists held one of Australia’s longest lasting forest blockade camps.

The people in that camp battled the cold and the rain; the hostility of loggers and the forestry industry; the heartbreak of watching a forest clearfelled in front of them. To stay there as long as they did showed amazing resilience and bravery. But they also showed a lot of creativity – banner drops in cities (even off the side of the Spirit Of Tasmania ferry), barricades in the shape of pirate ships, angels on tripods. They were “forest ferals”; people who rejected the values of mainstream society to camp in the bush, eating roadkill, sneaking around the forest and getting arrested disrupting logging.

I have to admit it was towards the end of that six years that I first heard of the campaign, but it inspired me to hear of these people protecting from clearfell machines one of the country’s last wild frontiers. I helped run fundraiser events, did protests at Harvey Norman against the sale of timber products made from these forests. I heard people who had been there talk about the beauty of the Florentine and what it meant to them. “The Floz” to me was always a magical place.

For quite a while I assumed I would at some point make it to the Floz to help out. But in 2012 a truce was called while the logging industry and environmentalists negotiated a “forest agreement”. It wasn’t an easy process – forests kept falling, but environmentalists were told that any protests would risk the whole process being thrown out. Blockaders were shut out of the negotiations. Many felt betrayed not just by the government and industry, but by big environmental organisations. Long-term forest activist Miranda Gibson went up a giant eucalypt and didn’t come down for well over a year to keep the eyes of the world on Tasmania’s south-west forests.

In the end the “forest agreement” was bitterly disappointing. It included industry subsidies but little conservation outcomes. It included a gag clause saying the whole thing would be discarded if anyone protested against deforestation. And after all that, it was torn up a year later when the state government changed. But there was a victory of sorts – 170,000 hectares nominated for (and awarded) world heritage status. It even survived Tony Abbott taking the unprecedented step of asking the UN to rescind part of the decision.

I went to the Floz with a couple of friends. None of us had been part of the camp but we had all heard stories from friends who had. We slept at the old campsite; we walked through stunning rainforest full of fallen trees covered in bright green lichen, an undergrowth of ferns, a distant canopy of giant and ancient sassafras and eucalypts. We went to the Growling Swallet, where a creek disappears into an underground cave. We walked to the river near where the last Tasmanian tiger was captured in the 1930’s (of course we hold on to hope there are still some in that dense forest). We walked to the top of a mountain range, where the vast valleys of green were laid out in front of us, punctuated by the scars where forest had been clearfelled.

The Florentine Valley was certainly as beautiful as I had hoped, and walking those tracks gave me a new sense of appreciation for the people who struggled so hard to stop those ancient trees being knocked down.

A few days later I headed north-west towards Queenstown, knowing that along the way the road would be intercepted by the Franklin River. The Franklin holds an even more iconic place in Australia’s protest history than the Florentine.

In 1979, the Tasmanian government announced plans to dam the Franklin and flood the valley for generating hydroelectricity. Many of Tasmania’s rivers had already been dammed for the same purpose; but this time conservationists decided that this valley; forest so impenetrable few settlers had ever made it through (of course a notable exception being the legendary cannibal convict escapee Alexander Pearce), should be protected.

Led by a prominent peter-dHobart doctor named Bob Brown and represented by Peter Dombrovkis’ iconic photograph, the campaign to save the Franklin was born.

People from all over Australia took up the cause, first through political campaigning and then in late 1982-1983 by flocking to the Franklin River to blockade workers beginning construction of the dam. 1,400 people were arrested in the blockade, which became a media spectacle and captured the imagination of the public in a way few environmental campaigns have before or since.

In 1983, the federal Labor opposition declared in the leadup to the election that they would stop the dam if they were elected. With the Franklin duly playing its part, Labor won the election. The Tasmanian state government challenged the decision in court, even threatening to secede from the commonwealth. But in the end the Franklin was allowed to flow, Tasmania never suffered a shortage of electricity, and the campaign put the state and its phenomenal natural beauty on the world stage in a way that no amount of hydroelectricity could ever match.

franklin

The Franklin River meets the A10 highway near Derwent Bridge. I got picked up hitching by another tourist from the mainland – he had rented a car and had ten days to drive around the state. I told him of my plan to see the river and he said he’d like to join me.

As we took the short walk from the highway to the rope bridge across the river, I told my new companion about the history of the campaign and its significance (I stopped short of launching into a chorus of Goanna’s cheesy campaign anthem Let The Franklin Flow). When we got there though, the mighty Franklin was photo0692looking pretty subdued. No high gorges or swirling currents like the Peter Dombrovkis photo, just a nice if pretty average looking river ambling along at barely waist-high depth.That spot I guess is not one of its more spectacular points.

Still, we hung out for a while on the bank of the river, I stripped off for a refreshing (ie. very cold) swim. Just by walking from the highway we had left behind the last bit of industrialised civilisation between here and the coast – a fact attested to by the rickety one-person-at-a-time bridge that crossed the river. From here on the Franklin wound through country where the Tasmanian devils, quolls, pademelons and thousands of other species can roam freely.

This little pilgrimage to those two sites might seem quaint and a bit nerdy, but I’m glad I did it. Firstly it helped to enflesh for me these stories I have heard, helping me to appreciate them in a new way. Secondly, it allowed a re-evaluation of the history that has brought us to where we are today.

While I was in Tasmania, Donald Trump was elected as US president, the latest of a series of reactionary election results in 2016. I wish I could have shrugged it off, knowing I was on holiday. But instead, it prompted a lot of thinking. Can we of the pro-immigration, pro-environment political left really be losing this badly? As Hillary Clinton raged against “deplorables” and those she was targeting proudly took on the label; I had to wonder how we had gotten so out of touch. How many people in the political left have any kind of relationship with the average Trump/One Nation voter? When the mainstream view is so far from my own in so many ways, how to I find a place where I belong in this culture and these people?

These are questions that rolled around my head as I went on long bushwalks. I didn’t come to many satisfactory resolutions, but it was really nice to think of these environmental campaigns as part of the history that had shaped Australia – not a fringe sect, but a powerful movement that gathered people together, that gave voice to feelings that were deep-seated and shared by many, that influenced the society we live in today. And it is a part of our culture I feel I can proudly identify with and situate myself in.

And looking at that forest and that river, I had to admire the people who had given so much and staked it all on protecting these places. People who dedicated their lives to the cause, going to live in remote locations; standing in the face of a hostile media, government and local opposition. They didn’t see events as just unfolding guided by fate. They believed that we should play an active role in shaping the future. While one view of the future was proffered by the powerful people of Tasmania (and indeed the world), they were able to see a different one – and the proof is standing there in the forests of Tasmania that sometimes those visions of the future can turn out. Opening our eyes to a different vision of the past also allows us to envision a different future.

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Not Drowning, Waving – a cultural appropriation case study

Over a year ago, I started just for fun writing short articles based on songs that would come up on shuffle mode on my mp3 player. The articles were intended to form a zine that I have never gotten around to publishing.

But I occasionally am reminded of this particular piece as the online debates over cultural appropriation grow more and more fervent. I don’t intend to write an in-depth article on the concept of cultural appropriation, but I do think that this article – in a specific micro-study – puts forward some of my own ideas on the issue; ideas that I think are a reasonably interesting contribution to the debate.

Not Drowning, Waving – Claim

In 2015, cultural appropriation is a hot topic. Especially in online media, where marginalised voices have a new platform, there is heaps of writing about white culture co-opting the music, clothes and imagery of other cultures to gain some kind of ‘cool’.

Cultural appropriation is not in itself a bad thing. Throughout history, one of the ways that humanity has progressed is through observing and copying other groups and the way that they did things. I think it is in fact much more natural for ‘culture’ to be shared and copied than our modern system of copyright and intellectual property.

Where it becomes problematic though, is where cultural appropriation comes alongside colonisation. So the situation we have now is that non-white cultures who have had their land and traditions forcibly taken off them now have the somewhat irritating sight of seeing their music, clothes and art become valuable commodities that can make a lot of money – usually for white people and corporations, with little credit and even less cash being given to the original source.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, one if the best things that happened to rock music was that people in the western world discovered that other parts of the world have music too. Suddenly there were new record labels like Real World and World Circuit, new global stars like Youssou N’Dour and Yothu Yindi, and new collaborations like Paul Simon’s Graceland album, Deep Forest’s house remixes of African field recordings, and Melbourne band Not Drowning, Waving.

Not Drowning, Waving ndw1mixed rock with classical instruments, with ambient soundscapes and with traditional Melanesian music. The song Claim (title track off their third album) is a good example – the song is almost entirely didgeridoo and clapsticks played by Gnarnayarrahe Waittairie, with the band playing a very minor role.

David Bridie from the band would go on to start a record label to release Melanesian music (mostly Papuan, Torres Strait or northern Australian Aboriginal), and would record a number of film soundtracks, a feature of which would be electronic and ambient production mixed with traditional music.

In the 1980’s, I think ethical questions around cultural appropriation were less widespread (although there was quite a debate in political and music circles surrounding the ethics of Paul Simon’s Graceland album). In the expansive, exploratory vibe of the time, it made sense to take on different musical styles. That spirit of experimentation made for some amazing music. Graceland is a perfect example of the fact that even without a real commitment to the actual culture and conditions of people, you can still make some brilliant music.

But it’s never really just about the music, is it? The critique of white cultural co-option is a valid one, and anyone who thinks it’s “just about the music” is exactly the kind of person who needs to be listening to it.

So as well as purely the sound of the music (which I quite like), there is some worth in analysing the cross-cultural ethics of Not Drowning, Waving. And in this field I think they do pretty well. Rather than just a cultural dilettante, David Bridie has shown a real commitment to the music of Melanesian cultures and the people who make it – the music by releasing and promoting music made by artists who would not otherwise be given those opportunities, and the people because he has continually offered his support to the people of West Papua in their struggle to resist Indonesian occupation.

Some may debate my views here, but I’m satisfied I can listen to a song like Claim and enjoy it as an exchange of musical ideas across cultures, rather than an act of exploitation.

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A rough guide to folk-punk

After all these years, I’ve finally made it down to Tasmania. The thing that brought me down here, happily, is HOBOFOPO; a four day festival dedicated to that most wonderful of musical styles – folk-punk.

Wonderful it may be, but folk-punk remains a pretty obscure musical niche. Many people over the years who have seen me perform or asked what kind of music I play have assumed I must have invented the term. As I got ready to leave Brisbane and head down here, a few people were surprised there are enough folk-punk acts in Australia to make up a festival.

But in fact, the folk-punk connoisseur (like myself) could tell you that even in this niche genre, there are a number of distinct styles that fit under the folk-punk umbrella.

Our first category is the singer-songwriter with obvious punk influences. In this group we can place maybe the original folk-punk Patrick Fitzgerald (with his simple guitar playing, tales of punk love and out of tune singing), Billy Bragg (rhythmic electric guitar and again a relaxed approach to hitting the right notes vocally), Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains (screaming and thrashing an acoustic guitar), myself and many more.

Another category, in some ways an extension of the first, is the whole band that plays obviously punk-inspired music but on all or mostly acoustic instruments. Examples vary from the fast-strummed guitar and violin duo Ghost Mice, to the more full band setup of a group like Defiance Ohio (violin, cello, electric guitar, drums), to the intense medieval crust punk of Blackbird Raum. At HOBOFOPO, an example would be Tassie’s own Lordy Lordy.

A third style is traditional folk music sped up and electrified. These can be traditional songs or trad-inspired originals, or often a mixture of the two. The originators of this style are The Pogues, and there are plenty of other examples, from American-Irish acts like Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly, to Australian equivalents Mutiny and Roaring Jack, hillbilly punks This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, gypsies Gogol Bordello, or at HOBOFOPO bushpunks Handsome Young Strangers or Tasmanian historians The Dead Maggies.

A fourth style, becoming increasingly common, is the acoustic side-project of the punk singer. Satirical punk blog The Hard Times has great fun with this phenomenon. Originally it was most commonly singers from emo bands discovering a more intimate way to connect with their audience – Dashboard Confessional, Jonah Matranga and Owen being the pioneers, City and Colour a similar recent example. But increasingly it has come to mean punk and hardcore singers growing beards, putting on flanellette shirts and playing country-tinged folk. Frank Turner is the most successful example, but he is only one of seemingly legions – Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour each year takes half a dozen examples on tour; in Australia examples would include ex-Conation singer Jamie Hay’s Fear Like Us project, ex-Disables singer Jud Campbell or former Sydney City Trash member Paddy McHugh. There actually aren’t any examples of this on the HOBOFOPO lineup though there is no shortage of them around and this is probably the most popular strand of folk-punk. But this style kinda exists as a niche of the mainstream punk scene and doesn’t really take on the name or the spirit of the “folk-punk” genre (I’ll explain later).

You could even add another category – bands like The Smith Street Band, Camp Cope and Against Me!; whose music doesn’t really resemble folk very much but who hold on to the label in some ways because they started out as acoustic acts.

folk-punkSo there is a more in-depth analysis of folk-punk styles than anyone was really asking for. But you know, that still doesn’t quite get to the essence of folk-punk. And this is why: while folk and punk are both genre names that describe certain musical characteristics; they are also both more than that. Folk and punk are both ideologies that represent ways of thinking about music.

Folk, as Pete Seeger would describe it, is music “for the people, by the people” – a proudly proletarian artform that rejects virtuoso musicianship or high artistic concepts and instead embraces a recognisable, easy to replicate style and singing about everyday people’s lives. It sees music as a communal resource – songs are “traditional” and able to be performed by anyone rather than a songwriter’s intellectual property; and songs are often developed for use by the community around them – like protest songs for a certain campaign or songs written about a particular place (famous examples of the latter being Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Our Land and The Seekers’ I Am Australian).

Punk meanwhile is an ideology based on Do-It-Yourself – a rejection of rockstar idols and the traditional music industry. Sniffin’ Glue writer Mark P famously printed three chord shapes then wrote “now go form a band”. His iconic publication meanwhile, was hand-collaged and printed on a photocopier. Punk is about making your own bands regardless of technical ability, making your own publications (since the mainstream media is rarely interested in punk bands), opening your own venues (that represent independent values rather than run for a profit), and putting out your own records on your own independent labels. Punk is about rejection of mainstream society’s values and (sometimes) creating alternatives – outrageous fashion, communal share-houses, anarchist politics.

There are large crossovers between the two ideals – both have a long history of political protest songs and benefit gigs, both eschew superstars and technical brilliance (Mark P’s three chord call to arms echoes Harlan Howard’s much repeated phrase “three chords and the truth”), both see music not purely as art for art’s sake but as a means to something bigger.

And folk-punk even more combines the two traditions. Want to see what songs as a communal resource looks like? Go to a folk-punk show (like one I recently played at in Brisbane) and witness multiple performers play Johnny Hobo songs as the crowd sings every word. The guy who wrote those songs doesn’t even play them any more, yet they live on as folk-punk standards. This is not limited to one songwriter either. Folk-punk carries on the folk practice of communal sing-alongs and traditional songs – keeping alive both folk and folk-punk classics. Bands like The Pogues and Weddings Parties Anything (plus many many more) do punked-up versions of old folk songs, while popular folk-punk songs become standards – and not just Johnny Hobo. I can recall shows where Billy Bragg, Defiance Ohio or Andrew Jackson Jihad became room sing-alongs. Or once I played a show where the climax was every band getting together for a mass jam and singing of Blackbird Raum’s Witches.

Folk-punk also continues folk traditions like protest songs (Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs mirrored in the riot-folk collective or Billy Bragg) and travelling songs (the ghosts of ramblin’ men like Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie alive in countless songs about hitching or the beauty of the road), even the hobo lifestyle (Big Rock Candy Mountain and Hallelujah I’m A Bum transformed into Johnny Hobo’s songs like Home Sweet Homeless and the entire oogle subculture).

Meanwhile punk’s DIY spirit is amplified in folk-punk. Doing your own recording becomes simpler when it’s just acoustic instruments (Australian group Mace Face did their one and only recording on a Sydney to Newcastle train journey), as does finding venues for shows (parks, cemeteries and all-night laundromats become concert halls).

So as musical style or philosophy, folk-punk has carved out its own niche of the music world. It receives very little attention from the broader music industry; even its most legendary acts are virtually unknown outside of this small subculture. The earnestness and the celebration of mundane subject matter and musical amateurishness means that is irredeemably uncool.

But I love folk-punk. I love it for all of the reasons I have just listed. I love it because it is about having something to communicate and creating spaces where that communication can take place. It is a pretty narrow sphere of music and at times it is clichéd to the point of ridiculousness – I think potentially that’s why over the years so many acts are short-lived and people move on to other styles. And yet I trudge on, hitch-hiking around with my acoustic guitar and simple songs. Uncool, obscure and limited as it may be, folk-punk is a tradition I am proud to listen to and to be a part of.

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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…

1853

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?”

1885

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”.”

1890

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!

1899

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.

1919

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.

1919

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.”

1924

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.

1931

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.”‘

1933

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.”

1930’s

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.

1934

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.

1934

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”.

1938

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”.

1939

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”.

1939

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.

1941

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.”

1943

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. 

1945

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.

1945

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.”

1945

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.”

1953

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.

1964

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.”

1965

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.”

1965

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.

1966

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”.

1966

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.

1968

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.

1975

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.”

1976

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.

1978

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.

1981

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.

1981

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”.

1983

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.

1984

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”.

1984

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”.

1985
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.

1985

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.

1987

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.

1989

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.

1990

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.

1990

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.

1991

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.

1991

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.

1990-98

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.

1995

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.

1998

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.

2003

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.

2003

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.

2004

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.

2005

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.”

2005

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.

2005

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.

2008

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.”

2010

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.

2010-2015

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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