'Precisely because it was the seat of government':
The Parliament House riot of 1996
By LUKE DEER email@example.com
Based on an Honours Thesis (same title), Political Science,
Australian National University, 1998.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) 'Cavalcade to Canberra' on August 19, 1996 resulted in what has been called "a notorious chapter in union history'.
The Coalition Government, elected on March 2 1996, embarked a program of industrial relations 'reform' and cutbacks to major areas of state expenditure. The ACTU responded with a campaign of lobbying the minor Senate party's for legislative amendments. As an adjunct to this campaign, a round of public rallies were organised - culminating in a national protest in Canberra on budget eve, 19 August 1996. But the demonstration went awfully wrong for the ACTU. A minority of protesters broke away from the official rally and mounted the most forceful physical attack on the Federal Parliament in Australian history.
It certainly was a disturbance of the peace and, from the point of view of the police and union leaders, was outside of their control. In this respect it can be called a riot. But it was not without limits. The Speaker of the House of Representatives Bob Halverson provided a succinct summary of the riot in Parliament:
Once inside the area, demonstrators used weapons including a large hammer, wheel brace, steel trolley and stanchion torn from the internal doors to break open the internal doors. Simultaneously, a second group of demonstrators used other weapons to break into the Parliament House shop but were held at the internal doors. The shop was ransacked and major damage occurred by persons who subsequently occupied the area. After some two hours, the demonstrators were finally repelled from Parliament House and driven back to the forecourt area and, shortly afterwards, dispersed.
This 'notorious chapter in union history' raises a number of important issues. First, in recent Australian history it was a highly novel and public display of social conflict. It also sparked a polarised national debate over who was responsible, and the place and causes of political violence in Australian politics. Secondly, what were the processes involved in the riot, what motivated the participants, who were they, and how do we understand their collective behaviour? Thirdly, in what sense did the riot occasion a 'notorious chapter in trade union history'? What was the relationship between the union leadership and the rioters and why did the riot have the impact that it did?Between the election and budget eve
On March 2 1996 the Coalition was elected to Federal Parliament. Thirteen years of successive Labor Party (ALP) Government's ended. The new Government signalled a more confrontational approach to industrial relations, and large cutbacks to some areas public sector expenditure. The Government's objectives were twofold. To shift industrial relations further in favour of employers and to balance the national budget. To meet these objectives it introduced industrial relations legislation, namely the Workplace Relations Amendment Bill (WRB). This included provisions to curtail 'compulsory unionism' and to entrench a more decentralised bargaining structure, including provisions for individual contracts. To balance the budget it foreshadowed unprecedented budget cuts.
The Government released its Draft Workplace Relations Amendment Bill (WRB) shortly after the election. On April 3 the ACTU responded by initiating a campaign against the foreshadowed changes. In a speech launching the ACTU Campaign, Assistant Secretary Bill Mansfield said, 'We are hopeful that the legislation will require substantial amendment before it will get through the Senate, however it is clear that some of the legislative package will survive.' The ACTU viewed some form of the WRB as inevitable: the national union campaign intended to bring about amendments to the WRB, rather than defeat it entirely. The campaign included a petition to be circulated in workplaces, a document outlining the union response to the Coalitions proposals, and leaflets targeted at workers on paid rates awards.
By May the campaign's reach broadened to include raising 'community' awareness, lobbying politicians - particularly Senators in the minority parties, convening mass meetings of members and delegates, and local rallies. The campaign was to culminate with a National Day of Action (NDA) on the eve of the budget, 19 August 1996. The highlight of the day would be a national protest rally held on the lawns of the Federal Parliament, the Cavalcade to Canberra. Rallies would also be held in State capitals and some regional cities.
The unions successfully mobilised tens of thousands of workers across the country at meetings and rallies in the lead up to August 19. State and Regional Trades and Labor Councils as well as individual unions were centrally involved. Individual unions and other groups also affected mobilised for meetings and rallies against foreshadowed budget cuts. The ACTU leadership was concerned to highlight both aspects of the new Governments agenda and the two concerns fed into each other.
There were two rounds of major mobilisations. Exact figures of attendance at mass stop-work meetings and rallies are not available, but the main mobilisations are listed below. Between May 9 and May 13 the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) began the first of a series of national stop-works and rallies against job cuts in the Commonwealth Public Service (CPS). This first round mobilised an estimated 10 000 workers. On May 17 the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the Construction, Forestry, Mining, & Engineering Union (CFMEU) signed a mutual defence pact which anticipated a government/employer offensive. Over 2000 MUA and CFMEU members rallied in Sydney on the 17th in support of the MUA. That week the ACTU announced unions were launching campaigns directed against individual employers in an effort to maintain awards. The National Union of Students (NUS) called a Week of Action late in May against the foreshadowed budget cuts. On 24 May, 5000 students in Adelaide marched on the office of Education Minister Amanda Vanstone.
On May 30, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) struck and rallied nationally for the maintenance of university funding levels and for a federally funded pay rise. The NUS supported joint student/staff demonstrations in the major centres. In Sydney an estimated 7 000 staff and students rallied, nationally the figure was over 27 000. Also on May 30, some 150 000 construction workers struck against proposed budget cuts to travel allowances, and CFMEU rallies in major cities attracted thousands. In Canberra 2000 building workers rallied outside the Australian Taxation Office and were addressed by, Shadow Industrial Relations Minister Bob McMullan, Labor Senator Kate Lundy, and the ACTU Assistant Secretary Greg Combet. In the same week the ACTU convened mass delegates meetings in Melbourne and Brisbane against the WRB. In total approximately 5000 delegates attended. On June 4, construction workers struck nationally, their second strike against cuts to travel allowances. Rallies in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane were attended by 4000, 6000, and 2000 construction workers respectively. On June 6, the CPSU held a National Day of Action against job cuts which included rallies in capitals cities, and over 4000 workers marched in Canberra.
The second major round of mobilisations occurred in July. The ACTU in conjunction with the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), held a further mass delegates meeting in Melbourne against the WRB on July 3. The meeting was attended by over 1500 delegates. On July 11, construction workers struck and rallied for a third time. In Melbourne more than 5000 construction workers rallied at Parliament House and used heavy machinery to block off traffic. Over 11 000 Telstra workers attended mass meetings in late July to protest the threat of job losses from privatisation. The Victorian THC also called a state-wide Day of Action against the WRB on July 31. This involved further mass stop-works and rallies in Melbourne and regional Victorian centres. It also coincided with a National CPSU stop-work against the WRB. 50 000 workers met at Trades Hall and marched on the Victorian Liberal Party headquarters, and a further 10 000 rallied throughout the state. The CPSU stop-work mass meetings were attended by over 4 000 workers nationally. On August 7 the NTEU called a further National Day of Action and joint NTEU-NUS rallies attracted 20 000 staff and students.
The ACTU campaign had developed into a national protest movement. There were two central messages from the ACTU leadership. Firstly, that the Howard government had 'moved beyond the mandate they sought from the community at the March 2 federal election.' In particular, Howard's pre-election 'rock solid guarantee that no worker would be worse off under a Coalition Government' was the subject of much derision in the union movement. Opinion polls also highlighted the unpopularity of some of the budget measures. A Fairfax opinion poll published in the Canberra Times on August 14 showed a majority to be in favour of the Senate blocking some of the Government's plans. An AGB McNair poll on 14 August suggested that sixty percent of those polled were prepared to pay higher taxes to avoid major cuts to health, education and welfare. According to The Australian poll released on Budget day, sixty-three per cent of those asked opposed increases to the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) and sixty-seven per cent opposed cuts to university funding.
The second main message from the top of the protest movement was that change would be achieved through the parliamentary process. This had two aspects. The immediate and explicit aim was to lobby the minor Senate parties, especially the Democrats, for amendments to the WRB and the cuts. However, as the union leadership saw the thrust of the WRB and the cuts as inevitable, the longer term aim was implicitly electoral. ACTU President Jennie George spoke of a 'long campaign' that would extend to the post-budget period and after the introduction of the WRB. This would involve raising 'community awareness' of the impact of the changes. The prominence of Federal ALP politicians at the major rallies suggested that the union campaign was coordinated with the ALP's electoral strategy.
'Broad alliances' and 'community campaigning' were also significant features of the ACTU approach and conformed to the above perspective. University staff and student unions joined the Australian Vice Chancellor's Committee (AVCC), in a 'Higher Education Alliance'. This was despite the fact that the AVCC formed a powerful lobby for university deregulation, increased course charges for students and was in favour of the Coalition' industrial relations changes. The 'community campaign' aspect was typified by the 'Save the ABC' campaign. Its highlight was a public concert in the Sydney Domain attracting over 10 000 members of 'the community'.
However, opposition to the Government's policies developed substantial momentum. And this was before the budget. Tens of thousands of workers from a cross section of public and private industries had attended meetings and rallies. Thousands of students had also protested against foreshadowed budget cuts. The ACTU led movement against the Government's policies was still growing, and the national rallies on budget eve August 19 looked set to be the largest yet. But the movement was about to hit a wall.
Events on August 19
Before the 1996 Federal election ACTU Secretary, Bill Kelty, had threatened 'industrial war' if the Coalition Government tried to break union power. The consensus among the trade union leadership was that this had been a mistake. After the election, the ACTU President Jennie George, reportedly told Peter Reith in private that, the ACTU had no intent of declaring war, or to do anything reckless. The ACTU sought to avoid a 'head to head' confrontation with the Government over the WRB. Rather their strategy relied on lobbying Senators, and raising public 'awareness' of the effects of the Government's policies.
However, opposition to the WRB among workers and opposition to public sector cutbacks were mutually reinforcing. The movement therefore generalised its opposition to the Liberal Government's entire direction. This was given expression by the ACTU's National Day of Action on budget eve, August 19. Ostensibly the day was called to protest against the industrial relations changes in the WRB. But it was called on the day before the budget and thus became a point of convergence for opposition against the Government generally.
Rallies were held in the more disparate capital cities and regional centres. The regional mobilisations were significant, around 30 000 demonstrators outside of Canberra. In Brisbane 10 000 rallied. There were 10 000 demonstrators in Adelaide and 5000 in Perth. In each of Darwin and Cairns 500 rallied. Prominent in the Cairns demonstration was a large Aboriginal group, protesting against cuts to the Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission and cuts to indigenous community and welfare organisations.
Most public attention was focused on the Cavalcade to Canberra. Scores of buses organised by unions, trades and labor councils, student unions and pensioner groups brought protesters from interstate. The Cavalcade included a special train, the Spirit of Protest, from Sydney. All Australian unions were represented on the day. The majority came from New South Wales and Victoria. The NSW branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU) alone filled 47 buses. Workers from Tasmanian unions and host of regional centres were represented. A number of unions sent representatives from Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland. Hundreds of Aboriginal activists and communities mobilised in ‘solidarity with the unions’ and planned their own demonstration the following day. Among those protesting were students, pensioners and unemployed people. In all, some 25 000 protesters took to the lawns of Parliament House.
The ACTU intended the Cavalcade to be the pinnacle of its peaceful campaign. It was to be a grand, carefully controlled affair. On arrival, protesters were to march to the rally site on the lawns of Parliament House. They would remain there to listen to speeches for over an hour. Then they would return home. Afterwards, the ACTU planned to meet with the Prime Minister and the minor Senate parties. The Canberra end of the demonstration was coordinated by the ACT Trades and Labor Council (ACT TLC) in conjunction with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Parliamentary Security. Separate marches to the main site were discussed at a number of meetings between the ACT TLC, the AFP, and Parliamentary Security, and agreed in writing.
Some time after 11.00 am on August 19, the Construction Forestry Mining and Engineering Union (CFMEU) contingent, mainly comprised of construction workers and miners, embarked on a route that diverged from the one originally agreed upon. Instead of joining the main rally at the base of Federation Hill, behind Old Parliament House, the CFMEU contingent moved around to Commonwealth Avenue and up the Western ramp of Parliament House. The ACT TLC Secretary Jeremy Pyner claims not to have been informed of this change of plan by either the CFMEU or the AFP. All were in mobile phone communication. Pyner had suggested that the AFP, in an effort to make surveillance easier, bunched the contingents, rather than escorting separate marches. As the AFP has not publicly released its report into the demonstration and has not offered an explanation for the re-routing of the CFMEU contingent, the claim cannot be confirmed.
Just after 12.00 pm, the first of three contingents marching in close formation - led by Aboriginal protesters, followed by the CFMEU contingent and then a student contingent - reached the top of the Commonwealth Avenue ramp. The protesters were meant to turn the left, to the designated protest area. However, the Aboriginal contingent continued along Parliament Drive, the road separating Federation Hill from the Parliamentary forecourt. The police moved in to stop the protesters.
Unfortunately, only the protesters' version of events are available on the public record. But, from the AFP’s own video footage and the actions of other rally participants, it seems likely that police provocation played a role in subsequent events. Although the police had earlier allowed a contingent of public servants through this point, their actions suggested that they regarded the Aboriginal contingent as comprised or likely to come under the sway of ‘troublemakers.’
Police had earlier attempted to keep the Aboriginal and CFMEU contingent separated by one hundred metres, and they provided officers to ensure that this was the case. They tried to stop the Aboriginal contingent and direct it down the left hand side of Federation Hill. The Aborigines wanted to continue along Parliamentary Road. At this point the police confronted them. Neil Marshall, National Organiser for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union alleged
"deliberate police intimidation of the Aboriginal group ... police in riot gear ... marched in military formation and linked arms in front of the Aboriginal march across the road to block the group of Aboriginals from crossing the road to join the main rally. Yet only a few minutes earlier public sector workers had been allowed to join."
At that point ACT CPSU Secretary, Catherine Garvan, called out on the public address system on the main stage that the police were trying to block the Aboriginal protesters from reaching the main demonstration and started a chant to ‘Let them through’. Protesters from the main rally began to stream towards the point of conflict.
Police engaged with the Aboriginal contingent which was now pushing towards the forecourt. However, people from the designated protest area, and the contingents from Commonwealth Avenue, took the opportunity to enter the forecourt. Catherine Garvan of the CPSU rushed onto the forecourt in an attempt to direct demonstrators back to Federation Hill but was mainly ignored. Police realised that they had failed to keep protesters off the forecourt, indeed their attempt to confront the Aboriginal group had left the forecourt open to occupation. So they retreated to the perimeter of the 'Great Verandah' which shelters the entrance to Parliament House at the top of the forecourt. Despite calls from the main stage for rally participants to remain off the forecourt, many surged towards the entrance.
The attempt by protesters to force entry into Parliament House and the clash between demonstrators and police at the main doors was the primary focus of the later media reports and national debate. Police were unable to restrain the protesters at the perimeter of the Great Verandah, and they retreated to the first set of main doors. Here the protest stabilised for a short period. Many more demonstrators continued to arrive from the main rally. Protesters forced open the first set of main doors and the police retreated inside the foyer of the building where they attempted to reinforce the second set of doors. Approximately 1000 demonstrators were involved in the pushing towards the building. They were soon joined by participants from the major march up the Eastern Ramp to Parliament House from the Kingston Railway station. This march of several thousands proceeded to join what seemed to be the main demonstration on the forecourt. One Canberra Times journalist called it ‘The unstoppable passing parade’. These newly arriving marchers attest to having no idea of the confrontation at the main doors.
The most common view suggests that it was a ‘small violent minority’ that perpetrated the violence at the entrance to the House. According to this view a few hundred protesters were directly involved in the riot while the overwhelming majority of the rally, numbering over 20 000, were peacefully and attentively listening to the speeches from the official platform. Detailed statistical analysis is, of course, difficult. But the reality of ‘August 19’ was more complex.
The AFP estimated that 500-1000 were 'directly' involved in the attempt to gain entry to the House. If 'directly' is understood to mean those physically pushing on police lines, this order of magnitude seems accurate enough according to the video footage. The total number of participants, however, was significantly higher. Canberra Times correspondent Ian Warden described 'several thousands surging up to doors within spitting distance.' Photographic evidence also suggests that several thousand demonstrators filled the forecourt, as does the video footage. Warden captured something of the carnival atmosphere in the forecourt:
"And all of this, this milling burning and shouting in a tidy clean, ceremonial place the planners and managers have always sought to keep unsoiled by anything as spontaneous as free people flexing their democratic pecs and abs. Impertinent but agile protesters climbed up and across the holy marble parapet of the Great Verandah in front of the building and hung their banners there, Eureka and Aboriginal flags even hung across the holy marble parapet of the nations sacred, stainless steel coat of arms. Nothing was sacred and the hitherto aloof, superior and polished parliament, however inexcusable the actual damage done to it yesterday, seemed for a few exciting hours to be a popular amenity. There were huge cheers as Vanstone caught on fire, an angry young man emerged from the cheering crowd to smash in her smoking wire and paper skull again and again with the full force of his skateboard."
Indeed several thousand people, if not the majority of the rally, appear to have participated in this activity. Clearly audible on the AFP video footage are huge cheers, whistling and the chanting of several thousand demonstrators that erupted as the Aboriginal flag and other flags and banners were hung off the Coat of Arms and the Great Terrace. While 500-1000 may have been actively involved in trying to gain entry to the building, at any one time over one thousand additional protesters were clearly providing encouragement.
A significant aspect of the rally was the process of differentiation that occurred within the crowd. Protesters moved from one area to another. The composition of the protest at the Parliament House entrance also changed over time. Initially a high proportion of CFMEU members and Aborigines were directly involved in trying to gain entry to the building. A Security Officer suggests that, as the conflict went on, the proportion of unionists attempting to gain entry declined. Correspondingly the proportion of young people, students, unemployed and younger workers increased. Interestingly, a higher proportion of the younger people engaged in the conflict were women. At least two factors may account for this differentiation.
The first was the attempt by senior union officials to retrieve rank and file members. Stan Sharkey, John Maitland, and other CFMEU officials went up to fetch their members from the melee. Union leaders' concern about the clash was illustrated by a statement issued by CFMEU officials: ‘After the initial protest CFMEU leaders were able to get most of the members who were in the area to leave and attend the main rally.’ Video evidence suggests, however, that a proportion of CFMEU members participated in the melee over a long period, including the operation to gain entry to the building through the Parliament House Shop.
It is clear that the rally organisers did not intend that the protest to should develop in the fashion it did. According to Noonen: 'Clearly the ACTU heavy weights were as shocked as anyone else that a breakaway group of radicals would split from the major demonstration to put a jolt of life into proceedings.' The senior union leadership was, however, unable to stop the attempt to storm Parliament House. Some union leaders, including Jeremy Pyner, acknowledged they had little or no control over militant members of the demonstration. The ACT Police Minister Gary Humphries, concurred with this sentiment in a letter to an injured police officer, saying: ‘The behaviour of some protesters showed little regard for the way protests are managed by their organisers.’
The second factor in the differentiation of the protesters can be characterised as a process of self-selection. The differentiation at the point of conflict corresponded to that among protesters in the forecourt. After a while, most demonstrators in the forecourt must have had an idea of what was going on, either through their own investigations, or as rumours spread throughout the crowd. Rally participants appear to have made a number of choices. They either stayed where they were or investigated the conflict more closely. Upon investigation some protesters chose to participate, either directly or in a support role. After a period many demonstrators at the front doors returned to the official platform as their attempt to gain entry reached a stalemate. Others were repelled by the conflict and returned to the main platform. Indeed, many rally participants at different stages were in the front line of the conflict, supported the effort to enter the building and listened to the official speeches. This process of differentiation was generally complete within the first hour of the protest. It could then be accurately said that the protest had two focuses. One was trying to enter the Parliament House. The other was listening to the speeches at the official platform. But, many demonstrators moved between these two focuses over the next two hours.
At this point it is necessary to clarify the nature of the two demonstrations, beginning with the one at the official platform. Surprisingly, the rally organisers at the official platform seemed oblivious to the riot which had now developed just a few hundred metres away. A large truck with its rear and roof covered formed the main platform. It was at the top of Federation Mall and faced away from the Parliament. Speakers included the Leader of the ALP Opposition, Kim Beazley, the Democrats Leader, Cheryl Kernot, and the Greens' Senators, Dee Margetts and Bob Brown. The chairperson of ATSIC, Louis O'Donahue, spoke as did Peter Fitzgerald, the President of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), the President of the Evatt Foundation and church representatives. ACTU President, Jennie George chaired proceedings.
The official speeches were not widely covered in the press and only brief exerts are documented. However, the speakers were unanimous in their opposition to the Government's policies. Beazley and the Greens Senators said they would continue to reject the Workplace Relations legislation outright. Amid cries of 'Don't sell out' from demonstrators, Kernot promised that the Democrats would make the legislation 'fair at the end of the process'. From the platform George said that workers were 'relying on Labor and the minor parties to defend their rights by defeating the Government's proposals in the Senate'. Each time George mentioned 'defeating' aspects of the Governments agenda she was greeted with huge cheers from the protesters. The need for 'community support' for the Senators was an important emphasis of George's address. George's message to the minor party Senators was that 'the Australian community will support you in your efforts to defeat this legislation.'
Interrupting the official speeches Davie Thomason, a CFMEU organiser from Adelaide, climbed onto the stage and demanded to speak. The incident was widely reported. His faced was bloodied and he spoke while shaking a police riot shield:
"Brothers and sisters, I want first to acknowledge that we are on Aboriginal land to begin with, and that as the CFMEU and other organisations from the construction division, 100 of us have got into our House. And look what we got from the coppers. And we have to remember it's going to be a long haul but these people up here will never defeat us, we have to remember that ... Workers, united, will never be defeated."
The front rows cheered him. Jennie George looked devastated.
In subsequent reports the breakaway demonstration completely overshadowed the official rally. This is unsurprising considering that over 1000 protesters mounted a forcible attempted to gain entry to the Parliament House for over two hours. For most of the time demonstrators were separated from police by heavily reinforced steel and glass doors. They attempted to force the doors with their bodies. Later a trolley from the Parliament House Shop was used as a lever to force open five of the main doors. These gaps were soon filled by police with riot shields. Police attempted to make arrests and protesters tried to break the police line. Some punches were exchanged. A number of demonstrators 'crowd surfed' over the police line, spurred on by huge cheers from the rioters, but they were quickly arrested by police.
Some demonstrators entered the Parliament House Shop by smashing its glass doors with a wheel brace. A number of these demonstrators broke through from the shop into the main foyer. Police then blocked access from the Shop to the foyer. In the Parliament House Shop a number of demonstrators urged others to 'Leave everything where it is, we're here to get into parliament.' Nevertheless, teaspoons, tea towels and other parliamentary memorabilia were taken from the shop. One account alleges that a copy of Paul Kelly's weighty tome, The End of Certainty, was used as a missile against police lines. Walls were grafitied by some protesters, a paint bomb was thrown, as were sticks from placards and drink bottles. One Security Officer alleges that one protester attempted to trigger the fire sprinkler system with a lighter. In all, some 49 protesters forced their way into the building and were arrested.
Police eventually cleared the Parliament House Shop damaging it further. At 2.20 pm the protesters were pushed outside the pillars of the main entrance. Here they stood their ground for a short time before beginning to move back. The bulk of the remaining crowd gathered to hear speeches, which sought to make sense of what had just occurred. The trade union choir and less talented demonstrators sang Solidarity Forever and the Internationale.
There were 197 AFP officers on duty at the start of the demonstration. These were reinforced by Australian Protective Security officers and Parliamentary Security personnel. A further sixty AFP reinforcements were called in from the Police Training Academy. Of these, ninety officers reported injury and one was hospitalised. Initial damage to the gift shop, front doors and entrance was estimated at over $75 000. Of the 49 protesters arrested on the day, two were charged with assault and two with trespassing. Five female protesters were issued with civil orders for breaching the peace. The other forty were not charged.The Aftermath
The Parliament House riot became a major national issue. Talk back radio and the letters' pages in the press were filled with polarised accounts and opinions about the riot for several days. After the initial shock, the Government moved quickly to brand the riot and by implication, all opposed to the budget and the WRB, as being outside ‘mainstream’ Australia and therefore illegitimate. The Government campaigned strongly against the ACTU and the ALP, calling on them to take responsibility for the riot. For several weeks, the Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith, in particular was said to have 'run rings around the ACTU' over the issue.
The Government's Response
Immediately after the riot the Prime Minister John Howard cancelled his scheduled meeting with the ACTU saying he 'would not meet under duress'. Howard delivered a short speech to the police and security personnel in the Great Hall, 'I know all Australians, whatever their political views, will condemn any resort to political violence irrespective of who is in political power, as un-Australian.' The rest of the speech was cautious. Only after the Government had time to assess the wider impact of and reaction to the riot did it go on the offensive. It is possible that Howard sensed he had provoked precisely the kind of backlash that he had sought to avoid. Indeed, a number of cartoons in the press captured the inconsistency between Howard's actual policies, and his vision of a 'comfortable and relaxed' Australia. The riot indicated that Australia was apparently becoming a more openly divided society. The Australian Financial Review emphasised that 'the Government's budget is being brought down against a background of growing social division and industrial unrest’, and that Government advisers were also aware of ‘the difficulty of securing public acceptance of the budget.’
As widespread public concern over the violent scenes became apparent, Howard and Reith quickly adopted a more strident tone. They attempted to portray their opponents, rather than the Government, as the source of insecurity and distress. The day after the protest, John Howard said in Parliament that the ACTU must accept responsibility for the riot:
"Those who organise demonstrations have a responsibility to stop them getting out of hand, and it is utterly disingenuous of the Australian Council of Trade Unions to pretend that it can accept no responsibility at all for what happened yesterday."
The credibility of ACTU leadership was a particular focus of attack. ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty had said the Cavalcade was 'the most successful rally in the history of this country in Canberra'. In fact, Kelty did not have a detailed knowledge of the events when he made his comments. Despite this, his words were heavily repeated and heavily criticised by Government Ministers. The Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer rejected Kelty's claims about the 'union-organised' rally. 'If he's delighted with that sort of union thuggery producing that sort of result, I'm on a different planet from Bill Kelty.'
The Government and the media said that political violence was not part of Australia's traditions. While civil war and the forceful overthrow of Government have not been features of the Australian experience, political violence certainly has. There is of course the violence of the invasion and massacres of Aborigines which continued into this century. And from the earliest period of settlement the convict revolt at Castle Hill, to the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat. The conscription fights during the First World War involved violence from both sides, including armed demonstrations. Troops used live ammunition against striking miners in the Hunter Valley in the early 1920's. The rise of the New Guard in the 1930's involved clashes with police and Communists. The unemployed demonstrations were certainly disturbances of the peace. Political violence was also a feature of sections of the anti-Vietnam war movement and of political struggles into the 1970's. Nevertheless the Herald-Sun maintained that the scenes were 'fittingly described by the Prime Minister John Howard as 'Un-Australian' ... For violence has no place in a peace loving democracy such as Australia, and the bloodshed at yesterday's Canberra riot marked a low point in our political history.'
The attack was also portrayed as being directed against the country's key democratic institution, the Parliament, rather than against the building which housed the Government. This was despite the fact that Federal Parliament had previously been attacked by demonstrators. In 1982 miners broke into Old Parliament House as far as Kings Hall. Despite this history John Howard said: 'What occurred here today was un-Australian ... never under any circumstances will my government buckle to threats of physical violence or behaviour of that kind.' He said it was an 'an insult to the democratic process.' The speaker of the House of Representatives Bob Halverson pursued a similar argument, 'The disgraceful and totally unjustifiable episode that occurred was one of the most shameful in Australia's history.' The theme was taken up by in the press. The view of the The Australian was typical:
The media and political commentators said that the riot had strengthened the hand of the Government. The Coalition could now portray the opposition to their policies as the source of division. Indeed the budget was brought down on August 20 immediately following the riot. Although it included harsh cuts these were conspicuously absent in Treasurer Peter Costello's budget speech. The Government portrayed the budget as 'a fair go'. Accordingly the riot was portrayed as being out of all proportion to the Government's policies. The Canberra Times expressed the dominant view:
The focus of the debate shifted quickly to become an issue of law and order. The Herald-Sun stated that the 'ringleaders must be rounded up and face the full brunt of the law.' The question of responsibility for the violence, the laying of charges and court appearances ensured that the attention continued to be directed toward the trade unions. On August 30 The Sydney Morning Herald printed photographs on the front page naming CFMEU organisers actively involved in the riot. The Government leapt on the revelations. Reith said that George should stop prevaricating, apologise and announce that the ACTU would move swiftly to discipline union officials involved in the violence. Howard challenged her to accept political responsibility because the ACTU had organised the rally and the riot 'was a product of the rally.'
The ACTU Council meeting on September 3 provided another opportunity for the Government. Reith accused the ACTU of failing to cooperate with police investigations and failure to take strong disciplinary action against those who were involved. John Sharp, the Minister for Transport also weighed in. He claimed that the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) was also involved in the violence at Parliament House.
The Government directed its attack on the ALP over the riot too. Beazley had spoken on the official platform. He had said that Liberal Government 'hated' workers, the unemployed, pensioners, students and Aboriginal people. Howard responded in Parliament, suggesting that 'those who use inflammatory language, those who exceeded reasonable political criticism, can [not] completely escape responsibility for what happened yesterday.' Government Senator Robert Hill also referred to Beazley's speech directly and called on the ALP to take responsibility and apologise for the riot.
The Government's attack on the ALP and the ACTU over the issue continued for months. On December 3 Reith raised a report in the AFP journal that alleged that demonstrators deliberately targeted female officers in the riot. Reith blamed the ACTU, and proceeded to implicate the ALP with responsibility because of its relationship to the union movement. Howard also interjected to support Reith's assertion. Reith continued to harry the ACTU over the riot in 1997. On June 2 George, launched a campaign outside a Sportsgirl shop against the low pay and poor conditions of outworkers. George entered the shop and asked to speak to a store manager to present an official complaint. The press leapt on the issue and Reith said he agreed with a newspaper editorial that George's foray into the store reminded people of the 'ugly face of unionism', shown by last August's riot at Parliament House. A spokesman for Howard also accused the ACTU leader of 'bullying tactics'.
The Government's theme of union 'thuggery' even continued in 1998. There is a clear continuity between the struggle over the introduction of the WRB and the waterfront dispute. The introduction of the WRB helped lay a legal and industrial parameters for future battles. The riot was used by the Government to paint the union opposition as out of all proportion to the new law. Indeed the riot demonstrated that excess union power had to be curbed. This political message in turn shaped the Government's public intervention in the waterfront dispute. This was characterised by a public relations offensive over the need for waterfront 'reform' and direct attacks on MUA 'thuggery'. In early February 1998 Patrick Stevedores locked out 300 workers at Webb Dock in Melbourne. Pickets were formed and two security guards were injured by broken glass when an MUA member threw a stone through a minibus window. Reith denounce the behaviour of the waterside workers as 'thuggish, un-Australian and unacceptable'. He called on the MUA and the ACTU to apologise, saying: 'There is no excuse for this thuggery. It just shows you how low these people can get. The Labor Party has remained silent in the face of violence. The ACTU has remained silent. I think Jennie George should apologise.' The continuity between the Government's message over the riot and the dispute is striking.
The Union Leadership
The strategy of the labour movement's leadership, both of the industrial and political wings, now lay in tatters. Union and ALP leaders argued that the rioters did not represent the "mainstream" of the opposition to the Government. They denounced the riot and closed ranks against those who participated in it. The effect was to reinforce the Coalitions arguments.
According to George: 'What occurred at Parliament House had nothing to do with the organisers of this rally ... [the ACTU] did not support incidents of a violent nature.' In an interview on Channel Nine's Sunday program following the rally George concentrated on distancing the ACTU from the events of 'wanton violence and wanton destruction', 'actions and behaviour [that] had nothing to do with the mainstream of the union movement' and did 'serious damage to the union movement'. When asked about allegations that union organisers, 'paid by the union movement', participated in the riot, George declared that they 'were on their own'. The ACTU 'would not walk away from responsibility' for disciplining union officials. George was on the back foot under questioning and spent more time distancing the ACTU from the 'violence' than addressing the substantive politics of the protest. Only in her final comment did she draw attention to what she saw as the 'Prime Minister’s opportunistic approach to events.' The effect of news footage and reports of Jenny George's concerns about the riot reinforced the view that the Government was correct in its condemnation of the ACTU and the labour movement generally.
The ACTU leadership and union bureaucracy generally was severely disoriented by this turn of events and was clearly in retreat. It did not retreat in good order. Divisions emerged within the ACTU itself and within the wider movement. At least two senior ACTU union officials broke ranks issuing apologies and accepting part responsibility for the violence. The National Secretary of the right-wing AWU, Steve Harrison, wrote to the Australian Federal Police Association (AFPA) not one but two letters apologising for the 'unwarranted and inexcusable violence' and saying the 'ACTU accepts part responsibility for the events, in retrospect placement of the stage, lack of marshals and public address could a have been better placed.' ACTU Assistant Secretary Bill Mansfield also accepted 'part responsibility' in a letter to the AFPA. George and Kelty were reported to have believed that Mansfield had gone too far. George also alleged that senior ALP officials, in particular the Federal Parliamentary leadership, were mounting also mounting a campaign to destabilise her leadership.
Right-wing unions and the right-wing NSW Labor Council, joined the Government and media attacks on the ACTU and the rioters. Secretary of the NSW Labor Council, Peter Sams earned praise in The Australian for his criticisms of Bill Kelty and the ACTU leadership for the unsatisfactory organisation of the rally. Sams said that Kelty's description of the rally as the most successful in the ACTU's history was absurd. He suggested that the ACTU should take responsibility for what happened. The Shop Distributive and Allied Employees' Association (SDA) used the bulk of its coverage of the Cavalcade to attack the storming of the House. It alleged that the 'violence was perpetrated by a small group of extremists several hundred metres away from the official ACTU rally'. The SDA's journal also reprinted sections of Senator Brian Harradine's speech attacking the protest. Perhaps the most vociferous assault was in the journal of the NSW branch of the Electrical Trades Union, ETA News, headlined 'No Place for Riff Raff'. The journal suggested that the events left 'a nasty taste in the mouths of all responsible unionists' and that there is 'no place in a working union movement for some of the riff raff who supposedly represented us in Canberra that day'. Such actions must be 'expunged from the union movement.' The centre spread included photographs and names of CFMEU organisers 'in the front line' of the riot. Photographs of other protesters being dragged off by police were also published. One photograph carried the by-line 'Gotcha' with a bolded quote from a police superintendent that 'some of the people who attended had ulterior motives.'
The major left unions were less engaged in hand wringing and even opposed the response of the trade union right. But they did distance themselves from riot. They argued that a small number of protesters had given the media and Howard the excuse to ignore their concerns. The protesters' actions were therefore pointless and unproductive. The official journal of the Public Transport Union (PTU) suggested the 'violence [was] caused by the police and a small part of the rally, [and] was seized on by PM Howard to successfully divert attention from the huge reaction to his Bill by working people.' The National Secretary of the Construction and General Division of the CFMEU, John Sutton, attacked those union leaderships which had gone along with the chorus:
"While we accept some of the criticisms, none of us need the hypocrisy that has come thick and fast from conservative interests including some right wing unions. They are strong on producing disgust, but always weak on fighting workers' rights through hard struggle."
Whatever the public positions of the left unions, they still carried out internal 'witchunts' against organisers involved in the riot. Two major Left unions, the AMWU and the CFMEU, announced that any officials involved would be sacked. Doug Cameron, National Secretary of the AMWU, attacked the 'minority that did its best to wreck it for the peaceful majority' and wrote that 'any AMWU official found guilty will be sacked'. CFMEU Secretary Stan Sharkey adopted a similar position.
The first day of the ACTU Council meeting in early September was taken up with discussing the response to the riot. A motion stated that:
"The ACTU Council condemns, in the strongest possible terms, the violent actions of a small minority of protesters at the rally. These acts of violence and destruction of property are totally abhorrent to the union movement and any person found to be involved should receive no support or comfort from our movement."
The ACTU also said 'Should individual union officials or union members be found guilty of serious offences, ... disciplinary actions by the unions is warranted.' In other words, the ACTU responded to events by making concessions to the Government's criticisms. Some unions simply reprinted the ACTU Council resolution in their journals and offered no further comment.
After the Cavalcade and the budget, it was noticeable that the national union campaign against the WRB narrowed considerably. The campaign would be limited to more conventional channels. From the September 3, ACTU Council Meeting no further public rallies were called for. Its aims now consisted of raising public and community awareness, coordination of delegates' and activists' meetings to relay the current state of the bill's passage, and the organisation of delegations to non-government Senators.
The ACTU campaign against Public Sector cutbacks was similarly based on lobbying for amendments to some aspects of the Budget, and the rejection of some legislation, for instance the privatisation of the Commonwealth Employment Service. After the ACTU Council meeting, the recommended strategy was to 'develop an ongoing community based campaign' which would include 'a meeting of relevant affiliates.' The main focus was to be 'targeting a key marginal seat in each State or Territory', and raising public awareness through public meetings, billboards, stickers, and a 'respected persons network' to make comment on the issues. The thrust of the campaign was to encourage votes against the Coalition in the distant future. The campaign did not in practice eventuate. For example, the CPSU National Executive on 21 August, recommended 'a broad based campaign across all public sector unions in opposition to the Government's attack, commencing with joint public sector meetings in September'. The motion was passed by mass meetings of CPSU workers but the joint public sector meetings were never held. Attendance at CPSU mass meetings, and at Higher Education rallies dropped off sharply after the budget. Demoralisation and passivity appear to have set in amongst the union membership.
The spectre of August 19 haunted the ACTU over the next year and half. The launch of the ACTU's 'Living Wage' case in late September 1996 was a staid affair attended by a few hundred delegates. George made clear before that it would be a 'little rally' and stressed that it would be peaceful. The Victorian Trades Hall Secretary, Lee Hubard, who organised the event called on the ACTU to refrain from intervening, and said that he did not understand why the ACTU was running around 'beating it up'.
The ACTU and MUA leaderships made similar statements during the maritime dispute in 1998. After the lockout of MUA members at Webb Dock in Melbourne, Jennie George called for the workers to keep their emotions under control. After a rock was thrown at a minibus by an MUA member the MUA's national secretary,
John Coombs, said he was shocked by the attack and was reported to have said the person responsible could be expelled from the union.
The Parliamentary Opposition
The leadership of the Labor party were unequivocal in their condemnation of the 'rioters'. Senior figures of the Parliamentary Party, from the left and right condemned the riot. On the left Senator Faulkner, Opposition leader in the Senate, was clear that 'as far as the opposition is concerned, we make absolutely clear that we condemn acts of violence, destruction of property and attacks on police.' On the Right, Kim Beazely referred to 'lunatics' and 'louts who went off and attacked parliament' Deputy Opposition leader Gareth Evans described the protesters as 'crazy, self-indulgent bastards' adding that 'what happened yesterday was ugly, un-Australian, stupid and indefensible.'
The day after the riot Beazely summed up the standard labourist assessment of the political effects of the demonstration:
"I think that the tragedy caused by the lunatics who attacked the parliament, apart from absolutely unacceptable consequences in terms of personal damage and damage to property, is that they draw attention away from what was, around the country, a peaceful and lawful demonstration by decent citizens asserting their rights to democratically express their concerns about the direction of government and broken undertakings in the budget and industrial relations."
At least half of Beazley's speech advocated the strengthening of security at the Parliament. The finer points of Beazley's speech in Parliament were overshadowed, as the Government and press went on the offensive over the violence. Cheryl Kernot also 'condemned the violent and destructive actions of those protesters at the doors of parliament.'
Labors' acceptance of the Liberals' construction of the riot as an issue of law and order helped shift opinion to the right. Beazley 'conceded' that the pre-budget parliament House disturbance made the job of discrediting the Budget and the proposed industrial relations reforms much more difficult. John Howard was conscious that the government was on winning ground, pointing out in Parliament that even Kim Beazleys language and terms of reference shifted to match those of the government. The Canberra Times said that the 'ALP added fuel to the governments fire. The anger and impotence of the opposition was palpable. Deputy leader Gareth Evans did no good by labelling the protesters actions as 'bastardry'.' Labor was so busy disassociating itself from the riot that it made absolutely no progress with the message that the coalition budget was fostering an increasingly divided Australia.
There were two minor exceptions to this pattern among the parliamentarians. Police allege that ALP Senator Rosemary Crowley was in the crowd twenty metres from the doors on the August 19, 'yelling that it was everyone's Parliament House and that everyone should be let in. If people had placards they could just pass them through the security machine and take them inside', Senator Crowley, however, denied the allegations. The other exception was the Western Australian Greens Senator,
Dee Margetts. While not condoning what had occurred, Margetts suggested that the debate had shifted away from the primary issue of the cause of the conflict. She suggested that the riot had become a 'law and order' issue which was being used to mask a more fundamental violence in society.
Despite this distinctive and credible position the Greens Senator's stance was marginal in the public debate. The Australian commented that by condemnation the ACTU, Beazley and Kernot meant that, 'the rioters are isolated by all sides of politics. Their form of protest stands condemned, not only by all parties, but by all Australians.'Explanations 1: 'Mob violence'
Agitators and Dupes
There are no secondary accounts which offer an explanation of the riot. A common view emerges, however, from police accounts, the press and statements by senior union officials. In this view, the breakaway demonstration and attempt to gain entry to Parliament House was premeditated. This was, primarily, the work of 'hardline Maoists' in the CFMEU. They were joined by 'troublemakers' among the Aboriginal contingent. These were involved in the initial conflict, and in further violence at Old Parliament House the following day. Also jumping on the bandwagon were a range of political extremists - Trotskyist groups and anarchists. These three groups hijacked the event and caused the bulk of the destruction. Through their actions and encouragement these agitators managed to embroil a larger group of unsuspecting protesters in the riot. Combined they formed a violent mob. The mob refused to accept police direction, violently attacked the building, police and security personnel, and looted the gift shop.
The police regarded the crowd as hostile and destructive. According to AFP Superintendent, Peter McDonald, 'I've been a policeman here for over 32 years and I don't think I've ever seen anything as ugly as this.' It was as a 'frightening demonstration' and 'worse than AIDEX'. Indeed, over the course of two days more than 100 officers were injured. Constable Rachel Benthein said the protesters she faced had violent motives: 'Most of those involved in the assault weren't there to demonstrate against John Howard - they were there to cause destruction and, on the second day, to have a conflict with police.' Constable Corey Heldon was part of the police group swept away by the initial charge toward Parliament House on the Monday:
"We ended up against the wrong side of the front doors. The mood was very aggressive, very angry. The crowd were unwilling to take directions; they were taunting us, abusing us, accusing us of being lackeys of the state. I've never seen anything like it. ... They tried to pull me into the crowd but I was pulled back by fellow officers, otherwise I might have been swallowed up by the crowd."
When asked to explain what had occurred and how the situation had got so out of hand, a security officer said that 'It was senseless, a mob, mob violence, people just got carried away.'
Press explanations concurred with this view. The Herald Sun called the riot 'a brutal and unprecedented display of mob violence.' Canberra Times journalist, Peter Cole Adams, said the assault was the work of 'a mob of bully boys and assorted political extremists'. According to Adams:
"The fact is several hundred people were so carried along by the mob dynamic that they mounted a sustained and violent assault on parliament ... people who organise mass demonstrations should know that opportunists with anarchic agendas may try to take over the show and that others will be angry, gullible or drunk enough to follow their lead. This seems to have been what happened yesterday."
Adams also suggested that social conditions played some limited role:
"It takes more than a few misguided revolutionaries to create yesterdays ugly scenes ... Such people are irrelevant unless they can play on the fears and fury of a lot of normally law-abiding people who suddenly feel threatened and afraid."
Senator Brian Harradine was also emphatic that, ‘...we cannot allow a handful of Trotskyists, anarchists and thugs to exploit the genuine feelings of many people and thrust them into violent activity.’ In this view assorted outside troublemakers imposed their violent actions onto to innocent and otherwise peaceful protesters.
The Bulletin popularised the idea that the protest was the work of agitators and dupes. One article suggested that 'What began as a day of union action was hijacked by splinter groups.' Alcohol also played a role. An empty beer can from the scene allegedly bore a sticker which said 'Time to fuck the system that's been fucking us'. The sticker also invited the drinker to throw the can at 'anyone who represents the system' and featured a picture of John Howard with an axe buried in his head, 'The best cut of all'. According to The Bulletin:
"The beer can was a part of a volatile mixture of alcohol, anger, and anarchy that led sections of the crowd, most of them dupes but some willing agents' provocateurs, to throw themselves on, and past police, and smash their way into Parliament House."
The Bulletin also suggested that the violence was likely to be repeated as 'radical elements take advantage of public anger over a range of issues - from unemployment to the environment to airport noise.'
The subsequent law and order campaign led to more specific allegations about the role of 'agitators'. It was alleged that the breakaway demonstration was premeditated. AFP Assistant Commissioner, Bill Stoll, suggested that, 'a small percentage of the crowd went there with the intention of causing trouble, otherwise why did they take sledge hammers, tyre levers and other weapons. According to Taylor, members of the CFMEU were involved. 'Breaching the police line at the exit of the Commonwealth Avenue ramp were all manner of red flags of the CFMEU and the Eureka flags of the BLF, no one could have doubted it was premeditated, it might not have been officially sanctioned but it did seem pre-planned.' An article in the Sun-Herald also suggested that members of the CFMEU planned the breakaway. In particular, 'a core group of at least six of the most violent protesters shown on media footage of Monday's riot were drinking at the Trade Union club on the weekend, among interstate unionists in town.' Also identified as a leader of the 'breakaway group' was a 'prominent Aboriginal land campaigner'.
Senior left union officials, some of whose members had been involved in the attempt to gain entry to Parliament, were under pressure to find an explanation. ACTU officials were reported to have said that 'hardline Maoists' in the CFMEU instigated the violence. ACTU Assistant Secretary Bill Mansfield also said 'There is no doubt that there is always the risk of a Trotskyist group at demonstrations such as the one we had yesterday who are intent on provoking violence.' Wendy Caird, CPSU Joint National Secretary, said 'people from the fringe political parties were involved.' And a CFMEU official suggested that 'insurgent student activists' had 'disguised themselves in union shirts and caps. Students infiltrated bonafide unionists.'
Such accounts offer an easy explanations for what occurred, the most violent and sustained assault on the Federal Parliament in Australian history was the work of a few violent agitators and assorted extremists. A mass of scared, insecure, unsuspecting and otherwise peaceful protesters got caught up in the 'mob' atmosphere, or were impelled to violence by these 'fringe elements'.
Mainstream Crowd Psychology
The mob has a long history. The French statesman Thiers in 1850 spoke of 'the name, one of the worst stigmatised in history, mark you, of mob. The vile mob which brought every republic down in ruin.' It is significant that this mainstream construction of the August 19 riot fits into more academic literature on crowd or 'mob' psychology. The dominant academic version of crowd psychology also springs from the Nineteenth Century. Crowd psychology's most influential modern populariser, Gustave LeBon in his 1895 The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, suggested that 'several of the special characteristics of crowds [are] impulsivity, irritability, incapacity to reason, absence of judgement or critical spirit, exaggeration of emotions and more beside.' LeBon saw the crowd as an inherently destructive force in which the 'group mind' obfuscated individual judgement and left participants open to manipulation by agitators. Explanations of the riot were almost identical to the terminology and assumptions of LeBon. LeBon's 'mob psychology' has been heavily criticised as more an expression of the fears and political motives of the French ruling class in the last quarter of the Nineteenth Century than a sophisticated analysis. More recent experimental and theoretical developments in mainstream crowd psychology, such as work by Allport in the 1920s, and Zimbardo in the 1960's contradicted LeBon's explanations. They have, nevertheless, tended to agreement with LeBon's basic premises about the asocial outcomes of crowd formation.
George Rude in particular contests the assumptions and conclusions of this behaviourist school as historically inaccurate. Rude's studies on the role of the crowd in the French revolution and urban riots in Britain in the Nineteenth Century challenged the notion that crowds are necessarily irrational, degenerate, or manipulated by outside agitators. While not denying their capacity for destruction, Rude pointed to the central role of the crowd and mass action in the emergence of relatively sophisticated 'forward looking' social movements that have shaped the modern Western and contemporary world in a complex and often subtle manner. Studies of the urban 'ghetto' riots of the 1960's in the United States also suggest an integral relationship between the riots and the development of popular and potentially effective social movements. The link between social movements and collective action, even riots, suggests that crowd behaviour is more complex than suggested by the behaviourist tradition.
Marxist Social Psychology
A critical Marxist, stream of social psychology provides a critique of mainstream crowd psychology and suggests an alternative approach. Stephen Reicher identifies two crucial problems with the mainstream approach. The first a bias, both political bias and bias of perspective. The second was an inadequate understanding of individual psychology and hence its relationship to collective action. These will be discussed in turn below.
Governments and commentators of the day are typically partisan in their defence of the establishment institutions and practices. Their main concern is to eliminate popular disturbances as a threat, not to understand them. There is also a bias of perspective. Mainstream explanations are never from participants, they regard the crowd from the outside. They are views formed without an understanding of the beliefs and experiences of those involved in protest. Further, the events are not studied first hand, since it is assumed a priori that they are undesirable, destructive and senseless. Indeed this is exactly what the term 'mob' denotes. The role of authority, and hence of social factors and legitimate grievances are down played if not ignored.
Further, mainstream crowd psychology is based on a distortion of the relationship between the individual and society. Behaviourist psychology abstracts the individual from society and behaviour from social context. This leads to theoretical distortions in relation to the dynamics of collective behaviour. On the one hand otherwise 'normal law abiding citizens' are said to undergo a loss of self and a loss of personal responsibility in the group or 'mob'. One the other, antisocial individuals may be attracted or instigate such disturbances.
Reicher posits an alternative stream of social psychology as the basis for understanding collective action. This draws on the 'social identity' model, according to which:
"Social conflict involves the collective reactions of people sharing common social identities and acting in terms of those identities. It is social forces and social organisation which give form and substance to the social categorisations, norms and values, social comparisons, collective goals, and so on that mediates individual behaviour in social conflict. Our minds and ourselves are socially structured, and social identity provides the psychological link between social structure and large-scale collective behaviour."
Only on the basis of shared understandings, can we begin to understand the dynamics of collective action. Rather than collective action involving a loss of identity on the part of individuals, or some reversion to a form of asocial individuality, control shifts from personal identity to a relevant shared social identity. Hence a 'spontaneous' occurrence, which to the police mind seems as the formally coordinated and premeditated work of outside 'agitators', even where they are conspicuously absent or marginal, can be understood to be a socially meaningful and creative response by a body of people with shared social definitions and understandings. Further, any full investigation of a specific conflict must be situated in terms of the broader historical, political, social and economic environment.
Before progressing further a point of qualification must be made. It is not proposed that the demonstrations are not capable of destructive behaviour, or that individuals may never 'lose it', but rather that demonstrations can be both creative and destructive. There are ‘limits’ on both imposed by the ‘norms’ and ideological understandings of the demonstrators. Indeed any discussion of ‘violence’ should take account of these 'limits' and distinguish between collective acts and acts by individuals.
Specific crowd actions must therefore be closely documented and analysed in terms of the role of group conflict and authority, on the one hand, and in terms crowd targets and norms and limits, on the other. Important in this process is developing an understanding of how riots can be socially meaningful responses to specific situations and conflicts. Reddy, writing about working class crowds in Rouen in the Nineteenth Century, concluded that ‘the targets of these crowds thus glitter in the eye of history as signs of the labourers' conception of the nature of society.’ Crowd action then 'tends to make sense when viewed in terms of the ideologies associated with the collectivities who were involved.'
Dissecting the August 19 Riot
How then do these general theoretical propositions apply to the concrete historical case of the demonstration on August 19? The construction of events by the Government, police and the media has already been examined. The dominant view suggested that the riot was the work of agitators who forced, or swept up, a larger unsuspecting mass of innocent protesters in their plans. 'Part of the crowd formed itself into a mob which broke into the building on a rampage of smashing and looting.'
One important aspect of the mainstream account was that the breakaway demonstration was pre-planned. On the basis of circumstantial evidence this cannot be ruled out. Members and a number CFMEU organisers were prominent leading the charge to the doors. At some stage a decision must have been taken to enter the forecourt. This may have been a relatively spontaneous decision, taken by those at the head of the CFMEU contingent after the police and Aboriginal protesters clashed ahead of them and left the forecourt open. It is also possible a decision was taken some time earlier. Does this mean the riot was than the work of agitators, a minority who consciously sought to arouse activity on the part of other rally participants? 'Agitators' in this sense may have played a role. But there activity still begs the question of why particular acts became normative while others did not. Why did anyone pay any attention to the 'agitators'? The demonstrators involved in the riot numbered closer to two thousand than two hundred. The vast majority of these were not hardline Maoists, Trotskyists, or anarchists. Rather they were workers, students, Aborigines, unemployed people and even pensioners. There was a handful of political activists. Reicher's approach would suggest that the bulk of these protesters acted, not because they lost their capacity for thinking under the influence of agitators, but because they shared understandings.
Slogans may provide an insight into these understandings. The slogan, 'The workers, united, will never be defeated' was chanted for long periods, suggesting a high shared identification amongst participants as workers or as supporters of workers interests. As we have seen Howard's 'mandate' was contested. A good deal of anger was directed against the Prime Minister in particular. Nurses, firefighters, public servants earlier in the day were chanting. ‘What do we want, Howard's head. How we gonna get it? Tear it off!’ Among the rioters, 'We're coming to get you Johnny' was also popular. It is in the context of a considerable degree of anger among protesters and perceptions of the Howard Government's illegitimacy, that the building was attacked. One of the most sustained chants among those attempting to gain entry to the building, was ‘Our House, lets us in.' It is clearly audible on the AFP video footage. One participant Patrick Brownlee, from Mount Bromlow NSW, explained:
"I am appalled at the white-washing of the event as simple thuggery and the action of a minority of protesters. Everybody seems to be upset that the symbol of democracy, Parliament House, was challenged. But it was precisely because it was the seat of government that it was attacked ... the busting of the main doors was both a symbolic and real challenge to the ivory tower of political power."
In this assessment, Parliament symbolised not democracy but the lack of it. Demonstrators commented on the institution and even the design of the building itself, geographically isolated from the major population centres, as symbolic of their exclusion from decision making, as well as the practical means by which Governments exerted control over them.
Some rioters also defined their actions in counterposed to the official protest. A popular chant was 'Jennie George, time to fight, time to call a general strike.' Political activists did tend to have use of the megaphones, but the chant was taken up by large numbers of rioters and is clearly audible on the AFP videotape. There was then, a conscious division, between at least some of rioters and the aims of the official platform. This is testified to by the attempt by senior union officials to persuade their rank and file members to return to the official platform. It met limited success.
The notion of ‘limits' and ideological understandings of the demonstrators also applies to the question of violence against the police, and damage to the building. It is difficult to quantify the extent to which police were attacked directly and for what reasons, but some cautious remarks can be made.
The level of violence against the police was fairly low. The bulk of injuries sustained by the police and security guards were to their hands. Some police wore protective gloves but others did not and received strains or cuts to their hands as a result of pushing against protesters and trying to remove their placards. Others were injured as they attempted to stop demonstrators from taking their riot shields. There are reports that punches and kicks were exchanged between police and demonstrators but these were minor instances and both groups sought to restrain those involved.
Sixty police were reportedly injured, including two seriously, while an unknown number of demonstrators were injured. This was inevitable as two tightly packed groups of several hundred rammed against each other for nearly two hours. Allegations were later made that one female officer was verbally abused and kicked on the ground and that female officers were targeted specifically by the rioters. There is no evidence that this was in fact the case. One female officer did collapse as she was crushed between the wall of protesters and police. However, a security officer also said that at least two female protesters collapsed in the crush. One was passed over the police lines, the other over the protesters.
The 'ugly' and 'frightening' side of the demonstration was in part that protesters refused to accept police direction. Indeed the police were almost overwhelmed at various stages of the riot. Naturally the police and security personnel viewed the rioters as dangerous and irrational. 'Violence' does not seem to have been a motivating factor in the protesters actions. It was clearly limited, and overwhelmingly directed at attempting to push the police lines which were stopping the demonstrators from gaining entry to the building.
To what extent were weapons used by protesters? A wheel brace was used to break the glass on the outer and inner doors of the Parliament House Shop. A metal trolley, which was recorded in the Hansard and by the police as part of premeditated plan to gain forcible entry to building was actually taken from the Parliament House Shop. The Bulletin claimed that some protesters came to the demonstration armed 'with hammers, wheel braces, paint and syringes filled with diluted acid, weapons readied before the event in anticipation ... rocks, bottles, and cans were also thrown.' No evidence of the hammer has ever appeared, nor of the rocks or 'syringes filled with diluted acid'. Water bottles, cans and sticks from placards were also thrown at police after they had cleared protesters from the Parliamentary House Shop. The paint bomb and beer cans with stickers were pre-arranged. However these were produced by a tiny anarchist group, a few individuals who were completely marginal to the course of events. There is no evidence to suggested that a significant number of protesters brought weapons and intended to riot. Most of the 'weapons' appear to have been objects that the protesters would have been carrying anyway.
Individual demonstrators did attack the building directly. But again this was not necessarily a 'mindless' exercise. The choice of building was not indiscriminate. Parliament House was attacked 'precisely because it was the seat of Government.' The main damage occurred not for its own sake but as a by-product of gaining entry to the building. Glass was knocked out of a window and a door as a means of gaining entry to the foyer through the Parliament House Shop. The Shop was further damaged as the police pushed demonstrators out of the area. Among demonstrators 'looting' was not necessarily considered 'appropriate'. The taking of goods from the shop appears to have been a source of disagreement among protester involved in the riot. It would be wrong to suggest that material gain was the main or even a significant factor explaining the riot.
The bulk of the damage bill is accounted for because the frames of the main doors were buckled under the weight of demonstrators and police. A number of doors also had to have hinges repaired. None of this could be accurately described as a 'rampage of smashing'. There were at least two other isolated acts. One demonstrator attempted, unsuccessfully, to disrupt the building by holding a lighter to the sprinkler system. And a wall was grafitied with the statement 'Let, us, in' and 'the workers united, will never be defeated.' There is no way of verifying if such actions were met with approval by other protesters at the time. But, given the motivations of the demonstrators these actions may have been considered 'appropriate'.
Media reports of the 'violence' conflated incidents from the August 20 demonstration at Old Parliament House with that on August 19. On August 20 demonstration the police 'lost control' for a second time. The AFP video recording of shows the police, restraining Aboriginal demonstrators on the steps of the Old Parliament House, forcing them back to the road, and letting fly with batons and repeatedly beating any protester in reach. It was only after the police 'rioted' that Aboriginal demonstrators took up positions across the road and returned a heavy volley of rocks. A number of police were injured and the Old Parliament House sustained a broken window. Here the police were directly targeted, but this was after provocation.
The riot is more adequately understood by using the approach of a critical social psychology. It is obviously difficult to establish the precise motivations of the rioters. The conclusions are therefore tentative. However mainstream explanations of the riot do not adequately explain the motivations of the demonstrators. On the basis of Reicher's approach patterned behaviour and shared understandings appear to have played an important role in shaping the behaviour of the rioters. Further the mainstream explanations are empirically inaccurate. The level of violence was low and was not primarily directed against the police. The actions of the rioters were not malicious, indiscriminate, or irrational. This is not to suggest that individuals did not 'lose it', nor that they were not destructive, rather that there were clear limits on the protesters behaviour. As Stephen Reicher proposes such events are often the outcome of lengthy social processes, not simply reflex actions. Therefore any full analysis must also take into account how the particular outcome fits into the wider historical context of intergroup conflict. The riot must be related to the broader and immediate social, economic and political conditions. These areas will be examined in detail in the following chapters.
Explanations 2: Minority Working Class Anger
Emotion is an important factor in mobilisation. Anger and resentment at the established order were clearly displayed on August 19. As we have seen the mainstream account of the riot was that it was the work of 'lunatics' and 'thugs' who drew in the 'mindless' and 'senseless'. By psychologising the individuals the role of authority and context is occluded. Emotion is not simply an individual phenomenon. Hugh McKay, a prominent analyst and commentator on social trends, suggested that the emotions displayed in the storming of parliament were not the psychological problems of a few individuals. Rather they were:
"a symptom of a deeper malaise warranting serious diagnosis. ... A violent outburst of this kind implies that there must be a great deal of frustrated anger in sections of the community and that such frustration needs to be adequately dealt with rather than ignored or mocked. This is a generally insecure community, buffeted by years of social, cultural, technological and economic upheaval. Confidence is low. Unemployment is high."
A detailed examination of the wider social and political conditions is therefore essential to developing a thorough understanding of the basis on which the emotions of anger and resentment expressed in the riot were formed.
Since the early 1970's the industrialised core of international capitalism has experienced a period of protracted economic crisis characterised by an historical decline in growth rates, relative economic stagnation and mass unemployment. The experience of the Australian economy has matched this broader international economic experience. There is considerable debate as to the causes of this crisis: monetarist and keynesian accounts locate the problems in factors external to the Australian economy, such as the oil shock, deteriorating terms of trade, or to too much or too little state intervention. Marxist accounts by contrast, suggest that the problems of the Australian economy do not primarily concern state intervention or the lack of it, or some exogenous variable. The crisis in Australia is part of a global phenomenon, ultimately caused by declining profit rates.
The competitive dynamic of capital accumulation provides a continual pressure for the restructuring of capital. This process is characterised by shifting capital investment between industries, upgrading plant and equipment within individual firms and branches of industry, and changes to the labour process. The process is disruptive by nature. Two main factors condition the recent Australian and international experience. The first is a tendency towards a greater global integration of the process of capital accumulation. The second factor has been the relative strengths and weaknesses of periods of cyclical economic recession and recovery over the last two decades. Declining profit rates and the associated pressure for greater global integration of production mean uncompetitive firms or industries are shaken out, and this has meant that workers are layed off and labour intensified for those who remain.
The Accord years
Owing to the scope of this sub-thesis the examination of this restructuring and its social impact will be limited to its two most recent and distinct periods: that under the Hawke-Keating Labor Government's from 1983-1996, and the Coalition Government from 1996. The broad experience in Australia under Labor from 1983 to 1996 was typical of that of the OECD countries. The terms 'structural adjustment' (OECD), 'Thatcherism' (Britain), 'Reaganomics' (USA), 'Perestroika' (USSR) and 'restructuring' and 'micro-economic reform' (Australia) describe a similar process of managed economic change.
Under Labor 'restructuring' and 'micro-economic reform' was managed through a series of Prices and Incomes Accords. Union participation was a central aspect. Senior union leaders were involved in Government decision making and represented on a range of tripartite economic and industry, consultative forums. Supporters argued that the Accord would ensure that restructuring could take place within a framework that would limit social dislocation and economic polarisation. Wages in particular were not to rise faster than prices. In return the Government made a commitment to bring about growth in employment, union involvement in industry policy and higher social wage (spending on health, education and welfare).
The Accord framework was promoted as a third way between orthodox Keynesian state intervention and the 'neo-liberal' economic policies of the Australian New Right. There is considerable debate about the implementation and impact of the overall Accord framework. However, the Hawke-Keating Governments moved steadily to the right, implementing a range of policies advocated by the conservative side of politics. These included: the deregulation of the Australian financial system, deregulation of trade through tariff cuts, 'micro-economic reform' designed to improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australian industry, reduction of areas of state expenditure, rationalisation and privatisation of state-owned enterprises, shifting the tax burden away from high income earners and companies, and an increasingly decentralised and productivity based industrial relations system. The core strategy of these policies, the pursuit of international competitiveness and openness to market forces is otherwise known as 'economic rationalism'. In terms of economic policy, Labor paved the way for a more extreme and openly right-wing version of this agenda under the Coalition. I will now consider the social impact and the reaction to Labor and Coalition policies, of three groups represented in the riot: workers, Aboriginal people and students.
Through the Accord Labor Government's restrained industrial militancy over wages. Average paid real wages, which includes management salaries, actually fell by 6 per cent between 1983/4 and 1989/90. Real award wages on the other hand, not including management salaries, fell by 10 per cent on average over the same period. And although spending on the social wage did increase it was offset by: tighter means testing of and cuts to some benefits, the introduction of a raft of 'user pays' charges, and the shifting of the overall taxation burden further from the rich and companies to workers.
Labor Government's argued that restraining real wages would contribute to employment growth and security of employment. However cyclical recovery and recession, widespread industry restructuring, and contracting out and privatisation of public services resulted in major job shedding. The number of people employed in government enterprises in Australia fell by 24 per cent between 1987-88 and 1992-3. At the same time labour productivity rose by over one hundred percent. Labor Governments had promised to create jobs, however 'structural' unemployment had increased from 5 to 8 per cent by the time labor left office in 1996.
There was also an increased polarisation of the labour market under the Accord. The female participation rate grew, but much of this was in insecure and part time and casual work, in part filled by women to supplement the falling income of their partners. After the early 1990's recession the labour market polarised further: 'The growth in employment during 1993-1996 occurred mostly in the low paid area (under 75 percent of the median wage), with some growth at the top (above 175 per cent of the median), and a shrinking middle of core jobs.' Not only were there less jobs but workers were increasingly concentrated in low paid and insecure employment.
Government industrial relations policy directly affected the levels of stress and insecurity at work. Labor's introduction of a decentralised and productivity based industrial relations system aimed to boost productivity thorough a more intensive utilisation of capital. This was entrenched with the introduction of Enterprise Bargaining (EB) in 1990. The removal of 'restrictive work practices' such as penalty rates and standard working hours in a number of industries meant full-time workers worked increasingly long hours, including unpaid overtime. Their hours of work increased from 40 per week in 1978 to 44 per week in 1995, while the proportion working more than 49 hours per week rose from 28 to 37 per cent in 1996.
Business, Labor, Treasury and mainstream economic think tanks argued that the benefits of 'restructuring' and 'micro economic reform' would 'trickle down'. However the bulk of empirical evidence documents the fact that the pursuit of 'economic rationalism' contributed to increased economic and social polarisation. On the basis of real wage cuts and productivity increases the Accord period saw a substantial redistribution of income between labour and capital. Between 1983 and 1989 the share of GDP going to wages and salaries fell from 74 to 63.3 per cent, the profit share increased from 26 to 36.7 per cent. A number of studies have suggested that this objective social polarisation, accompanied by labour intensification and longer hours, combined with persistently high unemployment, have led to an increasingly ‘insecure’ workforce and ‘community.'
By the early 1990's increasing levels of economic and social insecurity contributed to a rising anger and resentment against Labor. The Federal Labor Industrial Relations Minister, Laurie Bretton, was booed by delegates at the 1994 ACTU Conference over enterprise bargaining and for advocating the watering down of 'unfair dismissal' laws. National strike action by miners and waterfront workers in solidarity with CFMEU members at CRA-RTZ's Weipa operations in November 1995 was another sign of this anger.
Labor's electoral support among blue and white collar clerical workers, especially those earning under $30 000 per annum, began to erode rapidly after the 1993 election. Half of the workers in this category that deserted Labor did so after 1993 and a majority of these alienated lower income workers said that they intended to vote for the Coalition as a protest against Labor in 1996. Indeed a central plank of the Howard election strategy was the targeting of the 'battler' vote, those who felt 'betrayed' by Labor. During the 1996 federal election anger was directed particularly at Labor leader Paul Keating for his 'Get a Job' quip. Liberal campaign advertisements made very effective use of the remark. The Coalition's own polling revealed that unemployment was consistently rated at the top of people's concerns during the 1996 Federal Election campaign.
In response John Howard promised 'battlers' a 'comfortable and relaxed' future and gave a 'rock solid guarantee that no worker would receive a cut in take home pay' or be worse off under the Coalition's industrial relations system. According to one commentator, the Howard Government's challenge was to reduce uncertainty and fear of the future. He added that, 'the problem is that the economic rationalist policies of the Howard Government do not augur well for a relaxed and comfortable Australia. Not to say that they are not socially responsible.'
Despite Labor's record, a minority of workers remained deeply hostile to the Coalition. The Victorian State Coalition Government, under Jeff Kennett, provoked a backlash against its austerity and industrial relations changes in 1992. In November a State-wide stoppage involved 800 000 workers; 150 000 marched in Melbourne. Other sectoral strikes followed by and on 1 March 1, shortly before the Federal Election, a second State-wide stoppage saw 80 000 workers demonstrate. In the March 1993 federal election the Coalition campaigned for the Fightback program. Fightback promised sweeping industrial relations changes, budgetary austerity and a Goods and Services Tax. Issues of class were raised on the agenda and the threat of the Fightback scared workers back to Labor at the polls.
By 1996 many workers were very disillusioned with Labor. This time the Coalition presented a moderate face in the election campaign and won. But it soon revealed a core policy agenda not dissimilar to the 1993 Fightback agenda which Howard had disowned. Workers were already disaffected after years of crisis and economic rationalism. Now the Coalition engaged in a particularly sharp offensive. Successive Labor Government's had restrained wages, shifted the industrial relations system further in favour of employers, and overseen public sector and industry restructuring over a period of 13 years. By contrast the Coalition's agenda of deficit reduction was to be carried out over a period of two years. The details of the new Governments program of cuts were announced within months of their election. Likewise Industrial Relations changes were to come into effect as soon as possible.
The extent of the Coalitions offensive and the period over which it was carried out apparently increased sentiments of working class identity. This helps to explain why the ACTU was so successful in mobilising tens of thousands of workers between March and August 19. By appealing to the 'battler', Howard also created a rod for his own back. For instance, CFMEU leaflets distributed on August 19 showed Howard promising that 'no worker would be worse off' surrounded with 'Lies, lies, lies, lies, lies'.
Anger amongst workers was apparent in what the Australian Financial Review called a ‘marked deterioration’ of the industrial situation since the end of the ALP government and the Accord. The number of strike days reached their highest level for three years in May 1996. 185 000 employees participated in 164 000 days of strikes and stoppages. National strikes by construction workers accounted for 59 per cent of days lost. In the health, education and community services sector 52 000 days were lost. The figures were blown out by the expiry of several Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBA's). Thus 2500 Toyota manufacturing workers in Melbourne struck for over
2 weeks. There were also EBA disputes at Shell’s oil refinery in Geelong and ACI at Spotswood in Melbourne. Rising levels of anger were not only apparent at Parliament House on August 19. Large numbers of workers also struck to express support for the ACTU NDA against the WRB. Ports were closed in Victoria and NSW for 24 hours. Employers in Coal, Manufacturing, Construction, and Transport industries across the country reported disruption ranging from closure of some sights to minor staffing problems.
The Coalition also evoked anger and resentment among Aboriginal people. In terms of health, employment, and social conditions Aboriginal people form the most disadvantaged group in Australia. The Federal Labor government in the early 1980s had abandoned its previous commitment to comprehensive Aboriginal Land Rights. In 1989 the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody made 339 recommendations. The vast majority were not implemented by State or Federal Governments. Between 1989 and 1996 Aborigines were imprisoned at an even greater rate and deaths in custody more than doubled. In 1993, Keating set out to undermine the favourable High Court Mabo decision. By 1996 there had not been one valid land claim under the new legislation. In 1997 the Coalition Health Minister, Michael Wooldridge, said 'in my area of Health there is no evidence of any improvement whatsoever in the last decade ... the gap [between Aboriginal and White health] has actually widened.'
There was also a shift in approach to Aboriginal affairs with the Coalitions election. Labor sought cooptatation approach, for instance through the establishment of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission. The Coalition on the other hand employed a more confrontational approach, including the appeal to racist sentiments in 'mainstream Australia'. One of the Howard Government's first announcements after their election was that the department which administered Aboriginal affairs, the ATSIC would have its budget cut by $400 million. At the same time the fuel rebate of $500 million for the mining and pastoral industry was extended. There was also anger among Aboriginal people at a growth in open racism following the election. This was symbolised by the election of the openly anti-Aboriginal candidate Pauline Hanson. The Prime Minister also referred to the 'Aboriginal industry' and suggested that 'Political correctness ... had gone to far' and that there should be 'a new spirit of freedom of expression'. Aboriginal leaders suggested that this was 'code' for racism.
The Howard Government also claimed that Keating's Native Title legislation had to be changed, that the right to negotiate should be removed. Senator Nick Minchen suggested that if Aborigines 'got too much' their 'special rights' would 'undermine the reconciliation process'. The extent of Aboriginal anger over years of neglect, funding cuts and the current hostile climate was apparent in fact that August 19 was the first national protest mobilisation of Aboriginal communities since 'invasion day' in 1988. On August 19 Aborigines demonstrated in solidarity with the unions, the following day they protested specifically against funding cuts and racism.
The Coalition's higher education policies intensified Labor's policy initiatives. The OECD proscription in its 1986 Structural Adjustment advocated that 'economic considerations be given priority in education and training policy'. This recommendation was given substance from 1987 under Labor's 'Dawkin's reforms'. In 1987 the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced. Students were to pay for the expansion of higher education. The Keating Labor government lifted restrictions on full up-front post-graduate fees, allowing many universities to introduce them.
Although the majority of students accepted HECS in principle Labor had provoked anger among a minority of students over specific measures. In 1992 Labor flagged the abolition of student assistance, AUSTUDY and its replacement with full loans. This prompted several thousand students to demonstrate around the country. Conditions on individual campuses, such as overcrowding, lack of resources, and local fees also created resentment. In 1994, for instance the decision of the Australian National University administration to introduce full up front fees for the Legal Workshop course saw 300 students occupy the chancellery building for nine days. The National Union of Students (NUS) called two National Days of Action in March and May against continual fee increases.
The Coalition's foreshadowed changes built on Labor's legacy, galvanising student opposition in the process. The new Government's policies included: a five per cent cut ($1.2 billion) to university funding across the board, including $430 million cut to Austudy by raising the age of independence from 22 to 25 years; increased HECS, an increase in the rate of repayment and the cut in rate and differential 'higher' HECS for courses projected to have higher potential earnings. Full up-front fees for undergraduate courses were also allowed for the first time since Whitlam had abolished them.
The Coalition Minister for Education, Amanda Vanstone, provoked student anger. She said that she 'didn't know what students were complaining about. The increases are no more than the cost of a new car'. She noted that, 'someone with a degree is foolish to reject a job at McDonalds'. A poll published in The Australian budget day suggested eighty per cent of households with students or former students affected by HECS were opposed to the HECS increases. Seventy one per cent of all voters 18-34 years of age disapproved of the increases.
The Coalition Government
The Coalition's tactics in selling its budget also raised the level of anger. The Government announced the more unpopular aspects of its budget over a period of months to soften the impact on Budget night. The Australian Financial Review summarised a widespread concern that due to ministerial inexperience and incompetence the Government had bungled it management of the budget the wider policy agenda:
"from ATSIC cuts, to the diesel fuel rebate, to the ABC, Departmental cuts and university funding. Just about every issue you can think of has been managed with an almost total lack of political astuteness. ... the government has been unable to present its austerity measures as part of a wider policy agenda, giving the appearance that it doesn’t have one. Any program that does exist lacks real coherence. ... grafted onto a moderate Fightback is Howard's pedestrian vision of ‘comfortable and relaxed’ Australians about their history, present and their future. ...One main policy emphasis during the election campaign the so-called family-package, with stress on middle Australia sits oddly with the tough reform agenda at the core of Fightback."
This problem of presentation, combined with the harshness of the cuts over a period of months galvanised opposition and generated a desire for resistance to the new Government's actions among specific groups.
Studies on participation in social protest suggest that a major contributing factor is a high level of identification with the particular group. Further, such studies indicate that the majority of those who participate do so out of concern for the position of the social group in general, rather than just the way in which specific measures will affect them as individuals. We have seen how Labor's policies adversely affected workers, Aborigines and students. And, how the Coalition's offensive galvanised rising levels of resentment into increasing anger and mobilisation. This helps to explain why the ACTU campaign was so successful in mobilising people, August 19 was a chance to protest years of economic rationalism. As Bob Murray pointed out, the:
"Government was promising to cut funds to Aboriginal and unemployment programs, increase student loan proportion of university costs and take industrial relations a few steps further in a free-market direction than the Keating Government took it."
Militant representatives of all the groups affected by these policies were involved in one national demonstration, the Cavalcade to Canberra. Specific Government attacks encouraged a collective identification among workers, Aborigines, and students with their own groups. The pace, manner and scale of the Government offensive generalised this identification. A minority of workers, students and blacks, rioted on August 19 in part because a broader common identity had been formed. This identity was defined by an anti-Liberal, anti-economic rationalist, and anti-Government stance as well as identification with the position of one or several of the groups involved.
Murray convincingly argued that:
"political violence is more likely to be the tip of the iceberg of a complex, underlying situation than a spontaneous outburst of anger ... The coming together of student, worker, unemployed and Aboriginal protesters in one big rally could also be expected to produce a 'quadruple whammy' effect."
Rioting of course is one form of collective action. Many workers, students and blacks did not riot on August 19 and instead chose to listen to speeches at the official ACTU platform. Larger numbers of these groups did not even come to Canberra. To understand why a minority rioted, and others that did not it, it is therefore necessary to examine the strategies for action on offer by the leadership of protest movement, the ACTU and the ALP. In doing this we need to understand the role and nature of the labour movement leadership. This also facilitates an explanation of the ACTU and the ALP leadership's behaviour after the riot.
Explanations 3: The ALP and Trade Union Bureaucracy
The previous chapter outlined an explanation for the existence of a high level of anger among a minority of rank and file workers, blacks, students and the unemployed. This anger forms a central part in explaining the success of union and student mobilisations in the lead up to and on August 19. It also provides a part of the social background to the riot itself. However an examination of the material and social pressures on, and contradictions within, the labour movement is also necessary. Crucially, the relationship between the trade union leadership and the rank and file must be grasped in order to understand the logic of the Parliament House riot. This relationship must be historically located in the particular conjuncture of economic, social and political conditions facing the union movement as the Coalition took office. In particular I will suggest that the level of class struggle and levels of rank and file self-confidence and independant organisational coherence - were crucial features. They conditioned both the nature of the ACTU campaign against the Coalition and the riot itself. This also points to an explanation for actions of the labour leaderships in the wake of the riot.
The Nature of Trade Union Bureaucracy and ALP
In Australia the leadership of the trade unions is dominated by full-time union officials. These full-time officials form a distinct social layer. They perform a distinct social function, that is, mediating between capital and labour. Their role is to represent their members in negotiation over the price and conditions of labour, not to do away with exploitation. The very existence of capitalist relations and the officials' role in representing their members within capitalism has a conservatising effect on the bureaucracy. Officials come to identify with the concerns of management with the viability and profitability of the particular company, industry, and even the economy as a whole. This is compounded by other material and social pressures on officials. They are typically removed from the shop floor, situated in a bureaucratic hierarchy and are often geographically located in distant national or regional offices. They are not subject to the fluctuations of the industry in the same way as the rank and file. Work intensification, productivity deals and even mass redundancies do not directly affect the officials who are still employed even if some members lose their jobs.
Precisely because of the officials' mediating role between capital and labour, they are subject to pressures from below and above. They must satisfy their members or face leadership challenge, membership revolt or, membership apathy and organisational disintegration. They may also seek to mobilise their members in response to particular employer and government attacks. How much they respond depends partly on how much pressure is exerted by the rank and file. The higher up the hierarchy they are the more insulated they are likely to be from this pressure. Lower echelons of the bureaucracy, such as regional organisers, may therefore be more immediately responsive to the mood of the rank and file. The bureaucracy is also divided ideologically. This reflected in divisions between left and right officials, and unions. The left unions tend to be more open to pressure from their better organised and more coherent rank and file.
Regardless of divisions within the bureaucracy, the existence of a stable system of collective bargaining tends to encourage officials to depend on the machinery of the state. This entails an adherence to peaceful and legal methods of resolving conflict. Hence the officials, unless subject to severe rank and file pressure, desire to avoid full scale 'head to head' conflict with the employers and the state. At times of social crisis, establishment opinion may call on the bureaucracy to provide order, stability and restraint. For instance, during the 1975 constitutional crisis and the dismissal of Whitlam the Melbourne Age editorial asserted that union leaders had a ‘formidable responsibility’ to maintain calm. In the aftermath of August 19 major papers also called for responsibility. According to the SMH, ‘reason is what wins the day and Jenny George and Bill Kelty know it, they will fail by any measure if they abandon reason for the blunt and dangerous weapon of mass demonstrations.’
Critics of the classical Marxist analysis of trade unions have suggested that the rank and file is just as conservative as officials, who may be to the left of the rank and file. For much of the time this is true, but the relationship between the officials and members is not static. The conservatism of the bureaucracy is contingent on a range of economic, social and political factors. To understand their role at any particular point in time requires a concrete historical investigation of these forces. In some circumstances, rank and file workers move beyond the limits on action accepted by the bureaucracy. Workers' structural location within capitalism means that the rank and file is periodically subject to large scale attacks on their jobs, wages and conditions. Industrial disputes tend to affect workers' consciousness. According to Bramble:
"industrial action by trade unionists has a powerful effect in stimulating workers' consciousness of the identity and power of their class. The struggle of rank and file union members has a tendency to break from the legal channels sanctioned by full-time officials, not least because members have no material attachment to the formal procedures of industrial relations. Thus, once mobilised and once conscious of the issues at stake, rank and file members can be rapidly driven into industrial action extending well beyond what their full time officials are willing to sanction. Sharp swings of membership sentiment can occur with great rapidity, from docility and acquiescence to aggression and confidence and back again, and it is in the fluidity of members consciousness that they stand in contrast to full-time officials."
The rank and file are therefore potentially far less committed to legality and the 'proper channels' than their full-time officials.
The trade union bureaucracy is also intimately connected with the Australian Labor Party. The basis of the ALP, as a social democratic party, is workers' recognition of differences between labour and capital. Most of the time consciousness of class differences is combined with a belief that these can be managed, to the mutual benefit of both capital and labour. Some writers have argued that the ALP has become a 'catch all' party, committed primarily to the pursuit of 'middle class' votes. While the claim to represent all groups in society is important factor in Labor's aims, the fact remains that a much higher proportion of blue and white collar workers vote for the ALP than do for the Conservative parties. Workers form a larger proportion of the Party's branch membership than the Conservative Parties.
The ALP is organically tied to the working class through the trade union bureaucracy. Trade unions are affiliated to the ALP and provide it with considerable financial and human resources. Unions send 50 to 75 per cent of the delegates to State conferences. Trade unions leaders also play a considerable role in Party affairs, and although the proportion has declined, the path from trade union official to parliamentary representation remains a well worn one.
It is often suggested that the unions control the ALP. However, the Party, especially its parliamentarians, exercise a good deal of independence from the unions. The behaviour of the ALP, especially in Government, is not determined solely by its social base. To form government the Party must be committed to managing the process of national capital accumulation, as Labor attempts to balance between the both its base and the demands of national or state government. The independence of the parliamentarians and the demands of economic management can lead to conflicts between the Party bureaucracy on the one hand and unions and the working class on the other. According to Phil Griffiths,
"... between the union officials and the politicians there is both a mutual dependence and a permanent tension. Although they are both part of the same labour bureaucracy their social roles are quite distinct - the officials, resting on workers at the point of production, mediating directly between them and employers, whilst Labor is a whole step removed from this, representing the officials inside the state machine, at the same time as acting as an arm of the state within the labour movement."
The belief that the ALP, given the way it is organised and its history, is more concerned about the interests of workers means that Labor in government can pursue policies which would attract more immediate hostility from workers if they were carried out by the Conservatives. Under Labor in the 1980's this situation was institutionalised in the Prices and Incomes Accord.
Effects of the Accord on Working Class Organisation
The social impact of the Accord on workers was documented in the previous chapter. How did the role and nature of the trade union bureaucracy and the Labor Party fit into this process? At the core of the trade union bureaucracy's approach to industrial relations is an emphasis on negotiation and compromise with, rather than struggle against, employers and the government. The ALP leadership balances between representing workers and the demands of national capital accumulation. In the context of sustained economic crisis, high levels of unemployment and low levels of class struggle, this balance shifted in favour of way maintaining the process of competitive capital accumulation. The Accord years are entirely explicable in terms of this theory. The unions became 'partners' in government decision making in return for delivering industrial peace and economic stability. According to Bramble, the unions' adoption of 'strategic unionism' meant that they:
"had to move away from arguing over the distribution of the proceeds of production to intervening in the process of production itself and, at the national level, in economic policy processes which were the ultimate determinant of employment opportunities for union members. This required that unions took responsibility for increasing productivity and cutting wages costs."
The union leadership played a key role in facilitating the restructuring and deregulation of the Australian economy. This occurred through the Accord itself and through union representation on a range of other government and Tripartite decision making forums. Union officials, especially those on the industrial left, played a decisive role in securing wage restraint and productivity for management. Unions which launched wage claims above and outside the Accord were dealt with strongly. The ACTU and key left unions supported the deregistration of the Builders Labourer's Federation (BLF) in 1986 and stood by while Labor used of the armed forces to break the Pilots strike in 1989.
Despite senior officials' 'privileged access' to the Hawke-Keating government, the unions underwent an internal crisis. Union membership fell from 40.5 per cent when Labor took office in 1983, to 31 per cent in 1996. The burden of structural adjustment was increasingly based on workers through labour intensification and job insecurity. After 1993 the ACTU even accepted the prospect of non-union Enterprise Agreements. As Paul Kelly suggested in 1993:
"... Labor cannot prosecute to a final conclusion the economic reforms it launched in the 1980s. This is because the more success Labor enjoys in making Australia more internationally competitive the more it destroys the basis of Laborism and undermines the unions."
The commitment to international competitiveness and market forces, became electorally self defeating. The ALP and the unions hammered their working class base. As we have seen an important factor in Labor's 1996 election defeat was the behaviour of blue and white collar workers earning under $30 000 per annum.
The Coalition Government
The Hawke-Keating years influenced the nature of the ACTU campaign against the Coalition offensive in 1996. Minority working class anger and the wider mood of disenchantment, examined in the previous chapter, explain the ACTU's success in mobilising large numbers of workers. However, under the Accord the level of rank and file activism reached historically low levels. In 1994 the number of strikes reached a fifty year low. This was partly due to the re-emergence of mass unemployment which sapped workers self-confidence.
However, as Rick Kuhn suggests, 'The ACTU endorsement of years of wage cutting through the mid-1980s, followed by its promotion of work intensification and labour shedding, led to further disillusionment with the union movement at its grassroots ... In some core industries union workplace organisation began to wither.' The initiative in setting union policy passed from shop floor participation to the senior full-time officials cloistered in industrial tribunals, government and industry forums, and in the offices of the bureaucratically amalgamated 'super unions'. As the ALP's report into its election loss put it:
"Despite the ACTU negotiating the Accord in the name of all Australian workers there was not involvement or consultation with rank-and-file unionists. The shopfloor was not consulted in any meaningful way and only a handful of senior officials had any influence in many Accord outcomes. Most workers felt completely alienated by this process."
During the Accord years, the absence of high levels of rank and file pressure meant that the union bureaucracy was shaped by other forces. Labor was shifting to the right under the impact of the demands of capital. The ACTU was pulled with it. The bureaucracy's link to the ALP and its commitment to negotiation and compromise meant that it maintained the Accord for 13 years, even when it became undermined the unions themselves.
The ACTU Campaign to 'Keep the Coalition Honest'
After March 1996 the ACTU faced an unfavourable conjuncture. The economic climate and a weakened union movement were favourable for the new Coalition Government to implement its more confrontationist approach to industrial relations and public expenditure. The Government and employers believed that they no longer needed the co-operation of union officials to push through reductions in wages and conditions, cuts to the public sector and more stringent and decentralised industrial relations laws. Nevertheless, union leaders sought negotiation and compromise. Their core strategy was parliamentary in focus. A moderated form of the Workplace Relations Bill was accepted as inevitable. Amendments to the bill could be negotiated through the minor parties in the Senate, especially the Democrats. The broader campaign of raising 'public awareness' of the effects of the Coalitions policies was coordinated with the ALP's electoral strategy.
There was however, rising pressure from below. The public rallies and mass meetings were very well attended. As previously discussed, they were a chance for a minority to protest years of economic rationalism. Between March and August momentum gathered and the ACTU campaign of lobbying attracted a 'mass' quality involving large public rallies and a broad 'community campaign'. Pressure mounted on the ACTU to call a national 24 hour general strike. This was a notable demand raised by the ACTU delegates meeting in Melbourne on 28 May. A minority of rank and file workers wanted to express their anger against the Coalition through militant action. But the legacy of the Accord was contradictory. Minority anger and widespread dissent accompanied a lack of widespread rank and file self-confidence and militancy. The pressure from below was not coherent or great enough to substantially modify the ACTU's campaign strategy. Hence the compromise position of 'mass lobbying' involving a round of public demonstrations and the Cavalcade to Canberra.
The Cavalcade was intended to be the pinnacle of the developing, generalised national protest movement. It brought those most angry at the recent round of attacks together for the one demonstration, at Parliament House in Canberra. The SMH summed up the situation well. The national protest was:
"timed to focus anger against the Workplace Relations Bill the day before the Budget. It must have been obvious to the ACTU the more related to the budget the more the day would lose its primary focus [on the WR Bill] and become a generalised attack on the government. Kelty began to speak of broadening the protest in the morning to wider concerns - the ABC, ATSIC closure of Medicare and CES offices ... The broadening of the protest together with the timing was a dangerous mixture."
When the opportunity presented itself, Parliament House became the focus for a good deal more attention than the official platform. According to rally participant Patrick Brownlee in a letter to The Australian:
"Not surprisingly, the right wing of the union movement, the ACTU, is keen to distance itself from many rank and file unionists who have lost faith in their representatives. While the media might like to pretend that the real demonstration was the ACTU speech-fest, there were in fact more people at the steps of Parliament cheering the hoisting of flags and banners atop Parliament House and supporting the symbolic push against the palatial gates."
A minority took matters into their own hands, by attempting to gain entry to the building. Long after the official part of the rally had wound up and gone home the battle was still underway at the main doors. The national protest provided the space for a very public display of pent up anger.
The ACTU and ALP shifted further to right in the wake of August 19. The bureaucracy came under sustained attack from the Government and media for having 'lost control' of a section of its own movement. The ACTU chose to condemn the rioters, rather than the Government for creating the situation. It also accepted Howard's argument that the rioters were outside the 'mainstream' of Australia's political traditions. It condemned the riot and forced organisers that were involved to resign. The attack on parliament went completely against the labour bureaucracy's predisposition, that is, to negotiating and compromise, its deep commitment to the institutions of parliament and desire to avoid 'head to head' confrontations with the state and capital.
The lack of rank and file self-organisation among workers which was independent of the bureaucracy and organised to directly pressure the bureaucracy and the lack of militancy among wider sections of workers was crucial to the ACTU's response to the riot. This was illustrated by differing responses to the riot within the union bureaucracy itself. Some right-wing unions saw the opportunity to pursue factional interests by supporting the Government position that the ACTU and certain left unions were responsible. Left union leaders in part rejected this attack. Left union leaders moreover also faced more pressure from their rank and file. The National Secretary of the Construction and General Division of the CFMEU, John Sutton, for instance, did not publicly condemn the actions of his members:
"Much has been written and said about the Canberra rally especially from interest groups wanting to attack and destabilise the union movement. We all need to reflect on the things that were good and bad about the day. While we accept some of the criticisms, none of us need the hypocrisy that has been flowing thick and fast from conservative interests including some right wing unions. They are strong on producing disgust, but always weak on fighting workers' rights in struggle."
CFMEU members and even some low level full-time union organisers, had been actively involved in the riot. A minority of workers had moved rapidly into militancy on August 19. When they returned to work, however, this minority was again isolated. The shared militancy and self-confidence at the demonstration was transient. It had not been experienced by broader sections of the working class. Consequently the ACTU, under more pressure from above than below, condemned the riot.
The Labor party leadership was under even less pressure from rank and file workers. As we have seen, the ALP leadership was concerned to distance itself as much as possible from the riot. It sought to appeal to the ‘mainstream’ and present itself as a respectable opposition. After the Weipa dispute in November 1997 Bill Kelty had made a speech promising a wages 'breakout' and a 'the biggest picket line in history' if a Coalition Government tried to introduce further industrial relations changes. Senior Labor figures shunned his statements and the Coalition and the media branded Kelty as the instigator of social division and industrial mayhem. Some political commentators suggest Kelty's speech was a significant factor in blunting the union movements pre-1996 election campaign and delivering votes to the Coalition. The Canberra Times likened the political effects of the riots 'ugly display of union thuggery' to those of Kelty's speech.
Within the Labor party 'August 19' also reinforced a similar right wing explanation of the 1996 election result – that the ALP was out of touch with ‘mainstream’ Australia and beholden to minorities. According to the former Keating Labor Special Minister for State, Gary Johns, the 'electorate was sick of listening to the chant of rights - the greens, gays, feminists and disabled.' The riot strengthened the argument within the Labor party that it should adopt a more cautious and 'responsible' approach to Opposition. This would involve avoiding alienating the more right-wing sentiments of 'mainstream' Australia.
As the ACTU and ALP shifted further to the right in the aftermath of the riot, the ACTU campaign disintegrated. The union retreat and Government campaign over 'August 19' left a temporary vacuum in the Australian politics. Widespread disenchantment with increasing economic insecurity and the major political representatives and institutions had been given expression by the movement against the Government's policies. When the Labor leadership retreated and with it the movement against the Government's policies it vacated a space in Australian politics. The disillusionment and even anger among wide numbers of people did not disappear, but it lacked any organised movement and leadership to cohere it and give it expression.
What is interesting from surveying the press of the period is the manner in which this vacuum appears to be seamlessly filled by the rise of the Right wing populism of MP Pauline Hanson. The thread of continuity was that malleable concept, 'mainstream Australians'. It served to reinforce Howard's message that 'middle Australia' wanted the Coalition to be given a fair chance to govern. This fitted in with Howard's careful signals to the electorate in the lead up to the federal election and after taking office, that his Government would be a government 'for all of us', in particular for 'mainstream Australia'. This implied the outsiders be they 'politically correct minorities' or the 'lunatic fringe'. The government, like 'mainstream Australia', just wanted a fair chance without being intimidated by bloody mindedness unionists and politically correct elites. In this context the right wing shift of the ALP also had consequences. In the ensuing ‘race debate' of late 1996 Labor was conspicuously meek.
I have argued that the union and labor movement retreat, and the conservatism of the trade union leaders in the aftermath of the riot was historically contingent on the level of struggle among rank and file workers. The introduction of the Workplace Relations Act and cutbacks to public expenditure was the union movement's first major battle under the Coalition Government. The WRA set the legal parameters for the Maritime dispute in 1998. This was the second major battle. However the nature of the employer and Government attack on one of the most well organised and industrially self-confident groups of workers, the MUA, provoked a high level of rank and file resistance. In the course of the dispute mass picket lines and solidarity demonstrations took place. Despite an initial concern to avoid 'provocation' and maintain 'peaceful assemblies' rather than militant mass pickets, the ACTU leadership of the union movement was forced accommodate militant tactics. This included resisting police attempts to break picket lines, and mass picketing in the face of legal injunctions under the WRA. ACTU Assistant Secretary Greg Combet even said during the dispute 'that the laws were made against workers, and bad laws have to be broken.'
It was not simply a tiny minority who attempted to gain entry to Parliament House. At least 2000 protesters were actively involved in pushing against police lines or directly supporting the act. Thousands of other demonstrators also filled the forecourt and supported the hoisting of banners and flags on the building.
Conventional explanations suggest that the August 19 events were the work of agitators and dupes, and that their behaviour was irrational, violent and indiscriminate. Marxist social psychology on the other hand seeks to situate collective behaviour in terms of the shared understandings of the groups of people involved. This is not to deny the possibility that the initial breakaway demonstration was pre-planned, in particular by rank and file members of the CFMEU. But it contradicts the suggestion that the large numbers of people who became involved in the riot were manipulated. Rather they shared an identification with one or several of the groups involved and a hostility to the current Government. Parliament House was attacked, not because the demonstrators wanted to attack parliamentary democracy, but 'precisely because it was the seat of Government'. In their view the Government was excluding them from the decision making process, and making their lives worse. The violence against police and the building was not malicious and must then be situated in terms of the demonstrators understandings and motivations.
However to understand a particular social conflict it is not enough to understand what individuals did, and what they said about themselves. Behaviour and ideology must be located historically as a product of the broader and immediate material and social environment. My survey of three social groups - workers, blacks and students - shows that a high level of anger was directed against the Government on August 19. Descending from more abstract to more concrete factors this anger was the product of: sustained relative economic crisis, and the pursuit of international competitiveness and openness to market forces by industry, by the Hawke-Keating Governments (1983-1996), and signalled by the 1996 Coalition Government.
The negative social effects of this 'economic rationalism' on workers, blacks and students generated a high level of anger among a minority of these groups. The Coalition's 'economic rationalist' policies and confrontational approach raised this anger. It also contributed to a shared understanding among and between these groups of the necessity for resistance. The ACTU leaderships campaign against the Government policies provided the opportunity for mobilisation among a wide range of groups against a particularly sharp Government offensive. Those most angry with the recent round of attacks came together at one national demonstration, the ACTU Cavalcade to Canberra, and attempted to attack the Government directly by forcing their way in to Parliament House.
Two more factors directly affected this outcome: the nature and role of the trade union and Labor bureaucracy, and the overall level of class struggle. The social function of the trade union bureaucracy of mediating between capital and labour, generates a predisposition to negotiation and compromise, and to the institutions of parliament and the state. Pressure from Government and the employers is balanced by pressure from the rank and file. The Accord and mass unemployment was both a product of and contributing factor to low levels of class struggle, denoted by a lack of organisational and political coherence, and militancy, among rank and file workers.
In the context of the Liberals election pressure from rank and file workers was not great enough to change the ACTU's basic strategy. However a minority of workers were very angry and the ACTU campaign did allow this anger to be expressed, for instance through a general strike against the Government's policies. When the opportunity presented itself on August 19 a minority of workers chose to display their anger in a very public and confrontational manner. The shared experience of militancy and self-confidence among these workers on August 19 was not matched by that among wider sections of workers. Thus the senior union bureaucracy accepted the Government's claim that the minority who rioted were the source of division, rather than Government policy, and that the rioters were outside of 'mainstream' Australian political traditions. This was the 'notorious chapter in union history'. The ACTU and ALP leaderships, by accepting the riot as an issue of 'law and order' strengthened the Government's hand and moved to the right under the impact of the Government's offensive.
According to Pocock and Wright the consequence of the 'notorious chapter in history' was that:
"A large display of opposition to the Workplace Relations Act had become a platform for abuse of unionists and unionism, and the movement hesitated in its handling of the public discussion. ... The fallout from the riot was long, painful and damaging for the unions."
This was by no means a fait a compli. Of course the riot would have provoked polarised reactions, it may have even hardened the resolve of those opposed to the union movement in the short term. However outcome was not the only one available. Crucially it involved a subjective decision on the part of the ACTU leadership. However its predisposition to negotiation and compromise, and its essentially electoralist approach political change, that is through the election of the ALP to office, meant it accepted the Government's construction event as an issue of 'law and order'. In effect the ACTU's strategy of giving ground to the Coalition's arguments only strengthened the position of the Conservative right.
Pollsters knew that there were other conclusions that could be drawn from the riot. A Bulletin poll by phone on 22 August asked 587 people 'Who is to blame for the violence at Parliament House?' Thirty three per cent, rising to fifty four per cent of Coalition voters, but only twelve per cent of ALP supporters blamed 'The union leaders who organised the rally.' Most respondents, forty six per cent (and 39% Coalition) blamed 'the minority of people involved in the violence'. Fifty nine per cent of ALP supporters blamed this 'minority' and not surprisingly this was the position of the ALP and trade union leadership. However the poll also asked about blaming the 'Howard Government for making people angry' suggesting that it was a must have been a credible conclusion. Only two per cent of Coalition supporters agreed, but twenty six per cent of ALP and thirty one per cent of Democrats supporters blamed the 'Howard Government'. Given that there were no public figures systematically making this last point, in fact the ALP and senior union leadership were blaming 'the minority', these are surprisingly high numbers.
My own statistical analysis of the 60 letters in four major daily papers, broadsheets as well as tabloid, in the week following the riot revealed similar proportions. Twenty (33%) blamed the violence on the union leaders for organising the demonstration, 19 (32%) blamed 'the minority', 14 (24%) blamed the Government, and 7 (11%) blamed both the Government and 'the minority'. Again the figures blaming the Howard Government are surprisingly high. This sentiment was reflected in the statements by two union officials. Immediately following the riot South Coast Trades and Labor Council Secretary, Paul Matters, said that the Government underestimated the level of anger in the community:
"We will see much more of this confrontation ... we are no longer in a negotiating stage; we are in a demonstration stage ... The people in the front line could have come out of any public bar in Australia, they were just very frustrated, and this was their first chance to express their resentment and anger."
Another minor official ACT CFMEU Secretary George Wasson said, 'John Howard has stolen the moral high ground on this. But it's just like Thatcher and the poll-tax riots. It's his Government that's creating the animosity'. Even Jennie George commented on 'the Prime Ministers' opportunistic approach to events.'
However the lack of political and organisational self-confidence and coherence among at least a minority of rank and file workers after August 19 meant that the labor movement leadership responded instead to Government and electoral pressure. It was not until the Maritime dispute in 1998 that the ACTU lost its overriding fear of a repeat of August 19, thus dispelling the riots affects. However the broader questions raised by the riot, the social impact of Government policy and economic crisis, and the union movements strategy against the effects of this crisis remain. The anger displayed by a minority of workers, joined by Aborigines, students and others, on August 19, and the wider disenchantment among these groups is unlikely to dissipate in the current economic, social and political climate.
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